On Saturday 8th October the Art Against the Grain collective presented Decolonise Not Diversify, a one-day festival to unpack and challenge dominant narratives. Following two evening events in the spring, featuring lots of talented Birmingham artists alongside invited guests Sukhjit Kaur, Kavita Bhanot and Emilie Zoey Baker, the Decolonise Not Diversify festival was prompted by a paper Kavita delivered at the second event, outlining exactly why conversations and actions around “diversity” simply weren’t taking things far enough. We wanted to share these ideas outwards, open them up, and use them as a catalyst for further discussion. You can read Kavita’s paper in full on Media Diversifed here.

‘The concept of diversity only exists if there is an assumed neutral point from which ‘others’ are ‘diverse.’ Putting aside for now the straight, male, middle-classness of that ‘neutral’ space, its dominant aspect is whiteness. Constructed by a white establishment, the idea of ‘diversity’ is neo-liberal speak. It is the new corporatized version of multiculturalism… We don’t talk about racism, just ‘lack of diversity.’
– Kavita Bhanot

The day explored decoloniality* through visual art, performance, literature, media, academia, politics, entrepreneurship, & more, provoking shared learning through open conversations. In more ways than one, it was a big day, with more speakers than TEDxBrum (I counted), but also by tackling such a huge topic it was at risk of leaving hearts and minds overflowing. This is why a variety of content was important, allowing space for attendees to download, talk about what they had heard and felt, and explore exhibitions, performances and even make their own bath bomb over lunch. Explore the full programme here, or dive deeper into the sessions, practitioners and ideas from the day via the Art Against the Grain blog.

*We recognise that ‘decolonise’ is a word that can mean different things to different people; mean so much to many, but also mean nothing to some, including a lot of us within the team at the beginning of the journey, when in fact it encompasses many of the issues we wanted to face head on. Decolonisation is a process of changing the way we view the world, and accepting that the leading lens through which we experience it has been constructed by straight middle class white men. Identifying and disassembling that means allowing more people of colour, women, those who identify as LGBTQI+ to take up space; on a stage, as voices to be heard or with a seat at the table where decisions are made.

“Until the lion has its own historian, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”  African Proverb

Our Approach

Creating Space: Our main aim was to create space. Amidst a sea of white male dominated panels at conferences, we wanted our stage to be different, and not be led by the same perspectives and voices. We programmed who we wanted to hear from, on the topics we felt were important.

Respectful Challenges: The most important conversations are difficult to have. We wanted to create a respectful environment where different opinions, ideas and approaches could come together to be challenged, promoting understanding, education and cohesion. It was an environment to be asked questions, ask questions and not feel stupid, to be angry, to celebrate, and to learn together, acknowledging that no-one has all the answers.

Multiple Voices: The team was made up of 12 women with a range of perspectives, experiences, skills and personal aims within their own work. We came together naturally around shared ideals and drives to create what we thought was an important space for the city, with the team not limited to one demographic. This naturally lead to a range of programming that spoke to people of different ages, ethnicities, faiths, and industries.

Creativity at the Heart: Whilst featuring many academic talks, workshops and microlectures, the thread running through this work was absolutely the inherent power of creativity to break down barriers. The evening saw music and spoken word that cut through big ideas and challenges to unlock feelings and a sense of understanding, nurturing a powerful empathy. A DIY exhibition adorning the space showcased artwork from across the world openly submitted in response to the theme, inviting multiple forms of expression as part of the conversation.

The Response

With over 100 visitors engaging with the festival, many expressed in person and via social media that the day had been of importance to them. The atmosphere was electric, and the hashtag for the day trended on twitter, continuing to be a way to connect dialogues across the city.

“Today I saw beauty, heard wisdom, embraced difficult ideas and new concepts, felt angry, and found hope. Thank you

“Hats off to the team – they’ve curated a really important, safe & warm space for people to honestly explore in 

“The community and amazing events the community curates is like a beautiful university which is open to all

would love to help hold a safe space in Bristol.

“This workshop is deep!! The footage I’m viewing is profound.

“A lot of the gatekeepers feel alienated because they don’t talk like you. it’s not about a power shift, but equality & truth”

“Amazing moves the mind and soul with – phenomenal congrats to the amazing team! Experience & believe”

“Yesterday’s event is the best of its kind I’ve ever been to. My brain is still buzzing with ideas and conversations – so often these kinds of events revolve around academic types who are far removed from our communities and clearly only there to hustle/make their coin, despite their ostensibly liberal/socilaist inclinations. Truly healing and optimistic beginning for what I hope will be an ongoing thing.”

“We can’t change our future by writing on or echo chambers – we got to go out & demonstrate a new reality

“The speakers and participants addressed monoculture and challenged us all to rethink our perspective by discussing a range of issues including identity, forms of activism, cultural norms, structures, institutions such as museums and our own wellbeing. As Immy Kaur stated during the event, it is important to create a space where people can experiment with presenting new and/or difficult, provocative ideas on this subject. The event created just that kind of space.” – Diversity, Superdiversity, Decolonise Not Diversify’ by Dr Annette Naudin

We want to say thank you from the bottom of our hearts to everyone who joined us: as speakers, hosts, performers, participants, stallholders & more.

What’s Next?

This conversation was not just for Black History Month. After one day packed with food for thought, we are far from done, and have learnt so much from coming together to host this event, including where we want to push and pull this dialogue, and how we might continue the energy whilst inviting more people into the conversation, as well as connecting to more and more artists, practitioners, doers and thinkers that we would love to collaborate with. Since the festival, members of the team have continued with their ongoing work, and there are plenty of ways to stay connected.

  • Herstory LIVE led by Artivists launched a Black Lives Matter Brum exhibition at Centrala in October, which will be moving to 3 Threes, starting tomorrow and running until 23rd November. Find out more.
  • UNMUTED continue to host important QTIPOC meet-ups with their November Meet Up taking place on 29th November.
  • mOmhead have hosted their second Girl’s Night In, with a third, a Move Night Special, scheduled for Friday 2nd December.
  • SKbyDesign is launching a weekly Designs of the Diaspora course here from Thursday 17th November, with tickets still available to explore and learn about the patterns found in Islamic art and architecture from different parts of the globe.

To find out more about the full team behind the event and to keep up with their projects, visit artagainstthegrain.tumblr.com/about

We are currently looking at the next steps for Art Against The Grain, and in the meantime we will be screening Generation Revolution at Impact Hub Birmingham on Thursday 24th November, followed by a panel discussion with the film’s producers and director in addition to Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman, Visiting Scholar at Birmingham City University (Black Studies) and local activists Shamam Murad and Ashanty Alves. Find out more / book.

To share your thoughts, ideas, rants and reflections on all things #DecoloniseBrum:
drop us an e-mail, or join the conversation using #DecoloniseBrum on twitter.

Artwork pictured by Sukina Pilgrim.