Racism in the Arts in Britain: struggle for Black Arts

First published in Race & Class 28/1, Summer 1986 and including a speech at the Africa Centre given 8 May 1986

During the last year the field of Black Arts has, in Britain, become a focus of struggle — a struggle which has inevitably carried over to white arts institutions. The struggle has been two-fold: to fight the institutionalised racism of the white arts bodies and, equally, to mark out and cohere a Black Arts which stands out in clear opposition to state-funded ‘ethnic arts’. In respect of the former, the report of an independent inquiry into racism in Greater London Arts (the regional arts association) was published in March 1986 under the title In the Eye of the Needle. ‘UK commentary’ analyses the background to this inquiry, and the main themes of its report. It then reproduces a talk by A. Sivanandan, chairman of the GLA Inquiry, given at the launching ofwhat was virtually a Black Arts manifesto, Kwesi Owusu’s Struggle for Black Arts in Britain: what can we consider better than freedom.

Racism in the arts in Britain

The arts was one area in which, during the 1970s, multi-cultural policies and programmes took a firm hold. A multi-cultural view of society (as opposed to an anti-racist one) holds out that black people’s problems are a matter of not having their cultures upheld, and white people’s prejudices a matter of ignorance about those cultures. From the mid 1970s, the void in policy relating to the artistic creativity of Britain’s black community was masked by the encouragement of multi-cultural and later ‘ethnic minority arts’ as popularised by the report The Arts Britain Ignores. Commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain, the Gulbenkian Foundation and the Community Relations Commission, the Report, published in 1976, identified ‘cultural isolation’ as a major problem faced by ‘ethnic minorities’. It conceptualised the art forms and expressions developed by the black community not in terms of the challenge that these posed to dominant white cultural values but in terms of their accommodation to such values. And, for that very reason, it resurrected precisely those art forms which, in being purely traditionalist and closed-in, were emptied of the dynamics of the black community’s struggles against racism in Britain and elsewhere.

The Report (taken up by the arts establishment and deferred to in all dealings with black artists) avoided the crucial issue of institutional racism. It failed both to raise the urgent need to tackle black under-employment and under-representation in white institutions and to address the issues of Eurocentric criteria in funding, assessment and training.

Greater London Council

Within Black Arts the need to challenge what many saw as a new form of benevolent racism and patronage became, by the beginning of the 1980s, an important artistic platform. The commitment of the Greater London Council (as of its November 1982 Conference) to the formulation of a dynamic Black Arts policy, with a special unit to implement it, contributed to a decline in the popularity of ‘ethnic arts’ and the re-emergence of Black Arts.

On 4 November 1985 the GLC sponsored a unique conference, ‘Black arts/white institutions’, to open up a dialogue between the two, and to explore the possibilities of funding Black Arts after its abolition. A number of white institutions were represented at the conference, but Greater London Arts (GLA), ignored the call for dialogue and was not officially  represented.  This  sparked off the resignation of three members of its staff who alleged insensitivity to racism in the arts, and an unwillingness to respond to black criticisms.

Greater London Arts

Allegations of racism in GLA were not new, black artists had long complained about it and black advisers had been consistently marginalised. But by now the Black Arts movement was strong enough to take action. It had built up a large constituency, it had access to sections of the media (and had indeed created its own) and it had a ready-made issue. The first black member of GLA’s staff, appointed to deal with equal opportunities within the organisation and Black Arts funding, had felt unable to stay in post more than fourteen months. Something had to be done. London’s black artists forced an independent inquiry upon GLA’s management.

The Inquiry, whose team comprised black artists, members of GLA’s Executive and independent members, was unique. It was the first time that an arts body had been examined for institutional racism and it was also the first independent inquiry into racism in the voluntary sector. And because it was neither hampered by codified or constitutional restraint (as, for example, the Commission for Racial Equality is under the Race Relations Act) nor by precedent, it was able to come up with a report, In the Eye of the Needle, that promises to be a blueprint for tackling racism in voluntary institutions generally.

Independent Inquiry

The Inquiry found racism at every level of GLA, from the lack of black people in its membership (and therefore its management) to its criteria for judging art. The Inquiry team rejected, however, the notion that such racism was an interpersonal problem and refused to speculate on whether it was intentional or not. Instead, it came to the conclusion that it could not be tackled in isolation from defects in the structure and management of the whole organisation. ‘Looking at racism has, in fact, revealed more profound ills: a lack of democracy, a lack of accountability and a lack of responsiveness within the Association.’ The recommendations of the Report, therefore, look to ‘ways and means of opening up the Association, of linking it more closely to clients, of democratising all its structures and setting up effective channels for accountability.’


The concluding chapter, Anti-racism — concepts and practice’, de-jargonises terms like institutional racism and practices like equal opportunities or special ‘black sections’ which have, by default, crept into so many voluntary organisations, anxious (but ignorant) about combating racism:

The investigation of racism in any organisation is, in the final analysis, an enquiry into the unrepresentative nature of its structures and the undemocratic practices and procedures of its management. To seek such representation through a special allocation of ‘seats for minorities’, however, does not by itself ensure that the issues that concern them necessarily become the concerns of the organisation as a whole. In fact, it further narrows such a possibility by treating a generalised and pervasive problem to partial and piecemeal solution. More, like the Legislative Council System of the old Colonial Office from which such representation derives its authority, it tends to quarantine unorthodox views in a cordon sanitaire and so prevent them from infecting established value systems.

When such solutions are replicated in management structures which are already hierarchical they serve to create more subhierarchies and further reduce the problems posed by black people for an organisation to the problems of black people within an organisation. The solution to institutional racism, therefore, is not to be sought in providing niches for black people within a racist system but to root out racism from the system itself so as to provide room for an organic black presence. For, if anti-racism is about anything, it is about breaking down hierarchies, traditional methods of working, of relating to people, of becoming more broad-based in representation and concerns. The challenge of racism, in a word, is a challenge to democracy.


1       Naseem Khan, The Arts Britain Ignores (London, 1976).

The struggle for Black Arts in Britain

(Text of a talk given by A. Sivanandan at the Africa Centre, London, 8 May 1986.)

I don’t know about art. I might listen to a little music, look at a pain-ting, marvel at a building — but I don’t go to plays, concerts, cultural do’s, not even, I confess, to Black Arts festivities or occasions. And that, I have it on good authority — from one of you art people here tonight — makes me a philistine.

But art, I would contend, is life — not a thing apart. And it is life in the general, and in the specific. It is life in general because it is about human creativity, human sensibilities, the capacity of human beings to open up to human beings, like the sun-flower to the sun, or the queen of the night to the night — the capacity, above all, for wonderment, that quality which keeps us from habituation and allows us to renew ourselves afresh, anew, every day, every minute of the day. Art is an affirmation of life. Death, it says with John Donne, ‘death thou shalt die’. Art is man — man as species, not as gender — re-creating himself.

But if that is art in its grand design, art is also specific, immediate, social, political — it is to do with life in its everyday, existential sense — it is to do with oppression and exploitation, with racism and sexism and classism.

But capitalism keeps these things apart, separates them, compartmentalises the struggles of blacks and women and the working class — separates them and keeps them from mounting a united struggle against itself. Worse, it sidetracks them into their own little cultural ghettos from which they can continue to snipe at each other while leaving capital itself unscathed.Any art, therefore, which succumbs to such culturalist blandishments succumbs to the capitalist project –is capitalist art.

Capitalism fragments consciousness. It separates feeling from thought, blunts ours sensibilities and kills imagination. It separates the thinker, the activist and the artist. But the thinker who does not act is sterile, the activist who does not think is ineffectual , and the artist who does not provide vision for the  thinking and the doing is irrelevant.  I  once wrote about Baldwin  that his claim to be a writer who happened to be black , as opposed to a black man  who happens to be a writer constituted for me the difference between a mercenary on hire to his people and a soldier in the people’s army.  The one seeks to liberate himself through his people, the other to liberate his people through him.

Capitalism separates form from content, passes off the one for the other, and then sets up a whole art-form celebrating form. Look at the vacuity, mannersim

[unfortunately remainder is not available here, see Race & Class 28/1. Summer 1986]