ARTISTIC FREEDOM
Using the arts to show a new perspective and horizon

What does it say about our society, when some of us are censoring our most natural actions in order to fit in? Where there is a feeling that particular gestures or words will have undesired consequences, or worse, lead to some kind of punishment.

30 Oct 2018
BY RAHEEL MOHAMMED
Raheel Mohammed is the founder and director of Maslaha
Raheel Mohammed is the founder and director of Maslaha

In the not so distant future at the annual Fun Fair to celebrate Great Britain’s Best Ideas, a mother and daughter stop at one of the many attractions that celebrate the country’s past and champion its innovative rules for the many communities that live on Her land.

This attraction is entitled: How I Stopped Worrying and Learnt To Love the Muslims

Mummy: “He’ll perform for you, just keep feeding him with money.”

Little Girl: “Look mummy, he won’t stop smiling, he must be happy. But he doesn’t say anything. Does he have nothing to say?”

Mummy: “Why should he say anything? You decide what he says. Look, that’s why they’ve left some pens and paper here. He then learns what you’ve written, word for word. He can be anything you want. That’s why he’s called No One. Every day is new for him. The days before have no meaning, he has no memories. That’s why he needs new stories which we write for him.”

Little Girl: “He doesn’t have his own stories?”

Mummy:(laughing), “No! Of course not. I think they used to let them speak but no one could understand what they were saying. It was gibberish…”

Little Girl: “I feel sorry for him.”

Mother: “It was sad but then he got angry and it started to upset other children, and then the parents got angry, so they decided to keep them all silent.”

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“I gesture a lot, but I try not to wave my hands around too much in public, because you know, being a black woman, people might think I’m mad.”

I met Pauline briefly during a project in Leicester when she told me this without fanfare or drama. This was an everyday check for her, a way of surviving and not drawing attention to herself. It was a response to a political and social climate where the most innocuous gestures can seem dangerous.

W.E.B. Du Bois writes about this sense of being scrutinised in The Souls of Black Folk: “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

What does it say about our society, when some of us are censoring our most natural actions in order to fit in? Where there is a feeling that particular gestures or words will have undesired consequences, or worse, lead to some kind of punishment. Where there is a fear that society will take a course of action that will permanently scar your future.

What is the response to a pervasive fear of self-expression? Isn’t this where the arts suddenly become vital?

In all of our work at Maslaha, whether it is our criminal justice projects such as All We Are – www.allweare.org.uk or our Muslim Girls Fence project – www.muslimgirlsfence.org – or our education work – www.radicalwhispers.orgartists are a vital part of the process. They help to raise our voices above the din that shouts down granularity and applauds conformity.

When everyday language and communication begins to stunt the imagination, the arts do a side-step and show us a new perspective and horizon, where previously there was just the fog of hollow words.

But the fear of the Muslim is not producing that side-step. At a time when the Muslim communities’ imagination is being rigorously patrolled by the Prevent dutySection 26 of the Counterterrorism and Security Act places a legal duty on public services such health and education to report signs of radicalisation — our major arts institutions are not rising to the challenge of responding to and exploring a significant abuse of free expression. I have been approached by a number of producers and artistic directors who want to respond, but don’t have the vocabulary, feel unequipped to navigate these unfamiliar and disturbing waters. There are other producers and institutions, however, who are either afraid or seem unable to focus clearly on this issue seeing Muslim communities as flickering, inarticulate shadows on the wall.

But where has this fear come from and how can it have such a concrete impact on people’s lives. Warwick University’s, Counterterrorism in the NHS report, explains how the Prevent duty operates in the pre-criminal space. “This is not a recognised term in criminology, social science, or the healthcare professions.” This is uncharted territory, and summons up the spectre of George Orwell’s 1984 thought police.  The report goes onto state: “The United Kingdom is the only nation in the world to deliver counterterrorism within its education, healthcare and social care sectors as safeguarding.” Yet, the question we have to ask ourselves is, how can a policy that is so pernicious to children and young people be described as safeguarding.

Based on the government’s own statistics in 2015/2016, nearly two-thirds of referrals to Prevent were linked to Islamist extremism – 4,997 Muslims. The data shows that three in 10 were under 15 which is nearly 1,500 young people, but only 108 were deemed to require counter radicalisation support.   This would be like telling the parents of nearly 1,400 Muslim children we think your child is being harmed. Actually, sorry, we were wrong. If 1,400 middle class white parents received a phone call tomorrow wrongly suggesting that their children had been radicalised, what would happen then?

Talk to parents where referrals have been mistaken, and they will say how they carry around a shame and stigma for months, not telling anyone, even though neither they nor their child has done anything wrong. The statistics hide the fear and mental burden that is insidiously creeping into homes and threatening to become the norm. And yet a cold calculation has been made by successive governments that despite the evidence presented about the negative effects of Prevent on Muslim communities, it does not warrant a change.

What this has meant is that whole communities are censoring themselves, parents are avoiding having conversations about politics or religion in case their child says something at school that could be misconstrued. I have spoken to teachers who are avoiding contentious issues in case a student says something that has to be reported.

We have a generation of young Muslims potentially afraid to express themselves and learning that if you are challenging, the state will respond no matter how young you are. Primary school children have now become potential threats to our way of life the argument goes.

Artists, some at the margins of the arts landscape, have been responding to this political and social environment. Mainstream arts organisations must recognise these voices and produce art that responds to this challenge to imagine freely and express freely. What is stopping this? Is there a fear of responding creatively to this controversial issue or is it that the typical white/male/middle class/middle-aged producer does not have his ear attuned to different narratives?

The “Inconvenient Muslims” who are much closer to the scuff and hurt of life are avoided at all costs because their stories are too complex. They don’t fit the formula of producing stories that serve to deaden inquiry and ambiguity.

This poses a different danger. Nature doesn’t like a vacuum, and recognising that the Muslim voice is missing from our collective story-telling, we risk that an inauthentic trusted white artist or “safe Muslim” will be recruited in order to do justice to those stories.

The arts organisations will feel that this is a job done, that lack which existed no longer does and we can all move on. But these stories are rootless, nourished by expediency rather than heritage and memory.  We’re not willing to emulate the safe, smiling Muslim because as Audre Lorde writes, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”.

If you’re a public arts institution you have a duty to tell the stories that are not being told, otherwise, why do you exist? But you must also have that artistic urge, no? To be challenged, to hear artists unsettle you, to be startled by new ideas. If not, why do you exist? In the long term if the arts organisations play too safe, society as a whole will lose out.

There is a rich spectrum of artists working in this area such as Javaad Alipoor, Nadia Latif, Zia Ahmed, Alia Alzougbi, Aliyah Hasinah, and Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan. These are more well known but they have all struggled and continue to struggle to ensure they can create freely. There are many more who are creating in this rich radiation who should be recognised.

The philosopher John Dewey emphasised the need to engage with the rough grain of difference in order to see the great moments of truth in art. He thought resistance would make the artist grow. And the same can be said of arts institutions who should not stop seeking new artists who may make them feel uncomfortable. Otherwise we are losing stories, stories so powerful that they cannot be contained within buildings, that spill out onto the streets, cling to the air and to your skin and clothes – and there is no way of shaking them off.

And when our rights are under threat it is these stories that demand we bear witness and challenge and refuse to be silent.

Risks, Rights & Reputations (RRR) is a half-day training programme developed by Index on Censorship, What Next? and Cause4 to provide arts and cultural leaders with the guidance, inspiration, tools and resources to navigate the rights and responsibilities of producing challenging or socially sensitive work. 

Challenging a Risk Averse Culture

“In recent years there have been an increasing number of high-profile cases raising ethical and censorship issues around plays, exhibitions and other artworks. Censorship – and self-censorship – can stand in the way of great art. That’s why Arts Council England is committed to supporting those organisations who are taking creative risks. It’s important that organisations are aware of relevant legislation and the excellent guidance that exists. This programme is an important step in ensuring that our sector can continue to create vital, challenging, and risk-taking work.” – Sir Nick Serota, chair of Arts Council England

Navigating the rights and responsibilities of art that explores socially sensitive themes can appear daunting, risky and time-consuming. We have seen work cancelled or removed, because it was provocative or the funder controversial. But, for arts and culture to be relevant, dynamic and inclusive, we have to reinforce our capacity to respond to the most complex and provocative questions.

“This important and necessary project is a great opportunity to learn and discuss with others the increasing challenges we face in the arts sector, particularly in the context of socially engaged practise and public spaces.” – Mikey Martins, Artistic Director and Joint CEO, Freedom Festival Arts Trust

Session Content

The session addresses the challenges and opportunities related to artistic risk and freedom of expression. It aims to encourage participants to voice concerns and experiences within a supportive environment and programme of presentations, discussion and group work. By the end of day participants will:

  • Understand the legal and rights framework supporting artistic freedom in the UK;
  • Learn from analysis of recent controversies in the arts;
  • Gain confidence in decision-making and planning for potentially controversial work;
  • Manage expectations relating to the role of the police;
  • Discover the value of creating an ethical fundraising policy;
  • Benefit from access to new tools, resources and ongoing support from peers and experts beyond the session.

Participants

The session is open to artistic directors, CEOs, Senior management and trustees of arts organisations.

To date, RRR sessions have been delivered in Manchester, London and Bristol, with Arts Council national and regional offices and in partnership with the Freedom Festival Arts Trust, Hull.

“I feel more confident to speak up when talking to leaders about policy, process and practice when it comes to issues around artistic risk-taking / freedom of expression and ethical fundraising. I feel more empowered to be a useful, knowledgeable sounding board for the organisation’s I support than I did previously.” – Relationship Manager, Arts Council England

UPCOMING TRAINING

We are currently accepting bookings from CEO/Artistic Directors, Chairs, individual Board Members and senior team members across the country for our upcoming RRR training sessions:

Date

ACE Region

Venue

Host

Trainers

Tickets

15 November 2018, 12:30 – 17:30 

London

Young Vic Theatre

Kwame Kwei-Armah (Artistic Director)

Julia Farrington, Index on Censorship;
Michelle Wright, Cause4
Diane Morgan, director Nitrobeat

Kwame Kwei-Armah, Artistic Director, Young Vic

Host: Kwame Kwei-Armah, Artistic Director, Young Vic

“The work produced and directed on stages across the UK has made unprecedented strides in putting ideas, visual or otherwise, to audiences since the UK Theatre Act was overturned in 1968. That said, it’s our duty as theatre makers to keep the torch burning and ensure the legacy of those who campaigned continues. We can do that by never believing there isn’t a boundary that can’t be pushed, or a difficult question we can’t ask.”

21 November 2018, 12:30 – 17:30 

Midlands

New Arts Exchange, Nottingham

Skinder Hundal (CEO of New Art Exchange) and Sukhy Johal, MBE (Chair of New Art Exchange)

Julia Farrington, Index on Censorship;
Helen Jenkins, Cause4;
Diane Morgan, director Nitrobeat

Skinder Hundal, CEO, New Art Exchange

Host: Skinder Hundal, CEO, New Art Exchange

“Engagement, innovation and excellence are at the heart of New Art Exchange’s work. We are open and experimental in our programme and seek to represent a wide range of diverse cultural voices and tell sometimes difficult and unheard stories. The work that Risk, Rights and Reputations does to support cultural organisations in handling difficult subject matter is much needed.”

The Team

“This was a really interesting, thought provoking, relevant and empowering session. I really appreciated the knowledge and the care taken to pull it together. Thank you!” – Participant – CEO

The RRR team consists of specialists and facilitators in freedom of expression, artistic risk and ethical fundraising alongside Artistic Director/CEO hosts who are committed to asking the difficult questions of our time:

Julia Farrington, Index on Censorship
Julia Farrington, Index on Censorship

Julia Farrington has specialised in artistic freedom, working at the intersection between arts, politics and social justice, since 2005. She was previously Head of Arts (at Index on Censorship (2009 – 2014) and continues her pioneering work on censorship and self-censorship as Associate Arts Producer. From 2014 – 2016, Julia was head of campaigns for Belarus Free Theatre. She now works freelance and is a member of International Arts Rights Advisors (IARA), facilitator for Arts Rights Justice Academy and Impact Producer for Doc Society, promoting documentary film as a powerful advocacy tool.

Diane Morgan, nitroBEAT
Diane Morgan, nitroBEAT

Diane Morgan is the Director of nitroBEAT and a consultant/producer. She works in collaboration with artists, leaders and organisations to support (and merge) artistic risk taking and social engagement ideas, practices and approaches. Previous roles include; Project Manager for the Cultural Leadership Programme, Decibel lead for Arts Council West Midlands and Head of Projects at Contact Theatre, Manchester.

Helen Jenkins, Cause4
Helen Jenkins, Cause4

Helen Jenkins is a consultant for Cause4, a social enterprise that supports charities, social enterprises and philanthropists to develop and raise vital funds across the arts, education and charity sectors. She has over 20 years experience of working across all fundraising disciplines in senior management and at Board level.  Helen has helped organisations nationally and internationally to achieve fundraising targets and retain their ethics within challenging financial climates.

Booking Information

Fees

£45 for individuals from organisations with an annual turnover of over £500K.

£80 for two individuals from organisations with an annual turnover of over £500K

£25 for individuals from organisations with an annual turnover of over £250-500K

£40 for two individuals from organisations with an annual turnover £250-500K

Bursaries

Diversity and equality are essential to both the dialogue and learning around artistic risk-taking and for stronger a cultural sector. The programme is actively seeking to be fully representative of, reflect, and to meet the needs of the arts and cultural community across; gender, race, disability, sexual orientation, religion and class.

In order to respond to existing under-representation we are offering a limited number of bursaries to cover the training session fee for BAME and disabled CEO/Artistic Directors, Chairs, individual Board Members and Senior team members, and individuals from organisations with an annual turnover of under £250k who are currently living and working in England.

To apply for a bursary please write to: [email protected] with a short description of your organisation and why you would like to attend this session. Deadline: Friday 9 November.

Access

We aim to provide an inclusive environment and will work with individual participants to make sure we can meet your access needs, such as providing support workers or British Sign Language interpreters or preparing programme materials in alternative formats. Our experienced facilitators aim to be as flexible as possible in order to make the programme work for your particular needs. For access queries please write to [email protected]

Raheel Mohammed

Founder and Director at Maslaha
Raheel Mohammed is the founder and director of Maslaha, an organisation that uses  creativity, practical work and strategic thinking to change and challenge the conditions that create inequalities for Muslim communities.

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