PROFESSIONALISED, INDIVIDUALISED ART SPEAKS ONLY TO THE DEAD: CLEAR VISONS WILL ONLY COME FROM THE PERIPHERY: Hassan Mahamdallie, British theatre director, playwright, political and investigative journalist
Michael: You spoke at one point about the necessity to make visible those that were invisible and then you spoke quite a lot about the actual visionary power that those on the periphery have and can deploy, and that it should in fact be utilised. Could you talk a little bit more about that power of the periphery?
Hassan: Although I don’t usually talk in these terms, but if you talk about common humanity, let’s talk about it in terms of the environment or the Age of the Anthropocene which we are supposed to be going through: there are these big problems which we face as a species. Where do you go to try and find a solution? It seems to me that most of our effort is either divided into ignoring that there is a problem (which is locked into some kind of circular argument), or trying to find a solution, but we always try to find solutions in the wrong place. You and I know that clarity comes from the unexpected sources. Trouble is, that as a society, and this is affecting arts and culture, the unexpected sources are the ones that we usually try to erase from the conversation to begin with. So if we do want to find a path out of the crisis that we are in we have to find a way of placing some value in those unexpected places, in those unexpected people, otherwise the crisis will go on to whatever the consequences are. So you and I know that when actually as a journalist you talk to people who have been through a process, like a mother whose child has been killed by the police, and she decides to campaign about it, usually when you talk to those people, although they are thrust into a situation that is not of their making, often times you find they do have a kind of clarity about them. Maybe it is because they are kind of seeing the world for the first time in its entirety whereas in the rest of their life they didn’t really have to; they’re at a vantage point, or they are forced to being at a vantage point where suddenly they have a clarity on what’s around them, they see all the power relations between people in a completely different way. Those are the people that it seems to me that we need to go to. It’s not because I fetishise them, it’s because I truly believe that that’s where the solutions to some of the problems we face are going to be found – yet we spend vast amounts of time either trying to ignore that there’s a problem in the first place or looking to the wrong people to try and solve the issues. So there has to be some kind of radical shift in focus and power towards those people for us to get out of the impasse that we are in; and that’s my basic understanding, then I try and translate what that might look like on the cultural field. That’s why I developed these different ways of looking at how artistic or cultural values are generated.
Michael: But you’ve also indicated that this is not just a problem about the centre and about the machinery of the arts industry as industry and its dominance and elitism but there are some fatal flaws within the arts and the artistic community itself: perhaps too much self-valorisation, and perhaps not enough reflection that the arts have been and continue to be used in some pretty injurious ways – and not just in terms of creating or manufacturing a dominant culture, but actually promoting prejudicial messages. Can you talk a little bit about, maybe, “evil art”?
Hassan: Well, it’s not so much that. I suppose that artistic expression is expression of the ego or the id or whatever it is, it’s a very self-centred thing, yeah? So, I think artists unless they check themselves continually literally believe that they are the centre of valued human activity and have incredible self-regard. I understand that’s what you need to go on stage, you need a certain amount of self-regard to think that something you have to say is of interest to someone else or can make a difference or whatever it might be, and of course that’s what motivates you. But I think we artists have to hold in check somehow, balance out, that egotism with some kind of awareness of where they sit within a spectrum of change; that’s the first thing. Secondly, I believe that artists can sketch out possibilities and put them before an audience, but they are part of a process and the process starts with social change. So if you look through the history, let’s say from 1968 onwards, you look at Europe and the radical events of 1968, art lagged behind the social processes; it does, it tends to lag behind, so for artists to say “we are the generator or originator of social change” is I think is plain wrong.
Michael: Well that I find very interesting because that would be counter-intuitive to a lot of people who present as artists, particularly those who present as arts activists or as “artivists”, this presumption that they are, because of their intellectual acuity or whatever, they somehow are the vanguard of social change. And you have posited a very different position in saying that they can’t really be that; they need to be enabled by other people and other socially advanced sectors in order to become those provocateurs.
Hassan: I believe that, yeah. I mean I have worked in arts for a long time and I value the arts, I love being in the arts, but that’s the conclusion I have come to, you know what I mean? I don’t believe artists are always progressive; I mean the notion of being liberal and progressive I think are both contested terms these days; they’ve kind of turned into their opposite, let’s put it that way. So the liberals and the progressives can be as elitist or intolerant as people that they think they are on the opposite side of the spectrum to. For example, most of the liberal elite in France has turned out to be the Islamophobic vanguard in French society, in terms of hoisting up la cité [the city] as some kind of enduring product of the Enlightenment or the French bourgeois revolution or whatever it is. So, that’s suspect. But also when ordinary people in London look at artists, right, they may look at them in different ways: some will look at them and say “they are very removed from us” as middle class or whatever. But also if you look at the social cleansing of London from what it was, which was mixed working class and bourgeois neighbourhoods living side by side or integrated as it were fifty or a hundred years ago, it’s been socially cleansed completely so that London is becoming a bourgeois playground rather than a place were working class people live out their lives, and certain areas which had been very poor were cleansed by property developers and the poor forced out to the margins, and the shock troops of that process of gentrification have been artists who have gone in first to these poor areas, rented warehouses, produced their art. That has primed those areas for redevelopment, forcing poor people out.
Michael: Is there any self-awareness about this? I mean not in any analytical way, but just in terms of maybe a class adherence?
Hassan: No I don’t think there is a self-awareness, and partly because it is buttressed by certain arguments which have confirmed for the artists that they are in this special, wonderful place, right? So the old argument about creative cities, that you regenerate creative cities through artists and culture and stuff like that, that is the ideological underpinning for what these people have done. So what I am saying is that there is no particular reason that artists should think of themselves as being on the side of the angels. Now, I am hyper-critical in one sense because I care about art so much, but the lack of self-awareness is incredible, and partly it’s a reflection of class confidence because the arts particularly in the UK – though I’m sure it’s the same everywhere else – is become more and more the profession of not just middle class at it might have been in the past but of the upper middle class. There is a survey done in the UK about the demographic around artists and it’s clearly becoming a much more rarefied profession than it ever was. I came into the arts for the first time as a professional in 1984, right? I’m one of the very few working class artists that came through that generation, yeah? There’s absolutely no way that an equivalent of me today in 2018 would have got into the arts, into an acting job, into a paid career as an actor and then a director. So it’s becoming more rarefied, it’s becoming more homogenous.
Michael: And that’s because of these gatekeepers?
Hassan: Yeah, partly, and partly it’s to do with as state arts funding has contracted over the years, those people have clung onto their positions of privilege. And in one sense, the more of those arguments around that there should be more diversity and quality in the arts, the more there is a kind of rear-guard action by those guys, not as individuals but as a social class, to actually protect what they think is theirs – and they believe that the arts is theirs. So to be conscious as an artist, you have to be in one sense hyper-critical because there is an immense amount of complacency that I think we have to shake ourselves out of.
Michael: So there is a distinct class of people who view art as their patrimony, their personal patrimony? And I am using the masculine word deliberately here. Could you talk a little about the intersections of gender and class and race within this context?
Hassan: If you look at the patterns of who works in the arts, what positions they have in the arts, how the arts are structured, clearly to me the arts are structured to make it easy for middle class people to exist within the arts. It’s structured generally for men to have the highest positions in the arts and if you look at it clearly that’s what happens, you know what I mean. You think about a lot of professions, for example dance, how it’s probably gendered in terms of women – and a lot of the arts are gendered in terms of women being the majority part of the workforce – but at the top at the managerial level are men. So male choreographers, male curators…
Michael: Journalism is pretty similar.
Hassan: Yeah, exactly, because in its substance, it’s the same class occupying all those professions. So you do find it gendered, you find it in terms of race, you find it in terms of disability. I mean, it’s incredible really when you think of it that Western visual art is dominated by visions of a version of the human body that probably goes back to ancient Greece, yeah? The visual arts does take on big themes like mortality and what it is to be human, all these kinds of things, but it completely erases, it homogenises the body into this kind of notion of the perfect body, so immediately in dance, who can be a dancer, who can’t be a dancer, who has “a dancer’s body”? There are very few artists who step outside that zone and look at the body in all its forms, so disability is ever-present but not necessarily in a good way in the history of art. So you find that disability has to continually force itself onto the agenda in the arts, whereas really it seems to me that disabled people have a lot to say about the question of humanity, what it is to be human, mortality, to survive as an outsider, whole issues of mental health and all these kinds of things, right? These are really central questions that we need to be addressing but the people who have a good vantage point in terms of addressing those questions are locked out of the arts. One thing I do see is that the arts is incredibly over-professionalised: in the UK for example, in order to be a visual artist you have to have an MA; even administrators have masters’ degrees in the visual arts, so it’s incredibly rarefied, professionalised, because the middle class likes to have a profession. A hundred and twenty years ago, in the middle of London, what’s the most popular form of art? Music-hall. All the other arts were just things that the bourgeois did in their little private clubs and museums. The biggest art-form was music-hall which was the dregs of society hauling itself onto the stage and debasing and making a mockery out of itself and all of society; that was the most popular art form, you know what I mean? That was an outsider art form.
Michael: So art as craftspersonship has deliberately been downgraded and transmuted into this more rarefied creature?
Hassan: Yeah, it’s a profession.
Michael: What about the current, or it’s certainly very current in Africa, neo-colonial debate? To what extent has art, even now – and we’ve just heard the suggestion from Meriam that Picasso wouldn’t be tolerated in this day and age in the conventional halls of art – to what degree has art in the West acknowledged its heritage in Africa, or the East, or elsewhere? Or to what extent has there been any admission of that or access to that or transformation by that, or to what extent is it trying to pretend that it is hermetically sealed?
Hassan: I mean I think if you talk about the history of modernism in art, if you have any ounce of intelligence you will understand that the major ideas around it, the conceptual ideas around it originated in Africa. There is no doubt about that, obviously, if you talk about Picasso.
Michael: And yet you will go to Paris and you will have exhibitions of African art that will be called “arts primitifs.”
Hassan: [Laughs] Yeah, the French are good at that, aren’t they? They are crazily, racistly honest. But if you look at sculpture, if you look at the history of modernism, clearly, it borrows or is inspired by symbolic representation in African art particularly. I mean if you talk about the West, you talk about West Africa which is obviously where – and there is a big row on now about the Benin bronzes, of which there are ten thousand or something in the British Museum, locked away in their archives, whether they should be returned to Nigeria as it is now, and of course it should be. But no-one talks about how those bronzes stolen from Benin in army raids many hundred years ago triggered or laid the foundations for European modernism.
Michael: And even before that, if I may, if you look at the Ife sculptures: there was no such thing approaching that level of skill in Europe of the time which was the Mediaeval Era. You could say both Europe and Africa were going through a Mediaeval phase at that point but conceptually Europeans could not sculpt like that; they had these very wooden, formulaic, boxlike figures.
Hassan: Yeah, it’s true. If you talk about European visitors to Benin for example in the 16th Century, one of them gong to Benin City and saying “this is the most advanced city I have ever seen,” because he was Dutch, “comparable to Amsterdam.” If you like, the west of Africa was as developed, probably more than Europe was at the time, and in one sense it’s the irony that those African civilisations had to be destroyed for Europe to progress itself, and that’s the kernel of it. Also, if you look at the Enlightenment, it is quite clear that, the caricature of the Western European Enlightenment being put across at the moment by ideologies bears no comparison to what actually happened in the Enlightenment. And as everyone knows now, if they don’t acknowledge, is that much of the knowledge and understanding of philosophy and medicine that laid the foundations for the European Enlightenment came from the Arab world, which in itself built upon ancient Roman and Greek philosophies and then developed and translated, it found its way into Europe, right? Oxford University is full of Arabic archives, which was the foundation of European learning because the Arabic texts were the salvation of European learning. They even have Europeanised names for Islamic scholars and philosophers. So all this is clear to anyone who has an ounce of understanding about history – but we live in a society that is in complete denial about that, and you have to ask yourself why? Why is it in complete denial about its roots? And partly I think it’s because of the rise of the nation state in the West and what needs to be done to make a nation into a nation. You probably have more sophisticated concepts than what I have in relation to South Africa, but the nation state arises in a state of denial about its past, the foundation of the nation state is always a founding myth, yeah, and in one sense that myth, that falsehood is coming back to bite Europe on its arse.
Michael: So in that particular storm that we are in at the moment and sitting on that cusp with this reversion to these myths, you suggested that there was almost like a functional role for art to perform in service of that broader progressive project in challenging that myth.
Hassan: Everyone knows, it’s a kind of consensus, that if you are in the middle of something you have a distorted perspective of it. We’re in the middle of a storm in the Western world, but all we can feel is the sound and the fury, signifying nothing, to use Shakespeare. But clearly there are other people in the world that do not have this notion that they belong to the greatest civilisation in the world – what Europeans are prone to believe about ourselves – who have a much clearer vision about what’s going on. I mean, I spoke in my speech about this Palestinian guy I know: he has a clear vision about the confusions that the UK are going through at the moment which it seems to me that very few people have. He’s a complete outsider, he’s a very talented guy and he makes a living for himself, but who asks him what he has to think about what’s going on in the UK at the moment? No-one’s going to ask him – but if you did ask him, you are going to find out some extraordinary things. As I say, it’s about looking for these extraordinary people in these extraordinary places that if anything is going to progress us, it is people like that. What you find is, maybe it’s true historically, is that the more society plunges itself into crisis, the more it turns in on itself, so every viewpoint in that society is a very individualised viewpoint. So in theatre for example, there are so many plays about what I would call formations of identity, on all sides, but they are all tiny, tiny stories. If I go and see another one-woman show about “me and my mum” or “me and my grandmum” and slideshow of “my grandmum in World War Two” or black-and-white photo of “the grandmum I didn’t know”…
Michael: So this is the loss of the social?
Hassan: Yeah, it’s an individualistic outlook that is reflected through theatre and the visual arts, and I don’t know about other art-forms; maybe music is a bit more immune to it because it’s a much more diffuse art-form. But if I hear another individualised story about how important my life is, I’ll throw myself off of a cliff! But what is it reflecting? It’s reflecting this turning in on ourselves. What’s going to be the counter-force that stops us turning in on ourselves? It’s going to have to be what we have labelled as “the other” as a derogatory label. It’s not going to come from within: if it was going to come from within we’d be sorting ourselves out already, but we’re not. The other thing is that if you look at the arts in the West is that they’re talking to society that no longer exists – if it ever did – and it’s the most extraordinary thing if you just sit back and look at what world is the art world, and I’m talking in general terms here, who is it communicating with? It’s communicating with the dead, with the past! And that is the most extraordinary dysfunction in terms of the role of art in human history, to be talking literally to the dead as though they were alive in this kind of post-colonial nostalgia that infects the bricks and mortar of European society, this notion of greatness and such-like, they are literally talking to a society that no longer exists. Now that is really weird for someone who analyses the social function of art in terms of its dialogue with society. It’s the most extraordinary spectacle, but nobody wants to say it; it’s like The Emperor’s New Clothes, it’s bizarre!