Carál Ní Chuilín on arts equality and QUB ICRH’s #VoicesForTheVoiceless reflection on culture and resistance

Voices For The Voiceless event posterAs part of Queen’s University Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities’ short festival, Dr Michael Pierse chaired an event in Cultúrlann this evening how communities through culture express and counter their exclusion and marginalisation.

Three speakers looked at different aspects of Culture and Resistance: Anandi Ramamurthy, Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh and Ken Fero before the screening of Ken’s film “Burn” about the 2011 riots in England.

Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure Carál Ní Chuilín was present at the start of the evening and addressed the audience. She ignored her prepared speech and instead started by reflecting on some of what she’d learnt from the “nice” nuns at school. They had alerted her to “the fact that women in society are invisible”.

Caral Ni Chuilin preparing for VoicesForTheVoicelessHer school study of Antigonethe Sophocles play, not Socrates – with its themes of power relationships of the state and the relationship between law and justice spoke to her.

Antigone for me was a woman who resisted the law of Creon and who made a decision to take matters into her own hands and ended up ending her life rather than facing the laws of society.

This historical literary example of the “power of resistance” made her question her experience the more recent local experience.

Why in the mouth of some of the biggest human rights abuses – in my opinion – did the whole notion of resistance not transcend to art, and why did art turn its back on communities? That’s something I have struggled with and still struggle with. Art and culture have to be a reflection of what people feel and who they are. And I would support that even if I don’t like it … [even people’s right to like thrash music].

One of DCAL’s “biggest challenges” since she took up office has been “how art was funded and resourced across the community”. Carál sees “a glass ceiling for working class areas” for “art and language and creativity and music and everything that we all love”.

Given the recent confusion around Carál’s strategy on arts cuts, I quote her speech at length … though given the lack of opportunity for the audience to question or challenge her comments, confusion may still reign.

When you speak about equality and inequality, for me equality is about getting access, pure and simple. And once you get access, you can then at least compete for your right and your place and where you feel it is. And the other resistance for me is the resistance around the revival of the Irish language and also in the way in which our communities have been betrayed [possibly portrayed?] – and sometimes not portrayed properly through different genres of art and culture.

She spoke about Féile an Phobail as the alternative to the way communities had previously “celebrated resistance around internment” and saw benefits of using “songs, our music, bringing people into our city, talking about things that made us who we are, … talking about our vision”.

The way in which music and culture and indeed access to the arts happened out of a sense and experience of resistance.

When we talk about power relationships and we talk about equality we also have to talk about the impact of the way in which arts are resourced and developed in this current climate. I know it’s particularly difficult for people who are trying to manage, as an example – and I’m not picking on the Ulster Orchestra – the ‘Cultúrlann’s orchestra’ for the purposes of this.

So the ‘Cultúrlann’s orchestra’ gets almost £2 million a year. And small groups – [I’m] talking about ethnicity, refugees, their whole identity and their whole culture is up in arms and in five minutes they leave their home in a spirit of sheer panic. They come to a completely different country, not all the time welcomed. Welcomed in the media, welcomed in the straplines, welcomed by politicians (because they don’t want to be seen criticising refugees). And they come into communities and unless you’ve got a community that opens its arms then their expression of their culture is really difficult to come to the top.

And that’s what we need to do. We need to go to the places that people are furthest removed and bring them in. It sounds popularist but that’s not a popular thing. Particularly if it means that ‘Cultúrlann’s orchestra’ is going to have to do with less in order to give to the people who haven’t got a thing. I would do that all day long. I make absolutely no apologies for that at all because if we can’t help people in most need then what we’re doing is servincing a class structure and servicing services for people who really are doing a good job on one hand but we need to do more.

And for me who we revive arts and culture within this society and within this economy: we need to put it on an economic footing. I’m not getting into a whole discussion around market forces versus everything else because we’ll be here for a full week! However, what I’m trying to do is bring forward an overarching strategy that will include all the departments, will include different sectors where people need to see their cultures and their values reflected in that. And we need get it resourced.

Until we do that – and even then we’ll not get agreement – but until we make a best start to that then we’ll still be going back to the days of “the Men of Art have lost their heart” [a line from a poem by Bobby Sands] because really what it’s about is making sure that regardless what we feel about people’s politics, regardless about what we feel about their positions on A, B, C or D, the rights of people- and arts and culture is a right, it’s not a luxury, it’s a right – those rights will remain something that people will always feel that they need to put resistance to need revival for, need funding for, need organisation for, and that’s fine.

We’ll always need to do that for some degree or other. but certainly for me it’s really important that we do go back and we do have a flexibility to look at what pushes our buttons, who we are and why we’re here, and more importantly what are we going to do.

VoicesForTheVoiceless Anandi slideNext up was Anandi Ramamurthy who has written about Britain’s Asian Youth Movements in her book Black Star. She highlighted the links and inspiration between Asian groups in England and republican communities who met up and offered mutual support. As one activist summed it up:

We saw Ireland as like a litmus test for policy and actions that would be used against us in England.

VoicesForTheVoiceless Feargal Mac IonnrachtaighFeargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh spoke about the Irish medium education movement. He spoke aboit colonialism and quoted from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind:

The real aim of colonialism was to control the people’s wealth: what they produced, how they produced it, and how it was distributed. Colonialism imposed its control of the social production of wealth through military conquest and subsequent political dictatorship. But its most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world.

Feargal attended the Irish medium school that was set up in Cultúrlann’s building. Taken as a pupil representative to see Minister of State for Northern Ireland Michael Ancram for a meeting about the continued lack of state funding, the MP suggested that students could learn Irish as a foreign language at a local West Belfast grammar school. Fergal challenged that he hadn’t passed his 11 plus and thus wasn’t eligible to have access to a grammar school. “Unfortunately young man, some kids have ability and others don’t” replied Ancram.

VoicesForTheVoiceless Ken Fero Channel 4 viewer logsKen Fero outlined the development of the Migrant Media collective of film makers. The group embedded themselves within the communities they documented and often participated in acts of resistance as well as filming them. With documentaries on race, class and asylum seekers made in England, France, Germany and Iraq, the collective took a firm stance on broadcasters’ requests for [seemingly politically motivated] edits to completed programmes: No! He explained the circumstances after which neither the BBC nor Channel 4 will commission or broadcast their work. Exposing the failings of a state is problematic.

Burn Ken Fero

VoicesForTheVoiceless panelAfter the screening of Burn there was a short Q&A.

One observation supported by several of the panellists was that central funding for grass roots organisations changes the community dynamic. An overt dependence on state funding means that groups may no longer work as hard to organise: they become lazy. The loss of a strong need to fundraise amongst a community undermines and weakens the sense of purpose and resilience.

If we’d had longer I’d have asked whether women were at the forefront of creating these community cultural expression? Are female voices allowed to speak up for the voiceless … or do they continue to react to the results of acts of resistance?

As an academic event, while there were rich links between the English and Irish Republican case-studies of resistance, and resonance between the venue and the emergence of Irish medium schools, there was an absence of any discussion about non-nationalist acts of resistance (for example, within loyalism).

Ultimately while disenfranchised and marginalised communities may turn to the arts and culture to record their experiences, it is often after they have given into more extreme measures. Arts comes after rioting in the civil resistance dictionary. Perhaps cultural advocates need to be embedded in communities before the pressure erupts … and maybe that’s what Carál Ní Chuilín was suggesting?

ICRH festival programme snippetQUB’s ICRH’s week long celebration of the arts and humanities continues tomorrow with two events in the Oh Yeah! Music Centre in Cathedral Quarter. At 6pm there’s an illustrated talk on the Gay Ballads of Ireland by Stuart Bailie followed by an intimate gig with Katharine Phillippa, Joshua Burnside and Owen Denvir at 8pm.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.

  • culturalpolicywonk

    The Minister has managed to tie herself up in conceptual and ideological knots. On the one hand she is (unwittingly it would seem) advocating a form of ‘cultural democracy’ – something that arose out of the community arts movement in England in the 1970s. The immediate contradiction here – given that cultural democracy frequently (inevitably?) involves resistance, is why the state would fund things that are oppositional to the state itself. This position is compounded by her desire to see all members of society (a laudable aim) benefit from the value that art and culture can bring – BUT, the art and culture she talks of here, and the art and culture which for the past hundreds of years has been considered to be of benefit to humanity, is precisely the type of culture which she effectively wants to do away with, namely orchestras and the like. You don’t democratise access to culture by getting rid of culture in order to promote access.

  • Granni Trixie

    Whatever happened to ‘arts for arts sake’? The arts as a tool of resistance is what the Minister seems to value above all its other functions.

    I am all for interventions – and resources- designed to broaden access to the arts but she demonstrates a narrow vision to arts and culture driven by ‘political’ intent. She admires the Feile (indeed there is much to admire about it) but seems totally unaware of its own self generated limitations.

    Most of all sHe does not seem to appreciate arts in terms of personal development or even self expression.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Art is a means of expression, while I wouldn’t consider it an explicit “act” of resistance, I certainly would consider it a means of expressing it.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    “As an academic event, while there were rich links between the English and Irish Republican case studies of resistance and resonance between the venue and the emergence of Irish Medium schools, there was an absence of any discussion about non-nationalist acts of resistance (for example within Loyalism)” Surprising that, as one might say Loyalism is a political ideology with it’s roots firmly embedded in resistance as demonstrated by it’s cultural and artist wall painting murals !

  • Cosmo

    If only the Huguenot culture hadn’t been suppressed and reviled perhaps we would have had a better cuisine and attitude to nutrition and more respect for decent architecture….

  • Patrick Sanders

    Once again the minister slanders an entire sector based upon her perception of a few, usually larger, arts organisations (a perception that may not even be accurate). She ignores Replay’s enormous BabyDay project, which before the day itself took work to every SureStart in Belfast, giving arts access to many families who may not otherwise get the chance. Replay, Arts Care and oher organisations also provide arts to children with severe health issues and various profound disabilities – children who may not even ever get to live outside a healthcare facility and whose lives may be short. How about Prime Cut’s Demeter project, which worked with women from various communities to create an interactive and exciting piece of work that guided audience members through 100 years of history of women in Belfast? Or the work of many many more? I can’t name them all here because I don’t have all the details – but the minister should, because these organisations all have to painstakingly document the processes and outcomes of these projects which then go back to ACNI/DCAL. She is repeatedly ignoring the true facts of arts provision in NI.

    When funders previously tried to pass funding and project responsibility solely to communities it fell apart. Facilitators would get a call asking of they could come in the next day and work with whatever young people were around to make “a wee play” in 6 hours. Or a cross-community project would be organised but after several sessions (and the final funding payment came through) one group would announce their young people didn’t feel comfortable mixing and the project would be finished early and the money pocketed. Eventually it was recognised as an ineffective system.

    This is not in any way to say that people should not have a say in how they interact with the arts. But it needs to be a dialogue because, as with any industry, the people with the expertise may come up with exciting solutions that no one had thought of before. Artists also know how best to apply their artform when working with vulnerable communities and individuals.
    And to deny that artists and arts organisations are already doing valuable work is a lie and an insult. Arts organisations have to work harder and more professionally than many other industries to justify their funding.
    In NI artists are often shipped into troubled areas to work with groups and ease tensions. But it gets called “cross-community” work or “something for the kiddies”, rather than what it is: the arts. And so the valuable work does not get recognised. But it is happening. How much longer it will continue I can’t say. The arts functions on a tiny budget that would make very little difference if subsumed into Health for example. But the difference we can make on that tiny budget is enormous.

  • Watty Graham

    is feeding this inverted snob with her half-baked, poorly grasped,
    misconstrued digestion of the Ladybird book of Theatre of Resistance
    politics? She’s really embarrassing… which is a fantastic attribute for
    Satire, sitting duck for Parody, someone should folly that up…
    It’s Sophocles, not Socrates BTW, the nice Nuns’ll have a dicky fit! But getting oul Greek lads’ names right is just more of the kind of oppression which exercises Minister Cromwell.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Here is a Loyalist Mural in the Centre of Belfast. Without doubt there is an Artistic and Cultural message in it !

  • SeaanUiNeill

    One of my favourite Punch cartoons of the 1870s, representing the two sides of genuinely motivated political indifference in the cultural debate:

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Cosmo, I’ve just had an epiphany of the fusion culture that might have occurred, “Potato Crossants”…………..

  • Cosmo

    Champ would have been green !

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Now you’ve made me think of Aligot made with wild garlic and a crumbled Gubbeen from Cork! Dangerous thoughts for a man as yet to have his Sunday lunch…..

  • c mac siacais

    Would a good example of fusion culture not be a couple of politically disengaged intellectual epicures ‘PUNCHING’ one another over the respective epicurean (and god forbid ideological) qualities of Ulster-Huguenot Potato Croissants and irredentist Irish Champ. A Socratic Dialogue between Patrick Sanders and Watty Graham, with witty interventions by Seaan UiNeill, would be something I would pay to access. Then again my intellectual superiors, who grace these pages too often, would be quick to chatter that I am a culturally deprived unwashed and penniless Republican and just the type of person our current Culture minister would favour. Ach mar a deir said is cuma liom.

  • Zeno

    “Why in the mouth of some of the biggest human rights abuses –”

    What, like bombing and murdering innocent civilians?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Over on another thread I’ve been suggesting, in the light of what is probably “unprovability” in the strictly legal sense, that the fusion of the old Scots verdict of “notproven” with our own ancient legal system might have been a decent planter gift to us all, at least in the case of the lack of any transparency regarding Cerberus’s possible engagements with Peadar mac Spideog and his associates.

    This business of the ownership of a major portion of our land resources by an international private equity firm, and the implications of any possible personal or political benefit that might accrue to any facilitator is something I actually care about profoundly, although the management of the land by our own local “big wheels” has hardly been a source of public rejoicing.

    But to quote Willie Yeats (and revert a little to last weeks “NationalPoetryDay share your favourite poem” thread):

    “there’s no good complaining, for money’s rant is on.
    He that’s mounting up must on his neighbour mount,
    And we and all the Muses are things of no account.”

    And to slightly amend the rather relevant reply of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (the original mentioning swords rather than money) “do not quote laws to us, we carry major spending power”.

  • Cosmo

    Yup, it’s the crude vulgar americanisation of our ‘culture’ which is distressing…. pernicious Harvard ‘business ethics’, unaesthetic consumerism, junk food poison and fizzy drinks, misplaced sense of exceptionalism, sentimental history-telling and narcissistic inability to self-critique – not to mention what’s perhaps the highest rate of obesity growth in Europe. Why not re-explore a bit of subtlty and old culture from European mainland. There were interesting exchanges and links in the 6thc. in the days of the coracle.

  • SeaanUiNeill
  • Cosmo

    Thank you so much for this. Appreciate it. Apologies for delay, unwell last few days.
    Saw part of this docu, first time around. (And well remember, the description of how cigarette smoking was turned into something aspirational for women by PR.) Just wanted observe to you, that in truth, US actually turned its back on insights of Freud; influenced in part I believe, by the medical insurance industry which preferred a measurable system – like behaviourism. For me, this rejection of the unconscious has contributed to their shallow approach to so much in the world.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I hope your health improves Cosmo, I get the same general problem. “Why are you not on Slugger?” friends write as I struggle for breath surrounded by inhalers and books.

    “For me, this rejection of the unconscious has contributed to their shallow approach to so much in the world.”

    I’ve worked in advertising at one point, with some arthger brilliant people such as John Hegerty, and what I experienced confirmed my seriously negative assessment of Edward Bernays’ baleful influence tenfold. While some US interests certainly turned against the unconscious, I think that the crude use of Bernays’ theories by the new political classes there (and increasingly everywhere) is pretty self evident, but as you say of their approach to the world, fearsomely shallow. As St Just said “it is a terrible thing to torment the people”.