03 June 2010
A few days ago I attended an evening debate at the Tate Britain to coincide with the launch of the thought-provoking and skilful art piece by Yinka Shonibare MBE on the fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square. The debate entitled Message in a bottle – debating multiculturalism in the arts was conducted by an eclectic panel of four people and Yinka and chaired by Kwame Kwei-Armah.
I expected a debate that examined and perhaps critiqued the influences of multicultural Britain as reflected in art – such as Yinka's Message in a bottle. However the debate turned into an exchange of socio-political perspectives, polarised by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Munira Mirza, and finely stirred by an audience that was still getting over our recent election. During the entire session it seemed that neither the chair nor fellow panelist Mathew Taylor, could escape being embroiled in the exchange. However for me the only sense came from the man himself, Yinka.
The issue of whether the arts benefit from measures to include “the other” (I hate BAME, BME, and all of those boxes!) was neatly answered by Yinka who drew attention to the seal on the bottle which was marked “Y.S MBE”. It seems few people in the room noted this statement. If it were not for those who championed the rights of the minorities, and pushed for inclusivity talented artists like Yinka would not have the opportunities to show their talent and be recognised by an MBE. The statement itself brought to mind the issue of education “the haves, and have nots”, and the fact that with the removal of university fees, many have no chance. I expected a debate on the multicultural access to art. The idea that someone with no higher education has less appreciation of art, stately homes or museums, is still prevalent among the trustees, some directors, and many curators. The fact that this disadvantaged group includes the working class, low income groups, people with mental and physical disabilities and people of all hues seems irrelevant to the gate-keepers. Whose art and whose heritage is it anyway? Surely the point must be how to make sure that art is accessible to all. I personally do not think that this is being done across board in London or in many other parts of the country.
So what do I see in Yinka’s piece. Well the fact that the Victory is pointing towards Nelson’s Column is apt. At the base of the column is a brass panel featuring Nelson’s death – and clear as anything is the man of African heritage on that panel – part of the crew of the victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. So for me Yinka’s work is about reclaiming the multicultural place of “the other” in history.