Black people don't go to galleries

David Osa Amadasun, 30.10.2013
The reproduction of taste and cultural value
It was during the second year of my undergraduate degree, at the age of 32, when I became aware of the limited exposure I had had to certain social and cultural resources as a child and young adult.

Inspired by a lecture about the ideas of the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, I began to think about how our tastes and cultural capital affect our aspirations, focusing my attention on what I felt was a divisive cultural activity and space: the gallery, traditionally seen as being a white middle-class milieu, associated with social, cultural and educational benefits.

Despite his success Bourdieu, the son of a farmer, always felt out of place among the middle-classes, “like a fish out of water”, and I had one of those eureka moments: I wonder if I can use these ideas to increase my kids’ life chances?

In May 2011 I took my daughter, who was 14 at the time, for a surprise trip to see the Tracey Emin exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London. As we neared it, she froze and said that she wasn’t going in: “It’s not me, Dad, it’s not me.”

I was speechless: in that brief moment I felt my family’s vulnerability to the mundane violence of cultural value. As a parent I felt powerless, unable to protect her. Thankfully with some coaxing and the promise of a caramel frappuccino, she agreed to “try” the exhibition. She loved it. The swearing and sexual explicitness intrigued her and caught her imagination.

That initial experience led to an ethnographic study: Experiences of exclusion within the mainstream art gallery – an ethnography of black and minority ethnic visitors. I used art-related activities to attract parents into a gallery space in order to explore how they felt whilst engaging with it.

The first obstacle I had to overcome was actually getting the parents to the gallery. Tiredness, financial pressures and a lack of time were all given as reasons to avoid the gallery visit.

This is not to say that any of these issues do not exist but these same parents would also spend £40 to go to the cinema or to eat out. Devising fun and interactive projects, coupled with a good exhibition, and free entry into premium exhibitions, helped.

In each of the exhibition visits with the parents I could see that observational learning was taking place. The concept of self-efficacy plays a key role in social learning theory and concerns our belief in our ability to succeed in certain situations.

In the gallery it became apparent that the parents were experiencing self-efficacy issues, although the kids, aged between 5-14, were not. The dialogue below is an extract from a longer conversation I had with a participating parent, Richard, during a visit to the Jeremy Deller exhibition at the Hayward in 2012:

Richard: Black people don’t go to galleries.

Me: What are you talking about? Am I not black? (I laugh).

Richard: I know, but you’re different.

Me: What! How?

Richard: Come on man, you just are.

During the exhibition Richard was clearly uneasy. He looked uncomfortable and kept glancing around at the other gallery visitors. In his account of his exhibition experience he said that due to the lack of representations of his culture, it was as if he and his culture had never existed.

Why? Because the exhibition was supposed to represent popular working-class culture in Britain but in reality it was an exhibition of white working class lives and cultural artefacts.

It later transpired that Richard’s conversation about black people not going to galleries was in part a response to his own feelings of anxiety within the gallery space.

Richard, as well as a few of the other participant parents, had developed personal strategies for avoiding painful situations and settings in which they felt inferior or out of place.

In effect they were using strategies of self-policing and elimination with regard to places of “high” culture, deploying their own versions of subculture as a rationale for their own exclusion.

I have worked within higher education outreach and have seen first-hand how a lack of the “right” cultural capital can continue to impede the realisation of aspirations.

I am also painfully aware of how what Sarah Thornton calls “subcultural capital” can work to exclude us through a valorisation of stifling ideas about what it means to be black.

And this will continue until we begin to question and unravel the limitations and complexities of such worldviews, particularly when they can be a protective/defensive response to the injuries of exclusion. Increasing our own self-efficacy is just one way forward.

As Dr Eleonora Belfiore from Warwick University has pointed out: “If the debate on cultural value is to go beyond an empty rhetoric of self-celebration then it needs to be an occasion in which awkward questions are asked of the sector as a whole: questions such as for whom does the sector generate value? What do organisations big and small do to live up to their status as public cultural organisations?”

David Osa Amadasun works as a freelance outreach development officer. Find out more about his campaign to try and dismantle the cultural barriers experienced within working class communities of colour at @UniteToNurture.

This is an edited version of an article originally published by Media Diversity UK.


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30.10.2013, 22:13
If this had been posted a couple of days ago, I would have pointed interested parties to an event at the Garden Museum. It explored a newly bought portrait, 'The Black Gardener', and opened some interesting discussions about how a niche museum is working to represent Black histories and make them more visible through their displays. There is a recognition that it is no longer appropriate for Black history to be a 'hidden' history - it is definitely mainstream! People working at/in/with the Garden Museum were very excited about the painting, which is a statement of how a little museum has big plans to be more culturally accessible. The painting is displayed alongside info on the plans for a major new interpretation development and the museum is actively trying to engage with local communities. So if you find yourself in Lambeth, go and look at a most beautiful painting and take the chance to feed in to the redevelopment. Especially if you are black/brown/Asian and have ideas about what you would like to see in a museum gallery that would change that 'Black people don't go to galleries' statement.