Art is a powerful tool for social good because of its potential to not only give voice to unspoken narratives, but also, in so doing, open our eyes to these diverse perspectives, and so build greater empathy and inclusivity. To borrow a quote from Adam Smith, art helps us to “bring home the other” – it makes the unseen lives of a fellow human become our own.
In today’s conversation, we explore issues surrounding artistic representation, inclusivity and the voicing of marginalised narratives.
I'm your host, Joelle David, and I run my family's art gallery and fashion line, Aestheletic, which has recently launched an inclusive fashion project, working with special needs artists to showcase their artwork on our apparel, and returning a 100% of the profit to these artists.
With me, I have Benjamin Britworth, an award-winning film-maker, writer and designer who is well-versed in the topic of theatre as a means for social good, in regards to theatre with disabilities, prisons and the homeless.
We also have dramaturg, writer, and academic, Ninke Overbeek, who has spent many years working alongside immigrants with refugee stories.
Finally, we have Pip Tauwhare, who has researched on poetry as a medium by which marginalised young males negotiate their identity.
Who gets the power to decide who’s in the acceptable normal and who’s on the margin?
Pip offers an interesting example of how subjective a term like ‘extremist’ might be: we might label a certain group as 'extreme', but they might just as easily deem our behaviour as 'extreme'. The 'self' vs 'other' divide is set up because we've made ourselves the standard of 'normal' so that everyone who diverges from our standard becomes 'extreme'. Yet, if we really listened to their narratives, as expressed through their poetry, we would realise that they are humans just like us.
“Marginalisation is about creating an other – someone who’s different from you – but art just bridges that because you see that they are just like you in many many ways… For me art and poetry have become a medium of understanding the other person’s humanity.” – Pip Tauwhare
“This term ‘marginalisation’ comes from a specific perspective. There is always someone who’s decided that a certain group is marginalised… I am not sure if people who are put in this box ever call themselves 'marginalised'.” - Ninke
Is it useful to label certain communities as ‘marginalised’?
On one hand the label of ‘marginalised’ can be divisive and potentially patronising. On the other hand, we often need this label in order for institutions to recognise and cater to these communities. We discuss how, despite of how problematic these labels can be, if they are used rightly for social good – to identify communities and provide necessary structural support, make systemic changes – eventually social equity can be achieved and there will no longer exist the power imbalance that gives rise to centres and margins.
Referring to the trajectory of the gay community that has travelled a long way to overcome labels and stereotypes, Ben discusses how the end goal is to completely do away with the use of boxes, so that each individual will not be pigeonholed, but seen first and foremost as unique individuals with their own personalities.
“If people come to this country, they are boxed as ‘refugees’. People are never ‘refugees’, or at least being a refugee is not an identity – you’re a person who had a job, a family and a life in your home country… it’s problematic because people become boxed as one thing and there is a stigma attached.’ – Ninke Overbeek
“For me, I think the end goal is you just stop defining things by boxes” – Ben Britworth
Is it okay for us to speak on behalf of a marginalised community we are not a part of?
With reference to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern speak?”, Ben discusses how the ultimate goal is for marginalised peoples to find a voice and a language to speak for themselves, rather than be spoken for by the dominant community. Nevertheless, there is a transition phase, where these communities simply have no chance to be heard; during this time, it is the responsibility for those in positions of power to use their voices to help articulate these narratives.
For example, it was once criminal for the concerns of the gay community to be publicly discussed, and this only changed when people in power from the larger community spoke up on their behalf.
“The shift towards acceptance of a (marginalised) community didn’t necessarily start with the community itself; it started with other people around the community discussing it.” – Ben Britworth
Ninke explains how important the work of ‘translators’ is, because they serve as go-betweens to communicate the needs of the marginalised group to the group in power.
Who has the right to act as a ‘translator’ for marginalised peoples? Can someone who is not from a community speak faithfully on their behalf?
Ben discusses the argument that straight people can’t play gay characters in films. Drawing on Plato’s allegory of the cave, he explains that fundamentally, all art is representation, so “If we start saying that this person has no right to read it through this particular lens, then all that work to try and open up these discussions are basically being shut down again.”
The real issue lies with the unequal distribution of power between the straight and the gay actor. "Once it’s not an issue for a gay actor to play a straight role, it shouldn’t be an issue for a straight actor to play a gay role".
“It’s a dual process”, Pip aptly sums up, “reshaping the perceptions of those in power about those not in power, and empowering those who are not in power. And both things need to happen.”
This podcast has been brought to you by Aestheletic: we believe in making art available for all, by transforming the paintings from our fine art gallery into streetwear.
Check out more podcasts from our Artist Conversations series.