Last night Fionnuala Kennedy, Artistic Director at MACHA Productions, penned a personal and strongly-worded open letter to the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure in response to Carál Ní Chuilín’s speech at the Voices For The Voiceless event at Cultúrlann on Thursday evening.
I can live with the fact that you are not a fan of theatre. I can live with the fact that you don’t fight for the arts, as arts minister. I can live with the fact that you perpetuate the dangerous myth about the arts sector in NI, that we’re all champagne-swilling, top-hat wearing snobs. But I will NEVER stay quiet when you say “art has turned its back on communities”.
I am writing to tell you that it is YOU who has turned your back on communities.
I am not a politician. You are not an artist. You do not understand artistic process. Let me tell you a bit about mine.
My work is informed by my experience of the disadvantages, judgements and barriers faced when you grow up in a working-class area. I grew up in West Belfast. Everyone who knows me knows I’m one of those Westie melters who thinks it’s the greatest part of the world. West Belfast is a tough place to love at times, but I adore it. When I was growing up I remember free meat parcels; I remember free school meals; I remember not having anything to eat at times. The fact that this was and still is allowed to happen is for me a direct attack on the poorest by the richest. The same stereotypes of working class people (benefit thieves, spongers) are still perpetuated. Living with fuck all and being hated and despised for it is beyond difficult. This is what my “art” is about. I hope that my work can help in any way towards a more equal society. And who were the leaders of this in my community? Sinn Féin. They fought with us for quality housing, benefit entitlements, injustices. Our fight was for the working classes. Our fight was for equality. Our fight was for communities. I wholly-heartedly believed in this fight, and this has stayed with me my whole life.
You are no longer this party, and haven’t been for a long time. I do not believe you help communities unless it serves your aims. Yes, you can argue votes. I argue that people are still afraid, and people feel they’ve no other choice. At the CORNERS project in the New Lodge as part of the Belfast Festival last night, all the New Lodge residents participating said they felt they weren’t represented by their politicians. Were you there? Were you fuck.
I live in the Short Strand (rehoused there after being homeless, wrote a play to highlight the flaws in our housing system, you were invited, you didn’t attend). I am from Lenadoon. When Sinn Féin used to talk about those areas it was “we”; now, it is “them”. Every time you talk about “community”, “communities”, “communities in need”, you diminish the intelligence, skills, talent, humour, pride and needs of the people in these areas, including me. I am sick of being a highly-deprived fucking postcode. You are not empowering people by saying this, you are diminishing us. You are patronising us. You are humiliating us. You are doing us harm.
You referred to the ‘notion of resistance not transcending to arts’; for me, this is when art is critical and exciting. This type of work has been happening on different scales across different genres. You choose to ignore it, and say publicly that it’s not happening. You are a liar. So, when you talk about resistance, is it only acts of resistance allowed and agreed by Sinn Féin? Well here’s what: resistance does exist across our society; it is a bubbling resistance against the ridiculous, divide-and-conquer, agenda-pushing, one-sided, sectarian governance of Sinn Féin and DUP and god, I hope it grows, in ALL our communities. Saying the arts has turned its back on communities is laughable, when Sinn Féin have completely lost touch with the people they claim to represent. And the people know it.
Now let’s talk about “culture”. In 2016, we will see a series of events marking the Easter Rising and the Somme. Money will be pumped into the arts and communities to commemorate events 100 years old (hey artists! Forget all the reasons why you make work, we’re telling you what your inspiration is). These events will more than likely be divisive, tell one story without interrogation of history or analysis of what we’ve learned or how far we’ve come; these events will commemorate men fighting against men fighting against men and men who died with men, men, men (except for a few women thrown in for good measure!). These events will be invested in, in a time where women and men are dying in our communities, where people are using food banks, where people have mounting debt. Are these the type of events you mean when you say “people need to see their cultures reflected”? Same old Green and Orange cultures?
You keep referring to the Ulster Orchestra. Ok, I’ve never been to an UO concert. Most of my family and friends have probably never been to an UO concert. Does that mean I want it removed from people who do go? Where’s the equality in that? And let me flip your elitist intimations on its head: when I go into Cultúrlann on the Falls Road, the road I went to school on for 7 years, I can’t understand a word anyone is saying. But I would be the first to argue with people who might say (and do say!) that the Irish language is for the middle-classes. The majority of people I know from West Belfast don’t speak Irish, and would be more concerned with the suicide rate, violent crimes, teenage pregnancy, people losing their homes, drugs etc. So when you talk about “the resistance around the revival of the Irish language”, who are you referring to? My family and friends in this community have a lot more than fighting for or against the Irish language to deal with. Or is this just another dig at the Prods? Nice one.
And I can’t end without referring to your use of a quote from Bobby Sands – I went to Belfast Met (then BIFHE) and did the HND in Performing Arts; a course that allowed young people, particularly those from less wealthy backgrounds, to access the arts (this course will be cut completely next year); when I attended, I chose Bobby Sands’ poetry and the theme of incarceration, and shared it with my class. He believed in resistance. You do not own his legacy because you are in Sinn Féin; shame on you for taking and twisting his words to serve your made-up-in-your-own-head story. I have a quote to share with you: “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too”. As well as equality, justice, and basic human rights, we should have happiness, joy, dignity and respect. Stop asking for the minimum for communities. Stop implying that working-class people’s notion of art is basic. Art inspires, instigates acts of resistance, exposes inequality, brings joy, and it has a long history in all our communities. Every single person in Northern Ireland has a right to this. Perpetuate the elitist myth all you like. Remove the money from the artists. We will, as we always have, find ways of creating art. We will, as we always have, work with communities to ensure participation and access. Because we are the communities. We may not always get it right. We may produce some shit sometimes. Just like our politicians. We need your support, not vilification.
Please stop lying about artist’s work within communities: we live in, work in and are from “communities”.
Please stop making “Arts” a dirty word.
And please, please stop making “Community” a dirty word.