Culture& Interview with Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp CBE, FRSA, Former Director of the Africa Centre

Kenneth is a key figure in the UK arts and culture scene, with close to 40 years professional experience in the sector. He began his career as a dancer; as one of the leading dance artists of his generation, he performed for 13 years with the internationally-acclaimed London Contemporary Dance Theatre and then with other leading companies during a 25-year career as a performer, choreographer, teacher and director. From 2007 to 2016, he was Chief Executive of The Place, the UK’s leading centre for contemporary dance development. From May 2018 to September 2020, he was Director of The Africa Centre, in its new home in Southwark, London. He is currently working as a Freelance Arts & Culture Consultant.In 2003 Kenneth was made an OBE in recognition of his services to dance, and in June 2017 was made a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list, also in recognition of his services to dance.

 

It’s Black History Month in the UK this month. What are your thoughts on the occasion within the wider context of Black Lives Matter? What does the occasion mean to you?

Over the past few years, some of my friends and professional colleagues have joked in the run-up to Black History Month, with comments such as “I hope you’re taking your vitamins; you’re going to need them!” Such banter is a nod to the fact that as a person of colour, your October diary is likely to be crammed full of one BHM event after another. It’s not uncommon to have more than one event on the same evening. It’s like gearing up for a marathon. With that comes a strange combination of excitement and weariness and perhaps the wish from some, that such activity could be more evenly spread across the year.

So my immediate thought is that whilst Black History Month has a very positive role to play, in turning the spotlight onto the often overlooked and rarely celebrated achievements and contributions that significant numbers of the Black, Asian and ethnically diverse communities have made to society, there is also something problematic about the implicit notion that by having a Black History ‘Month’, such important stories remain out of the spotlight for the other eleven months of the year. My guess is that was never the original intention, which was rather to use that month to amplify Black History and Black people, but in reality, in too many settings I suspect that November heralds return back to a normal version of life, and that that ‘normal’ is often left wanting in terms of visibility and representation of Black lives and culture.

In these past months, one thing that both the pandemic and the huge escalation of the Black Lives Matter movement have in common, is that they have both served to highlight and amplify existing inequalities.

As such, the context of a heightened sensitivity, and greater awareness and understanding of systematic racism, white privilege, and the huge disparities faced by so many within the Black, Asian and ethnically diverse communities, a month-long celebration on its own cannot help but be woefully inadequate in addressing the larger issues that require consistent and persistent attention.

There is a long game to be played here too. Tokenism, superficial gestures, and a part-time nod to the contributions of people of colour are no longer acceptable. How can I put it? In the same way that a puppy is not just for Christmas, Black lives need to matter all year round.

That said, this month has already seen some brilliant programming from some of the broadcasters, and online providers, and I don’t want to take anything away from that.

Some of my favourites have included: Black Classical Music: The Forgotten History – BBC Four; Rocks, and The Last Tree – Netflix; Black and British: A Forgotten History – BBC Two; and Mo Gilligan: Black, British and Funny – Channel 4.

We do have to avoid a situation where people in the Black community see themselves fully represented for a few weeks, and then are starved of content for the rest of the year.

Just this afternoon, I find myself reading that a new survey by the Creative Diversity Network, of 30,000 respondents shows that fewer than 2% of writers working in British TV identify as Black, and people of colour are vastly under-represented in decision-making roles, and in key creative positions – such as writing rooms.

It’s clear that the systemic, structural issues that need addressing cannot be solved in a month. If we are serious about change, then it is beholden of organisations and companies to recognise the urgency around addressing systemic issues. At the same time it’s imperative to avoid knee-jerk responses to the Black Lives Matter agenda, that are merely cosmetic and do little to alter the status quo. They should work instead to put in place meaningful commitments and strategies that will begin to address the systemic issues in a committed and sustainable way that will lead to lasting change.

By way of example, starting this month UK Theatre, Society of London Theatres, and Inc Arts, are holding a fully accessible online anti-racism conference, across several sessions, giving an opportunity to speak, listen, reset, and heal, and with a view to rebuilding a theatre and dance sector with inclusion at its core.

Education is also one of the most important tools at our disposal, to begin to address entrenched views, and systemic racism. I’m extremely disappointed that the current government has shown no interest in, nor made any meaningful commitment to decolonising the curriculum. Whilst we are told schools are free to teach British Colonial History, the possibility that any young person can leave school and not have, as a matter of course, an understanding of such a significant part of our nation’s impact on the world, is for me a significant concern.

The historian who has done much to reframe our national narrative through a different lens, is David Olusoga. He is right when he asserts that Black British History is not just for Black people; it is our shared history. The history of slavery, British colonialism and the legacy of the British Empire is a huge part of that shared history. But these are histories that need telling with greater honesty, and with a greater inclusiveness, that ensures that Black lives and Black voices are seen and heard, and are part of the discourse.

I’ve witnessed earnest panel debates about such things such as The Conference of Berlin (1884/85), otherwise known as ‘the scramble for Africa’, where not a single Black academic, let alone a Black-African, was at the table. Just as there were no Africans at the table when the Europeans sat round that table in Berlin and carved up the continent for their own exploitation, here we are, more than a century and a quarter later, and the people who were most affected by those decisions to colonise the African continent, are still not invited to the table to discuss that history, and its legacy, which is still being lived out today.

If we are not honest about our collective history, how can we progress? And if we cannot treat our own citizens with dignity and respect, i.e. the Windrush scandal, and the perpetuation of the hostile environment policies, then how can we expect to build the strong trading relationships that we need with for example the African nations. A recent House of Lords report, published in June, highlighted the fact that British domestic policy was harming our international relations.

So in summary, for me, Black History Month is a moment for celebration and for giving visibility to the special, the beautiful, and the hidden, but it also serves as a reminder of just how much there is to do, to make what only happens once a year, to become the norm throughout the year. However good Black History Month is, who wants to feel that they are wearing a cloak of invisibility for the remaining 11 months of the year? Black lives need to matter 365 days a year.

 

What advice would you give to young Black people who are interested in pursuing a career in the arts and culture sector?

In general terms, if I were to give advice to a young person interested in pursuing a career in the arts and culture sector, I think my advice would largely be the same, regardless of ethnicity.

I would say that if they are looking to earn a large salary, there are other areas where that will be more readily available. But in terms of satisfaction, and the potential to have a rich, rewarding and varied career, then I’d say there are plenty of opportunities within the creative industries. (Obviously the environment has changed dramatically since the onset of this current global pandemic, so I would probably need to re-examine some of my own thinking).

However, I am mindful, particularly within the Black, Asian, and ethnically diverse communities, that the idea of a career in the Creative Industries, or Performing Arts, is often challenging, particularly where the views of parents are concerned.

Many of us who have grown up with one or more African or Caribbean parents, have experienced a version of ‘the careers talk’ that points you in the direction of a few acceptable career choices. As Gina Yashere, the British-Nigerian comedian explains – “African family, you’ve got four choices of career – doctor, lawyer, engineer, disgrace to the family!”

Amongst my own siblings, we have a doctor, lawyer and a software engineer. I was the only one of my siblings who chose an artistic path, spending the first 25 years of my career in the performing arts as a dancer, choreographer, teacher and director and then another nine years as CEO of a contemporary dance organisation.

I wouldn’t necessarily say it is my job to proselytise on behalf of the creative industries, however, I make no secret of the fact that I’m a firm believer in any young person being encouraged to follow their passions and their curiosity.

So, if I were to talk to a younger person, especially if they were encountering parental resistance, I might begin with finding out what they already know about the field they are interested in. I might share some facts with them, and ask them if they know that prior to the pandemic, according to the Creative Industries Federation, the UK’s creative industries were growing at five times the rate of the economy as a whole, the fastest growing sector, contributing £111.7bn in GVA (Gross Value Added), and creating jobs at three times the UK average.

It’s been predicted that with the rapid advance of artificial intelligence, many jobs will become obsolete over the next 10 years. Jobs within the creative sector are thought to be much more immune to those changes. I think the notion of what a secure job is, has changed, and is still changing. But sometimes, our own thinking, as well as the mindset of our parents, may not yet have caught up.

Fortunately, I’m no longer the only one in my family to have chosen a career in performing arts. One of my nephews graduated from Mountview theatre school five years ago and hasn’t stopped work since. When I asked his Dad, my brother, why he had felt comfortable allowing his son to choose that pathway, he replied that he felt certain that a young person is more likely to succeed in the thing they feel most passionate about. Another nephew is producing brilliant music, alongside his day job in the tech sector. I’m extremely proud of them both.

 

The recent Black Lives Matter movement has shone a light on many societal issues, including an increasing exodus of Black people from the creative industry. How would you encourage those thinking of leaving, to stay?

The creative sectors are under enormous threat as a result of the pandemic, and our government’s response to it, which in spite of its much trumpeted £1.57bn cultural recovery package, has failed to acknowledge, and act upon the vital importance of the freelance sector to the creative industries, allowing a huge proportion of the workforce to go completely unsupported since the start of the pandemic. The creative industries are in crisis. Venues are closing and we are facing mass redundancies. And I fear the worst is yet to come.

Not only is this likely to have a devastating effect on the creative sector, unless it is very quickly addressed, we will see a mass exodus of talent and expertise built up over years, and with that a likely negative impact on the diversity of the workforce. This would be like turning the clock back on all the progress that has been made.

Inc Arts, run by the brilliant Amanda Parker, have been doing a huge amount of important work this year to better understand and support the sector.

Included in their research on the impact of COVID on the diverse arts workforce are the observations that:

  • Ethnically diverse people are under-represented in the arts sector, are over-represented amongst the arts freelance community,
  • and in roles that provide significant leverage to organisations around community engagement, education, audience development and training – but not in roles that lead to leadership positions.
  • Ethnically diverse led organisations are heavily invested in creating diverse work teams, and output, as well as engaging with diverse communities. They are more likely to be under-resourced, and under-funded, yet add significant value to the diversity offerings of larger institutions.

These point to systemic issues that could be further worsened by the financial insecurity of both organisations and individuals.

In that context, it is hard to think of anything I could helpfully say to convince those who are thinking of leaving, when this is something they may simply have no choice over, in order to earn a living, keep themselves fed, and keep a roof over their heads.

For those that are in a position to remain within the creative sector, I’d want to say “please play an active role, and be part of helping to drive the change that is needed”.

What are your thoughts on the Culture& Black Lives Matter Charter for the UK heritage sector? Which point do you think is most crucial to effecting change in the arts?

I think the charter contains a well-considered and appropriate set of recommendations to help address systemic racism.  It’s hard to pluck one thing out as being more important than the others, because holistic change as suggested by this charter requires a balanced and comprehensive approach.

Perhaps it is worth adding, that for me, the most important ingredient, that sits before and above all of this, is education. We need to ensure that future generations of people entering the arts and heritage workforce already come with a different mindset. I would use this opportunity to reassert my conviction that decolonising the curriculum within school education is absolutely essential. Only then will the future leaders and decision-makers within our cultural spaces, be able to see and hear with different eyes and ears.

On a parallel note, I did read the Museum Association’s response to a recent letter by Secretary of State Oliver Dowden, in which they expressed concern about a potential threat to the arm’s length principle, and the need to safeguard their editorial integrity in programming and interpretation and:

”…resist attempts to influence interpretation or content by particular interest groups, including lenders, donors and funders.

In these challenging times we believe that all museums must be able to make decisions relating to the care, presentation and interpretation of our cultural heritage in discussion with their communities. This principle is a vital factor in ensuring that museums build and retain public trust and act as responsible and responsive public institutions.

The MA is therefore:

Urging the UK Government to respect the arm’s-length principle for museums”

This of course makes perfect sense, and I would be concerned at any interference from government that threatened to undermine the arm’s length principle or encroach upon the editorial integrity of museums and galleries.

 

We have been living through challenging times as we continue to navigate life in the age of coronavirus. How have you managed these difficulties in your daily life?

Where do I begin?

The shortest answer, is, that I have coped, like everyone else, to the best of my ability, in the most challenging, uncertain and unprecedented circumstances.

Whilst working from home, and getting used to the online culture of virtual meetings, took some getting used to, it’s amazing how quickly we’ve all adapted. Phrases like “I’m zoomed out”, have quickly become common parlance.

Last week I was facilitating a Black History Month conversation with six dancers from The Royal Ballet. With my own dance background, I was keen to learn how they had met the challenges of trying to keep at peak performance, whilst training in their kitchens and living rooms. It’s certainly been challenging for them, but they’ve had a lot of first-class support, from physios, coaches, pilates instructors, and even being sent squares of dance linoleum, so they no longer had to dance on carpet or wooden floors. It’s been great to begin to see dancers back in training, and returning to the stage, albeit with very limited audiences or with extra reliance on  virtual audiences.

In the first weeks of lockdown, I quickly became aware of the shortcomings of not having the right equipment at home. Fortunately, my work place was able to send me a laptop, and I found that having two screens (the 2nd being a tablet) was essential, one for the Zoom call, the other for documents that one might be referring to.

I also experienced a particular kind of anxiety, which was related to the uncertainty and unpredictability of the strength of someone’s internet connection. (I wonder if the Danes have a word for that yet?) Finding oneself frozen in the middle of a call or unable to participate at the vital moment was a new kind of workplace terror! Of course, at times it was quite funny. And we’ve all had to learn a new etiquette for those virtual meetings and learnt how to try and avoid the obvious pitfalls.

For me it was very strange in my leisure time, not going to the theatre frequently or attending concerts. I guess I’m a cultural animal at heart, so suddenly been confined to the virtual world was a shock at first. If there was a silver lining in all of this, I guess it was not having to travel in rush hour, not staying out late, being able to watch spring and summer unfold, enjoying clear skies, less pollution and a silence that is rare in London, as everything came to a standstill. I found the lack of physical exercise very hard at first, I normally play anything between 3 to 6 hours tennis per week, so I was very relieved when we were finally able to get back on court. In the meantime, short local cycle rides helped.

I’ve had the same thought on a number of occasions, throughout this period, which is that if my parents lives where largely defined by the Second World War, then perhaps the lives of this generation will be defined by the pandemic and the events of this year, and what follows as a result. I say that, because it’s hard to think of anything else other than perhaps the arrival of the Internet, that has had such a global impact, and I can’t think of anything whose impact took place so instantaneously. Of course, it’s way too early to predict, only time will tell, what the lasting effects of this moment will be on all of us in the years ahead.

 

You led the Africa Centre as CEO for over two years. What is your proudest achievement during your tenure?

In some ways, it still seems very early to answer this question, as I only stopped work at The Africa Centre last month. Perhaps with more distance, my views on this might change. However, I suppose two things that spring to mind immediately as achievements, are firstly, helping the organisation secure £1.6 million of funding from the Mayor of London’s Good Growth Fund, towards the re-development of The Africa Centre’s four-storey building in Southwark, into a new home for contemporary African culture and heritage. This happened in my first seven months in post and felt notable because there was no established fundraising within the organisation, prior to my appointment.

And I guess the second related thing, was leading the tender process that led to the appointment of the London-based architects Freehaus, to lead the design process, and working alongside them to champion the design process, both internally and externally with the many different stakeholders; and throughout that journey, feeling absolutely confident that we had appointed the right architect firm.

Of course, having been made redundant at the beginning of September, with the major capital projects on the cusp of commencing, it is hard not to feel a huge sense of unfinished business, relating to my former role as Director of The Africa Centre. One other idea that was very close to my heart, was my desire to launch an African Community Choir. This is something that I felt would help bind the organisation to its local community, and which by its nature would have been cultural, social, and educational all at the same time, speaking directly to three of The Africa Centre’s five fundamental pillars of activity. COVID-19 rather put paid to that idea in the short term, but I do hope that that idea may materialise in the future, even in my absence.

It’s easy to talk of money and material things, as measures of success, but I think the other thing I am proud of was my efforts to draw people to The Africa Centre; to convince them why the organisation mattered, to build trust, build partnerships, and grow friends and allies across the cultural sector and beyond. We formed closer relationships with other black-led organisations such as Black Cultural Archives or organisations that others might perceive of as competitors, such as the Royal African Society, but my firm view is that there is more to be gained by strengthening ties and finding ways to work together. In  the end I found myself repeating constantly the message that at The Africa Centre, we  were not simply building bricks and mortar but with the help of all our supporters, we wanted to create, a powerful sense of community, putting the people at the heart of everything we do. I gave the organisation the challenge of becoming the most welcoming cultural space in London.

 

As a cultural leader and patron of the arts, you have been involved in a number of projects including most recently as Chair of Judges for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing. What have you enjoyed most about being on the panel?

Being appointed as Chair of the judging panel for the AKO Caine Prize for African writing was a huge honour, and also proved to be an immensely joyful and fulfilling experience as well. It brought me and my fellow judges into contact with a huge wealth of writing talent, as we read over 180 short stories from across the African continent and the diaspora, many of which captured our imaginations and our hearts.

During our deliberations it was fascinating to see these stories anew, through the eyes of my fellow judges, Audrey, Ebissé, James and Gabriel, each of whom brought a unique sensibility and their own particular points of view to the table. That in itself, was an education and a privilege.

It was a challenge, with my day job, to find the time to undertake such a significant amount of reading, so I had to be very disciplined, waking early, and sometimes finishing late into the evening, but of course the reward was to have encountered such an extraordinarily rich and diverse pool of writing. The reality is that many of those stories of have stayed with me, and have left their indelible mark, and are now somehow part of my interior landscape (that sounds really pretentious doesn’t it!), and I am very grateful for all of that.

At this moment in time, we need the voices of African writers more than ever, to remind us all that there could never be just one story of Africa and Africans. There are many stories, as rich and diverse as that vast continent and her extensive diaspora.

 

You are also a Trustee at the Chineke! Foundation and New Adventures. Tell us about both organisations and if they have any exciting projects in the coming months?

Yes, I am very happy and proud to be a Trustee of both Chineke! and New Adventures.

For those that don’t know, New Adventures is the dance company founded by choreographer Sir Matthew Bourne.

Sir Matthew Bourne OBE is widely hailed as the UK’s most popular and successful choreographer and director. For over 30 years he has been creating and directing dance for musicals, theatre, film as well as his own highly successful, award-winning companies.

New Adventures is an iconic and ground-breaking British dance-theatre company, famous for telling stories with a unique theatrical twist. For over 30 years Matthew Bourne and New Adventures have delighted, inspired and nurtured people of all ages and backgrounds: audiences, artists and the next generation, creating world class productions and engaging projects, reaching thousands worldwide every year.

As a result of the pandemic, this year will be the first time in 18 years that New Adventures will not be perform its usual sell-out Christmas season at Sadler’s Wells. The pandemic has had a huge impact on touring and performances, but the company is not sitting back. Throughout the past months the company has expanded its digital profile, bringing its unique brand of dance-theatre online, to television and to cinemas, and there are plenty of exciting things in the pipeline.

The company recently announced their latest digital endeavour, Adventures in Film. This exciting new project is a unique opportunity for three carefully selected and talented female choreographers to work with TEA films to create bold and innovative dance films based on the New Adventures love of Storytelling. The films will be available to watch in November. So dance lovers watch this space. https://new-adventures.net/news/adventures-in-film

I’ve always said that music is probably my biggest passion; it’s the thing I know I couldn’t live without. I think it was my obvious love of moving to music as a child that prompted my parents to take me to dance classes as a 5-year-old.

As a result it’s been a joy to be associated as a Trustee with the Chineke! Foundation. Chineke! supports Europe’s first majority Black, Asian and ethnically diverse classical orchestra, and was founded by celebrated double-bass player Chi-chi Nwanoku OBE in 2015, to champion change and celebrate diversity in classical music. Chineke! also runs a brilliant junior orchestra, as well as extensive outreach work around the country.

Classical music and classical ballet have much in common; for far too long they have been so completely homogenous, as to appear to be only for certain kinds of people. That is a huge loss for audiences and a barrier to the huge amount of untapped musical talent that we know is out there. Chineke! through its work, and presence, is literally changing the face of classical music.

I was lucky enough to be at Chineke’s inaugural concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in September 2015. It was an unforgettable experience! Firstly, the concert was sold out; secondly, for the first time in a classical concert hall, the audience finally felt representative of a city like London, it was completely mixed; then, when the 60+ players from at least 28 different countries walked onto the stage, the audience gasped, because it was the first time we had seen such a beautiful mix of melanin on the concert hall stage – in fact, we gave the players a standing ovation before they had even played a note. And when they did play, they were simply on fire. As with all their concerts the programme featured the music of black classical composers, including Philip Herbert’s beautifully elegiac Elegy – in Memoriam Stephen Lawrence. That inaugural concert is on Chineke’s You Tube channel, along with much more.

Last year Chineke! received the inaugural Game-changer Award from the Royal Philharmonic Society. This year, the Chineke! Juniors featured twice recently on Britain’s Got Talent, getting through to the semi-finals. Again, over 60 players, playing a medley, without music and without a conductor – such talent! And so good to see those young players inspire a whole new audience via the BGT show.

Of course, the pandemic has had a huge impact on Chineke’s concert programme and on the freelance musicians suddenly left without work. A much heralded US tour in April had to be cancelled. However the orchestra has progressed all sorts of online projects, including some international collaborations.

Last night saw the first of a series of ‘Inside Out’ concerts at the Southbank Centre, being broadcast on BBC Radio Three. Last night saw Chineke! In brilliant form. The evening concluded with a sparkling rendition of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony but earlier included music by Nigerian composer Fela Sowande, Sierra Leonian-English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor,  and African-American composer Florence B. Price – her Piano Concerto in D minor, played by Jeneba Kanneh-Mason, making her debut solo performance with Chineke! The evening also included the world premiere of a collaboration between composer James B Wilson, poet Yomi Sode and Chineke! Entitled ‘Remnants’ this Southbank Centre commission was inspired by James Hutchinson, a black personal trainer, who with his friends, rescued a former policemen, and EDL member Bryn Male, during the Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year, in London. The picture by Dylan Martinez of James, a powerfully built black man, carrying an injured white man across his shoulder to safety, went viral.

The concert was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, and is available via BBC Sounds: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000nmps

The concert was also filmed and will be live-streamed on You Tube on 23 November. Details here on Chineke’s website:  https://www.chineke.org/events/black-legacies

 

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