Tides of change

Ahead of ISPA’s annual NYC Congress we speak to Egyptian arts activist Amany Abouzeid to get her perspective on the issues everyone will be discussing, dissecting and debating in January. Abouzeid is executive manager at Tamasi Performing Arts Collective, a group that promotes the performing arts throughout the Middle East through development, advocacy and training.

Can the arts ever truly offer solutions in political and societal discourse?
Amany Abouzeid:
Firstly, I do not believe that it is the function of the arts to offer solutions. However, the arts are a main contributor to shaping the public discourse, which is why the arts are so important and can have such a massive impact. The arts provide a space for reflection, where people can ask difficult and uncomfortable questions, while also offering an alternative discourse.

Do funding models and their associated criteria (diversity, outreach and impact) enable or disable artists and presenters from creating meaningful discussion?
There are very good and honourable reasons for funding models to include ideas like diversity, outreach and impact. However, the implementation and interpretation of these can vary widely. One of the major issues with having a blanket definition of these concepts is that we can end up with superficial definitions. For example, the terms ‘person of colour’ or ‘differently abled’ do not tell us very much. There is also a risk that we can become so politically correct that we lose the cutting edge of arts.

A major part of arts funding in the ‘developing countries’ context is driven by the human rights and/or development agenda. Despite the many attempts at reform, diversity and outreach by these programmes, they remain steeped in an anthropological imagining of the ‘other’, very much in the mould that Margaret Mead created back in the 1960s. This ‘other’ is invariably some kind of a variation of the ‘noble savage’. In fact, the extreme political correctness I talked about above is probably aimed at remedying this. However, extreme political correctness does not remedy inequalities and global power dynamics – it can actually inadvertently perpetuate them.

There is no easy solution, but I think a first step is not to pretend that we have no bias as donors, practitioners or policy makers. We do have a bias; bias is a good thing. This is what voters vote for during an election – the candidate’s bias and standpoint regarding certain issues. Donors need to have a more nuanced analysis of power and power dynamics rather than just paying lip service to it. We can start by acknowledging that maybe, just maybe, there is another way.

When we talk about integration are we excluding groups out of the discussion – like people with right-wing views?
This is a very pertinent question that carries within it some assumptions about the function of the arts and the identity of artists. Some of these assumptions are:

  • All artists are left-wing or at least hold liberal views on all issues
  • Art acts as an arbitrator of good/bad

This set of assumptions, in my opinion is a direct result of funding agendas in the arts. This is especially true in contexts where the arts sector is mainly funded through human rights, development or humanitarian programmes. Reality, as is always the case, is much more complex than this.

Of course there is no ‘unified’ liberal view on all issues at all times, and what is viewed as liberal in one context can be viewed as quite reactionary in another. We must also remember that artists are human beings as well as subjects that hold several, sometimes competing and conflicting, identities and allegiances (such as class, race, nationality and ethnicity). So the two assumptions I listed before are an oversimplification.

Who has the right to a voice in the arts, and who makes that decision?
The right to a voice in the arts is decided by many factors depending on the context. In contexts where an arts project is purely entrepreneurial, audiences will certainly have a say on who has this right. In contexts where an arts project is almost solely dependent on donor funding, this decision-making locus will inevitably change. However, this relationship is always changing.