A very good friend of mine applied to the newly created East London Painting Prize, which announced its inaugural winner last week. He didn’t get shortlisted and he was fine about this. I, however, got pretty upset – not because they should have taken his painting; that’s not important. I got upset because when I looked at the shortlist, it became quite clear to me that it did not in any way reflect the demographic of East London.
London is only 59.8% ethnically white British, according to the Office for National Statistics 2011 Census. That means that over 40% of people in London are from some other ethnic group. Tower Hamlets, in the East End of London, has a white population of only 45.2%, according to the same Census, and this includes white non-British. The statistic for Hackney is pretty much the same. These two boroughs are very popular with artists and have large, vigorous artist communities. Let us not pretend that all of the artists in these two boroughs are white British.
Yet when you look at the shortlist of artists chosen for the East London Painting Prize, which is only for people who live in East London, there isn’t a single name that might, for example, suggest the large Turkish and Kurdish population of Hackney. There isn’t a single name that we could associate with the Nigerian or African population of East London. Nor is there a single name that represents the Asian people, and particularly Islamic Asian, who make up a large section of the Tower Hamlets population. There is not even a Pole. (I know I am only going by names and I don’t know the artists who are on the list – but I did look at their websites).
Inequality of opportunity
Because I live in East London, I know that there are artists with different backgrounds, yet there is no visibility of them whatsoever in this art prize. There is little visibility of them in the mainstream galleries, either. This leads me to believe there are very few opportunities for artists – or young people who would like to be artists – who come from ethnic minority backgrounds. Even when they are not actually ethnic ‘minorities’ within the community.
There are actually Turkish and Kurdish artists in Hackney. There are British-born artists from Asian, African and Chinese backgrounds. There are kids from Afro-Caribbean and Vietnamese backgrounds doing art at ‘A’ level. There are plenty of Polish, Czech and Bulgarian artists active in East London, too. The recognised East London ‘art world’ should, at the very least, be reflective of who is living and practising in East London.
Obviously this is a culture, and those who promote it are completely unaware that what they’re doing is actually perpetuating inequality of opportunity; that they are stifling the creativity of London. It’s like they’re closing the window in a room that is already stuffy and unbearable.
The fact is that the art world does not admit art that does not fit neatly into a very culturally circumscribed matrix. And that, I believe, is wrong. It cannot go on.
This is an edited version of a piece originally posted on Gillian McIver’s Artists Talking blog
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