Phoenix Dance Theatre: Windrush – Movement of the People Photo by Richard Moran
by Deborah Kermode, Chief Executive and Artistic Director, Midlands Arts Centre
Arriving at Midlands Arts Centre as the new Chief Executive and Artistic Director during late 2016, a research project by the photographic artist Andrew Jackson, was already underway. Through photographs produced in England and Jamaica, Andrew wanted to explore how his connection to the island has been shaped by the mythologies of his parents, who left for Birmingham in 1954 – and never returned. This was especially poignant as his exhibition – From a Small Island - was to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the SS Empire Windrush’s arrival in Portsmouth carrying 492 passengers from the Caribbean Islands.
Immediately the relevance of this project led to a wider thinking. Based in Birmingham, a proudly multi-cultural city attempting to make sense of a post Brexit-vote haze, the time seemed right to celebrate the impact of this mass post-war immigration movement. Rather than focus on the negative realities many of the Windrush Generation faced, it felt important to move the discussion forward; to rejoice in the rich contribution to British cultural life.
With over a million visits per year (and approximately a fifth of our visitors from a BAME background) we knew MAC was ideally placed to deliver a project which was ambitious both artistically and impact. A plan started to take shape with an intention to commission more cross-discipline artists and an ambition to engage new audiences. Despite a comparatively good record of diversity in both in our audiences and staff we knew that to achieve our goals we’d have to share some control of the programme curation.
We had worked with the black community before, most recently through a project with Elders but were aware that we needed arts leaders with lived experience to shape the visitor experience. Learning from this, we appointed Creative Producer Tina Hamilton-Pringle to lead on devising events which would both connect us with the culture of the Windrush Generation and their descendants.
Whilst we had been fortunate enough to secure Windrush: Movement of the People by Phoenix Dance Theatre to perform what are now sell-out shows at the start of the season, Tina has embellished the programme with family workshops and events covering music, poetry, carnival, art and even a rum-tasting night (strictly for grown-ups!). A jukebox has been filled with songs from the 1960’s selected by Andrew Jackson’s parents; the music complemented by Vanley Burke’s extraordinary collages appearing as though stained-glass on the double-height windows of our foyer, turning MAC into a church of colour and poignancy; joy and reflection. This alongside an Autograph touring exhibition Miss Black and Beautiful by artist, Raphael Albert, that considered the ‘Black is Beautiful’ aesthetic of the 70’s.
Perhaps the biggest challenge has been to our own perceptions of our core values. Welcoming, diverse and built for and by its community, MAC has always had inclusion at its heart. Everything open to everyone. When artist collective Heaux Noire, contributing a series of workshops and performance, asked for their events to be exclusively for “black and brown women” opinion was divided. Listening to the artists we begin to understand even more the unique position of an independent and non-commercial venue like MAC in providing a protected space to enable artists to create work which is inherently about their cultural context and lived experience.
The political furore around Home Office treatment of the Windrush Generation and Amber Rudd’s subsequent resignation looked like a PR gift but we chose to keep our focus on the art. A symposium as part of the season in partnership with Birmingham City University will undoubtedly tackle the impact of this story as part of the discussion around art, politics and immigration in post-war Britain. As for MAC’s role in connecting communities, developing artistic voices and engaging discussion we continue to invite new voices because it’s only by being relevant that we serve our mission: to make art an important part of people’s lives.
Beyond Windrush celebrates the 70th anniversary of the journey nearly 500 people made from Jamaica to London in 1948 on board the passenger liner, SS Empire Windrush. Midlands Arts Centre presents this summer programme of photography, visual arts, dance, music and more from 4 May – 8 July.