Sea Changers – or, buoyed by hope

Naomi Foyle, Selma Dabbagh, Akila Richards, Mik Scarlet

 

One of the most exciting tasks of my Fabrica Gallery residency was the opportunity to curate the event Sea Changers, bringing artist-activists Selma Dabbagh, Akila Richards and Mik Scarlet together this past Saturday in the Fisherman’s Vestry at Brighton’s St Paul’s church. It was an intimate evening in a dramatic gothic nook: an antiquarian book-lined vault, its high peeling walls hung with suffering icons, the vestry was designed to allow fishermen to dry off before service and features a whale’s maw of a fireplace. The warden lit the gas coals and, warmed by the blue flames rippling behind us, Selma, Akila and Mik responded creatively to the theme of the sea, and discussed the need for ‘sea changes’ in their various realms of engagement. Though when it came to political discussions the theme of backlash often felt more credible than slow progress, and outside the church walls Brighton proved openly hostile to Mik, the evening’s dynamic interactions left me buoyed by faith in the power of art and community to overcome all and any such challenges to our ideals.

British-Palestinian fiction writer Selma Dabbagh began by discussing her various responses to the Israel-Palestine conflict, which she described as, after this summer’s seven week bombardment of Gaza, worse in terms of sheer devastation than it has ever been. In reference to the sea, Selma spoke of those activists and members of the British public who had felt moved to join the 2010 Gaza Freedom Flotilla. Aiming to bring humanitarian aid to the besieged population of Gaza, the flotilla was brought to a blood-soaked halt when Israeli commandos boarded the vessels in international waters, opening fire on passengers and killing eight Turkish and one American activist on the Mavi Marmara. If events of that night are still disputed, one can thank Israel for confiscating all activists’ laptops and cell phones: an action Selma described as bringing new depths to the term ‘media blackout’. As she spoke of those terrible events at sea, I thought of Brighton’s seafront vigil for Gaza this summer, demonstrators bringing red and white flowers to offer to the waves in memory of the dead.

As a Palestinian, her life shaped by exile and dispossession, Selma channels some of her personal responses to the conflict into her fiction, believing that art can be like a current that runs alongside political activity – deepening its impact, but also drawing in people who might not be particularly informed about a particular issue. In her fiction Selma hopes to reach average readers and the incurious as much as activists; increasingly, draft after draft, she seeks to ‘remove the message’, and allow characters’ personal dilemmas to express the tragedy and injustice of their political situation. She read us a short passage from her gripping noir drama Out of It: the young Rashid heading along the beachfront in Gaza, caught up in a crowd of people fleeing drone and Apache attacks. Unlike his political family, Rashid simply wants to escape the violence – to get ‘out of it’ in a haze of pot smoke, a scholarship to London, an affair with an English girl; his frustration at being forced to shoulder his people’s historical burden is not a predicament previous generations of Palestinian artists have been encouraged to explore. In Selma’s view, perhaps the only positive effect of the Oslo Accords was to bring Palestinians greater opportunities to express themselves creatively, defying the pressure to cut their narratives from the cloth of ideological certainty. If the fighter always has to be victorious in the end, she noted, the number of story lines available is rather limited.

As indeed they have been for the Palestinians: despite increasing international impatience and outright disgust with Israel, any political sea change feels very far from that still besieged shore. Ending on another tentatively positive note, though, Selma mentioned the recent growth of support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and also observed that Palestinian culture is coming to be characterised by a new openness including cultural initiatives. She talked about visiting the Qattan Foundation in Ramallah last summer, where the Literature Programme director told her that the number of submissions of unpublished novels had increased from 10-12 in previous years to 26 that year, with altered themes including a stronger focus on the personal and more overt criticism of political leaderships. An audience member spoke in response of her involvement in Brighton’s public sewing project for Gaza, Remaking Picasso’s Guernica, bringing home the point that the Palestinians’ cultural work is not a message in a bottle, but part of a global movement raising awareness of their plight.

Next, writer and performer Akila Richards presented her short story ‘Be Longing’, written for the evening and set on Brighton beach. Of German-Liberian heritage, Akila writes about the UK with the astute eye of the outsider, yet hers is never a coolly critical vision; rather, her spellbinding performances draw audiences into the warm circle of her compassion, humour and sensual grace. ‘Be Longing’ concerns a group of Birmingham church goers travelling by bus to Brighton to pay homage to their African ancestors in a sea immersion ritual. Praying on the beach in their long white robes, the congregation is interrupted by a young woman, drawn to their striking togetherness and yet also challenging it – her Buddhist chants growing louder and louder, her cheeks redder, her gesticulations wilder, until her blue dreadlocks are lashing the church members’ arms. Akila told the story with exquisite control of voice, movement, silence and image: her performance was accompanied by slides, archival images of African American river baptisms, a head of long, sun-flung locs, and then – as the congregation moves into the sea and the story comes to its poignant conclusion – images of underwater sculptures by Jason deCaires Taylor. From prior conversations with Akila I knew that one, Vicissitudes, is located off the shores of Grenada, and has been interpreted by many viewers as an homage to the West Africans who jumped or were thrown from slave ships travelling to the Americas and the Caribbean. The images quietly faced us with a deep ancestral wound.

Being present for ‘Be Longing’ felt like experiencing the birth of a new genre from the waves: not simply a story, but a spoken word, multi-media, collective meditation. That Akila’s powerful creativity is charged with a measure of simmering anger was clear in her later discussion of the lack of ethnic diversity in mainstream UK arts and media, a subject she understands inside-out, both as a black artist and a former Arts Council England employee. Not only has change not occurred, she informed us, we have also gone backwards: she has moved from feeling absent in mainstream cultural institutions, to feeling downright offended by them. I know of Akila’s firm opposition to Exhibit B, the controversial installation intended to critique historical and modern slavery, but cancelled after protests calling for a boycott of its presentation of silent black actors in cages and chains. In contrast, her story approached the theme of slavery with tact and a potent sense of changes wrought by time’s passage. The brief image of the white girl’s whipping dreadlocks created uncomfortable echoes of historical violence, but at the same time her characterisation also expressed the desperate isolation of someone seemingly ‘at sea’ in the world, to be pitied and embraced more than feared. Though I didn’t support the Exhibit B boycott, I followed both sides carefully and it seemed me the conflict escalated to due to the Barbican’s fundamental lack of engagement with the protesters. In ‘Be Longing’ the congregation chants a long list of the names of the dead, going back generations; Akila’s words and images demonstrated that ‘the ancestors’ the protestors were defending are not an abstract concept to many Black British people, but a real presence in their lives.

Finally, I was struck by the gift of Akila’s story to Fabrica Gallery and Simon Faithfull: as though in a call and response, she had replied to REEF with a resonant artwork that stretched from Brighton Beach to the other side of the Atlantic – Jason deCaires Taylor’s sculptures, like Faithfull’s new work for Fabrica, are intended to form artificial reefs, both to encourage the growth of marine life and to create diversions from endangered coral reefs.

 

Vicissitudes by Jason deCaires-taylor-sculpture

Akila’s performance had established a cabaret feel to the night, which I’d hoped broadcaster, journalist and musician Mik Scarlet could amplify. Mik’s plan to play us a few songs was scotched by muppets and gremlins when the new keyboard he’d ordered online was posted, not to him, but back to the manufacturer . . . instead he regaled us with tales of his life and times as a ‘born and made’ disabled person, sea-doggedly working my aquatic theme into his wide-ranging raconteurship (see, it’s catching). Mik conjectured that he was conceived in Brighton, where his parents used to come in the early sixties, not as Mods but ‘moderns’ – jazz lovers and snappy dressers whose world was dramatically changed when Mik was diagnosed at six weeks with an ‘incurable’ cancer: a tumour so large it was already pressing out of his body. His stunned parents had thought it best to ‘let him die’, but doctors refused, placing him on the trial of a drug that went on to save many lives, a fact for which today he takes just modest credit!

For the miracle of Mik’s survival makes his early band name ‘Scarlet Messiah’ entirely understandable: even when the cancer went into remission doctors thought he would only live five years, but he continued to defy the prognosis, imbued by his mother with the sense that he could overcome any challenge, including a paralysed right leg and the chronic pain he still experiences. Nevertheless, he was not fully prepared for the next challenge to come. When at fifteen his spine collapsed and he became a wheelchair user, for a short time he contemplated suicide. But he could not imagine letting his mother find his body and, instead of killing himself, Mik dyed his hair red and embarked on a rambunctious and highly successful career in music, TV and radio, winning both an Emmy and the Best Children’s TV presenter award, and marrying his musical collaborator Diane Wallace in the process.

Mik also discussed his disability rights activism, first noting that access in Brighton was extremely poor: though he was very forgiving about the narrow church toilet, the scarcity of disabled parking spots in the town centre had really irked him. He spoke too about his passionate opposition to assisted dying: when disabled people have equal access to life, he argued, then we can talk about giving us all equal access to death. To illustrate, he told us about a friend of his who, with the closure of the Independent Living Fund, had just been stripped of her live-in personal assistant, meaning that overnight she went from being someone with a job she loved, to being unemployed and imprisoned at home, isolated with no realistic prospect of regaining her independence. Under those conditions, anyone might feel depressed enough to want to end it all. Although the subject is a hot topic, the night was not a debate, but an opportunity to contemplate different perspectives, and allow them to enlarge our understanding. The response of one audience member, the relative of a young boy with learning disabilities, suggested that Mik’s resolute emphasis on dignity and equal rights in life rang true for her.

Like Akila, Mik was scathing about the lack of diversity in British public broadcasting. From his days at the BBC he also had an explanation for the backslide. After successfully setting up Disability and Ethnic Minority Programming Units in the eighties – colleagues who often collaborated – as the nineties ended the BBC decided to ‘integrate’ minority groups into regular programming. The disabled presenters and producers were, in fact, Mik told us, ‘integrated into the dole queue’. Here Akila joined his conversation, both finding common cause, and common fault with management structures: as Akila said, she didn’t just want to see her face on screen, she wanted to sit in the director’s chair too.

Injustice

Palestinians and older women are also routinely excluded from the BBC’s screens, of course. A female whistleblower has recently reported on the corporation’s practice of asking employees to sign gagging clauses to prevent them from exposing the way it axes or quietly drops older women journalists, while watching the news one night this summer I incredibly heard four Israelis interviewed about the bombardment of Gaza with not a Palestinian in sight. Mik advised complaining to the Beeb, which I have done, after the 2008-9 assault on Gaza, all the way through to losing my final appeal. ‘Balance’ was achieved across programming, I was told, though was given no evidence to support this statement. I was therefore highly encouraged to hear of Akila’s campaign group Just Culture, currently demanding accountability on diversity from all public institutions, and my evening’s theme was saved when Mik suddenly heralded the arrival of a tsunami of minority group activists, all converging and crashing at the same time on the BBC. Perhaps not an impossible dream – one of the highlights of my summer was marching with thousands of people in London, all pausing beneath the broadcaster’s offices to chant ‘Shame on you BBC!’

The Sea Changers event was another high water mark of the year for me. For a few hours a genuine current of concern for each other and the world had moved between artists and audience. Somehow, we all felt enlarged, heard, transformed by a sense of shared purpose. Perhaps the event was just a drop in the ocean, but it shone like a diamond. Sunday, however brought a rude jolt of reality. Out in Brighton’s Lanes Mik and Diane encountered not only inaccessible new buildings, but myriad hostility from passers-by, behaviour ultimately so baffling and infuriating they left the city before noon. I felt ashamed of Brighton, its trendy veneer masking such antiquated attitudes and architecture, and when Mik offered to lend his support to local groups challenging these dire conditions, I was glad that Akila and I were able to make some such connections for him. For that was the precise purpose of the evening: to allow talk and art to meet action. I’m now dreaming about holding more Sea Changer events, involving as many artists and activists as possible. Watch this space!

 

With thanks to Fabrica Gallery for hosting, Jonathan Swain for stage managing, Diane Scarlet Wallace for permission to use her photo of the speakers, and Mik Scarlet for his reflections on the evening for the Huffington Post. The photo of the disability rights protest comes from the blog of Jeffrey Preston.