When you think of ?Asian arts? in the UK, what do you think of? asks Dr Sarita Malik. Is it Anish Kapoor?s mammoth Marsyas sculpture at the Tate, henna tattooing at a summer mela, or Andrew Lloyd Webber?s Bombay Dreams? Arguably, any one of these fall into this category.
If you were asked to list the major themes preoccupying Asian arts work, would you perhaps say, displacement? or identity? or cultural conflict? If you were then asked to describe the defining aspects of a British-Asian arts aesthetic, what would you say? It begins to get a bit tricky here.
Despite its growing and artistically-rich presence over the past few decades, South Asian arts in the UK remains a largely under-theorised and critically marginalised arena. Much of the debate around Asian arts to date has centred on what we might call the packaging: is Asian arts a helpful category or should we resist the term? Should there be Asian arts centres or not? Should Asian artists be focusing their creative energies on ?crossing over? into the mainstream? Essentially, these are false dichotomies and peripheral concerns; they encourage us to think on the surface rather than deeper within the category, artforms or art spaces. It is here that the real politics take place.
Questions of policy and practice
The DNAsia conference taking place next month, does not set out to strictly define what ?Asian arts? is but rather to think around the edges and to look within the category to identify what the current and future agendas are and need to be. This demands a more detailed examination of the politics and discourse of current-day ?institutionalised diversity?. As Jatinder Verma, Artistic Director of Tara Arts, will ask in his keynote address, ?Beyond the rhetoric, how inclusive is the Arts world and where exactly does Asian arts fit in??
We know that diversity is big business today ? lose the battle to attract a large and growing section of your potential audience and you will ultimately lose the war; fail to recognise the diversity ?out there? and you will appear outdated and insignificant. Leadership in the arts demands that we stay ahead of the diversity curve and that we know how to respond to change effectively. But is cultural diverse arts policy, which typically incorporates Asian arts, a political or artistic agenda? How does it negotiate the dynamic between the individual source of art and the collective basis of culture? And this is a two-way process ? what impact do institutional agendas have on the kinds of work that Asian artists are currently producing? Issues around artistic judgement, quality control and economic and moral imperatives inevitably get caught up here; the intricacies at stake are as relevant for artists as they are for cultural theorists, funders or policy-makers.
Practical and aesthetic questions
We must also address the practical and aesthetic dimensions of Asian arts, which are intrinsically connected, and consider the relationship and distinctions between different kinds of Asian-led arts practice. Underpinning this is the question of how we can be encouraged to engage critically with different kinds of Asian-led arts in the UK and focus on the contexts, processes and diversity within Asian arts instead of speaking about it in homogeneous or simplistic terms.
There are further challenges. Committed venues need to address means for attracting different kinds of Asian audiences and presenting ongoing programmes of quality Asian arts work. The UK arts industry at large needs to be able to recognise and work with different models and flavours of Asian arts (contemporary dance, Asian language theatre or participatory approaches to arts development for example).
In the midst of the grand diversity narratives of this era ? hybridity, globalisation, Diaspora ? the key practical issues for most practitioners (alongside artistic development) remain the same. These are centred on receiving funding, being programmed and having their work seen by wide audiences. Asian artists in Britain, as well as having to labour through these issues, have a whole set of other preconceptions and agendas to tackle when working with arts institutions. The ?Asian-ness? of a project needs to be made overt or covert depending on funding and other criteria; the venue needs to be open to receiving or collaborating on a piece of art that might be categorised as Asian and this essentially means that the venue needs to be confident that it can market and attract audiences to what might be perceived as ethnically specific art.
Beneath the economics, there are deep ideological processes at work which inevitably take us back to fundamental questions around language and racial coding within institutions ? what is ?Asian art?? What makes a piece of work ?Asian? (the performer, the creator or the theme)? What are the preferred versions of Asian arts that are formally supported and made visible within the UK arts industry? And perhaps most critically, who are the decision-makers involved in these creative and other processes that will enable future change?
Dr Sarita Malik is Head of Asian Arts Development at Watermans, a multi-arts venue in Brentford, West London, that has supported Asian arts development and programming for over a decade.
On March 24 and 25, Watermans will host ?DNAsia: Mapping the future of South Asian arts in the UK?, a conference for those involved in the creation, presentation and funding of contemporary Asian arts to consider some of these issues. Participants include established artists such as Chila Kumari Burman and Shobana Jeyasingh and keynote speakers, Jatinder Verma (Tara Arts) and Keith Khan (motiroti). t: 020 8232 1010