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.