Actualise Utopia by editor Ninos Josef
– This anthology does not ask you to give up your seat; including us does not exclude you. But it challenges you to examine your own privileges, Josef says.
This text was first published in Actualise Utopia: From dreams to reality. An anthology about racial barriers in the structure of the Nordic arts field, by editor Ninos Josef and project coordinator Kemê Pellicer. Published by Arts Council Norway as part of the project An inclusive cultural sector in the Nordics. In this introduction to the book, Josef addresses how the cultural cycle in the Nordic countries is affected by racism and white privilege.
Editor's Note by Ninos Josef
It is time to break the white colonial structure of the Nordic cultural cycle
Who do you fear the most, the one who openly despises your existence, or the one who silently excludes your existence while pretending to care for it?
Though the Nordics is a key cultural region, the road to intercultural inclusion and fairness is still long. Issues stemming from systemic and structural racism are apparent in all segments of society, including the arts and culture. Each day, I am witnessing how a number of Black, Indigenous and artists of color, who dedicate their practices to "nonwestern contemporary aesthetic technique", are being met with closed doors because of structural and systematic criteria of exclusion. They face resistance in order to make their art, and many of them must use their artistry as a weapon just to get their voice heard.
When populistic forces embrace the arts and culture, we are told that the respect for the cultural cycle is lost and its social influence is overshadowed. We must speak clearly about how culture is essential in our welfare system, where it contributes to economic growth, works in educational purposes for our society and is a leading factor in safeguarding our democracy. Stand united.
On the other hand, the white privileged norm have dedicated decades to systematically exclude cultural content and representation of racialized minorities, portraying a fictitious cultural sector, permeated by borderless openness and idyllic inclusivity. Are we still standing united?
Unity is what keeps the Nordic cultural sector to flourish, but in truth, the cultural sector is just as, if not more, segregated as the Nordic society at large, where whiteness stands as gatekeeper and refuses to open its doors. If the doors are opened, the brown and black body cannot enter unconditionally, but only through narratives, tokenism and other colonial structures linked to race, exotification and stereotypes.
The focus of this publication include artistic, educational, curatorial, and exhibition practices, but also political and commercial strategies. Few want to talk about it. The vast majority who do are those who have fallen and still fall victim to the structural racism within the Nordic cultural cycle. They are often being told to be quiet and wait their turn, this anthology is their and our common voice.
The cultural cycle
The cultural cycle is the circular journey from one's first encounter with the arts and culture, through its lifelong capacity of access and participation, to its recycled infinity. It starts with a child's familiarity with the arts and culture, known as cultural capital*, which is established early in relation to their familiar and socioeconomic circumstances as with their surrounding resources, knowledge and exposure. Cultural capital is, in Western systems, the imprint that a child carries with them through their journey in the cultural cycle. Children in the Nordic countries do not have equal rights, opportunities and access to participate in the cultural cycle2 as their background and resources are catalogued outside the dominant colonial normativity. If the cultural cycle is imbued with a colonial view of what is accepted as cultural capital from its very beginning, we have planted the seed for an exclusionary Nordic cultural sector.
So, How does a child move forward if their cultural backpack is not accredited to qualify as cultural capital?
The first proper stop in the cultural cycle is the Arts and Culture school (Kulturskolan), which applies tight framework around which genres that are offered and considered to be of qualitatively merit. It reproduces a colonial approach to art, where expressions that do not follow Western traditions are excluded and valued to a lesser extent. A dangerous indoctrination as children, in their very first encounter with the arts and culture, are being told that only some of them are allowed to belong and to which limited capacity. A subject touched upon by Michell Sibongiseni Mpike in her research about representation in children's literature. The increased investment in the Arts and Culture school, made by several Nordic countries, becomes deceptive if we keep feeding children and youth with hope and later greet them with closed doors. We must fear the psychological impact this will have, and have had, on racialized children with creative souls. Thus, the structure of the Arts and Culture schools in the Nordics limit equal representation.
The next step in the cultural cycle is the professional art education. Here it is painfully obvious that the lack of nonwestern art forms and expressions, educators, and programs, create a system where artists who dedicate their practice to Western traditions get their entire education subsidized by the state. From the Arts and Cultural schools, through art profiled classes at primary and lower secondary school, aesthetic programs at upper secondary school, to community colleges and on to universities and national academies of art. As these require rigorous study of traditional Western art forms or practices, it proves that the Nordic countries cultivate the art forms that reflect the aesthetics and philosophies of the majority in the region. Please remember, Nordic art educational systems are not universal, they automatically reproduce a colonial narrative in the arts field, and we must ensure that faculties, schools, departments, and institutes in the arts and culture sector recognizes non-Western focused educational systems to enable an increase in representation. As Sheyda Shafiei presents in her article, the normative artists career is further subsidized at our state-funded cultural institutions and independent scene, as well as their following retirement. By offering such exclusive, tax-subsidized systems in the cultural cycle, the state-implemented structure itself maintains a colonial gaze which excludes black and brown bodies, minority expressions, non-Western practices and marginalized artistry.
A current discussion in the Nordic cultural sector is the issue of broader recruitment at art schools and how to reach students from socioeconomically vulnerable environments. There has been talks on lowering the criteria for admission, favorable intake of students and implementation of simplified curricula in order to enable equal participation for "all". Assuming that this group does not possess equal competence and knowledge, and by intentionally having lower expectations on artists of non-Western ethnicity is a blatant act of racist othering. The main discussions, though, have centered around how to improve the social conditions for professional practitioners, as well as how financial safety nets should be instituted to attract and broaden the recruitment of students from socioeconomic vulnerability. Governmental investigations have shown that the economic and social conditions for art practitioners in the Nordics3 have not followed the same development as in society at large, and there is still a lot to be done in this matter. As this dialogue continues, so does the lack of invitation to firsthand voices in this matter. It is crucial not to use the deficiencies in the already existing safety nets provided for the professional cultural sector to justify the ongoing homogeneous recruitment patterns, replication of colonial narratives in the arts field and the systematically unfair allocation of resources. We ought to be honest and highlight the fact that these financial support systems, ie art alliances, state income guarantees and general arts funding, even those that are defective, are almost completely utilized by and divided by the white homogeneity, and would continue to be so.
What makes the whiteness assume that financial security is what would save the exclusionary Nordic cultural sector when it would only benefit the already privileged norm?
For those lucky enough to overcome the structural obstacles, a segregated professional field – dominated by a white norm and gaze – awaits.
A topic on which the Danish collective Marronage deliberates. Their article poses the question of how elements in curating are not decolonized, reinvented, or adapted to postcoloniality. It considers institutions, mostly in the form of exhibition cultures and artistic production, as subjects of practicing colonial gaze and presents tools for the formation and implementation of postcolonial strategies. Whether it is on or off the stage and screen, in children's literature or in structural levels, we are all aware of the sparse and tokenized representation of black, indigenous and people of color. The professional field covers the biggest part of the cultural cycle and even if the recruitment of students was to be diversified, we must still ensure that there is a field that welcomes, includes and offers mutual respect and understanding. While we are familiar with the role of cultural institutions as imperial technologies of power, there has been little to no focus on the postcolonial history of these institutions and their role in upholding systematic colonial exclusion.
If we want our cultural sector to remain at the forefront of social development, it needs marginalized perspectives to be emphasized and prioritized.
"Exclusion can be expected if we do not actively work with inclusion," writes Khalid Salimi, demonstrating how the field is in need of a restructuring where government bills, appropriation directions, guidelines and policy documents for state-funded cultural institutions, on all governmental levels, should specify a cultural equity process and action plan that restores access to resources, opportunities, and visibility to those who are denied it. The unequal distribution is often a result of historic realities of conquest, colonialism, cultural domination and systematic exclusion. Although the specific national, regional, and local political situations in which the institutions in this publication operate vary, they have a number of things in common. One common thread is their imagined importance of international credibility. For as long as ethnic representation falls under the collective term diversity, as analyzed in the article written by Kultwatch, it is easy for authorities, institutions and the independent field to justify their exclusivity by hiding behind the term's lack of specificity and intentionally misinterpret interculturalism for internationalism. The discrepancy in cultural content and representation of racialized minorities in line with sociodemographic realities across the Nordic is a striking example, and we need to enrich the sector with new experiences far beyond the traditional, and expand the structure of the cultural cycle. This means, amongst other things, professionalizing genres, expressions and methods that are outside of Western traditions, and allowing them to exist and create without derogatory labels.
We can no longer allow black and brown bodies to exist for the simple reason as to entertain the exotifying white gaze.
Diversity itself can be an exclusive term, in that it allows the white power to separate itself from what is considered to be foreign, specifically non-Western, and by doing so place itself on the highest pedestal. An obvious example of this is the establishment of separatist cultural institutions and platforms for artists of color. We can call it exclusionary diversity – in which further segregation is created as a consequence under the guise of diversity, instead of holding the Nordic arts field accountable for its exclusivity. This is also visible when looking into the distribution of power within the Nordic arts field, where directors, boards, artistic councils and reference groups are imbued with whiteness. When allowed a seat at the table or a moment in the spotlight, racialized people are met with prejudiced conditions and tokenism. The white norm has the ability to produce structures of social cohesion on the one hand and inegalitarian systems on the other. Palestinian-Icelandic writer Mazen Maarouf discusses the approach on displaced refugee artists and the benefits of tokenization among the local population. His story sheds light on the danger of an ahistorical matter which reproduces Eurocentric tropes and dismisses power structures, and proves that each racialized story is individual and unique. There is no denying how the Nordic countries present themselves as open but maintain some of the most rigid immigration policies in the world. Ruskeat Tytöt, a collective of black and brown female and non-binary identifying individuals, guide us through acts of self care in relation to power structures.
It is impossible to discuss power structures in the Nordic arts field without mentioning quality,
a term which has been used by whiteness to justify the exclusion of the racialized artistry. The long-enduring assumptions about the inferior quality of art from colonized, and other non-Western, areas have made it difficult to incorporate artists of color into art history narratives. Yet, white artists have been permitted to simply appropriate narratives and forms of tribal arts, to explore, recuperate, and reimagine the fullness of non-Western heritage in their own arts practice and be celebrated and considered of qualitative caliber. This is when we must ask: What gives whiteness the tools to define quality? We must further acknowledge the existence of systemic obstacles related to ethnocentric references, "otherness," and false representation of racialized persons and communities which are the result of an inherited and unfair racial system that excludes them from the arts and cultural sector.
The last stop in the cultural cycle is the recycled infinity. A place for those who will be remembered and whose art will long be recycled to teach the coming generations. History has proven how the existence of ethnic groups and minorities have been erased, how their stories have been rewritten and their cultures made extinct.
Archeologist Susana Vallejos discusses the consequences of when traces are intentionally hidden by archeology, and museum heritage is adapted to the benefit of the Western world, while Aka Niviâna shares her personal story from an indigenous perspective. Who will be remembered? If the structure intentionally excludes artists of color and marginalized experiences, it means that the actions of the white structure in the Nordic arts field automatically defines who is allowed to be a part of our future history.
This anthology does not ask you to give up your seat; including us does not exclude you. But it challenges you to examine your own privileges.
It is necessary to guarantee the availability of and access to art in order for the entire society to be heard and seen. Having arts and culture available does not mean it is accessible to everyone, even less so for marginalized people. And having access to arts and culture does not automatically make it available to people of color. We need to be careful not to let ethnic diversity become a trend to establish favorable development for the already privileged white majority in the cultural sector. The real issue is not that Black, Indigenous and people of color are not interested or active within the sector, it is that we are not given a fair and equal place, and are thus silenced.
To quote Deise Faria Nunes, "Let me insist, we are not there yet!"
About the author
Ninos Josef (1989), Swedish-Syriac, is an award-winning and internationally acclaimed dancer and actor. He is educated at The Royal Swedish Ballet School and has danced with some of the most renowned dance companies in the world, most recently at The Royal Swedish Opera and as an actor at The Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm. He is the Editor in Chief at Kultwatch, platform for the arts and intersectional cultural analysis. Josef received a BFA Honors Degree in Fine Arts and an MA Degree in Middle East Studies, with a focus on cultural development, and has been commissioned as an expert in diversity for the Nordic Council of Ministers, under the Norwegian Presidency. He has been appointed by the Swedish Government as a board member at the Swedish Arts Grants Committee and was previously the project leader for the Stockholm Model United Nations.
* French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu coined the term in 1973, describing Cultural capital as the accumulation of knowledge, behaviors, and skills that a person can tap into to demonstrate one's cultural competence and social status.
2) Myndigheten för kulturanalys (2017) Vem får vara med? Perspektiv på inkludering och integration i kulturlivet i de Nordiska länderna. Myndigheten för kulturanalys.
3) Public inquiry by the Swedish Government; Konstnär - oavsett villkor, SOU 2018:23