This interview is the first part of a continuing conversation between visual artists, titled তন্তু tantu (threads). This series seeks to weave together the dynamic perspectives of artists of colour, engaging in multi-disciplinary conversations around arts and cultural diversity.
Interview by Tanushri Saha
Born in Kuala Lumpur, Kevin Bathman is a visual designer, storyteller, curator, writer and social change advocate. He is interested in using creativity to address environmental, cultural and social justice issues, and believes that the arts is an untapped avenue for catalysing change.
Kevin Bathman speaks with Tanushri Saha about representation in the arts, and the importance of creating spaces that reflect diverse cultural perspectives.
Recently, Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr. Tim Soutphommasane said that those who are invested in cultural diversity and leadership “do so because they usually have ‘skin in the game’”. Do you think this is true of the arts?
Personally, the reason I am invested in cultural diversity and leadership is because I live with this reality every day. It is not just a mantra that some people or organisations talk about achieving. When Dr. Soutphommasane says ‘skin the game’, I believe that those fighting for their bit of representation and diversity in the arts and cultural sector do so because, like me, they are tired of seeing whitewashed stories, characters and unequal power structures governing our arts and cultural bodies.
From your perspective as a designer and curator, as well as your involvement with Diversity Arts Australia, do you think there is a shift happening in the arts towards better reflecting the multiple and diverse perspectives within Australia?
Two years ago, I started working with Lena Nahlous at Diversity Arts Australia, a not-for-profit arts organisation, as a Producer for Events and Projects. Diversity Arts Australia (DARTS) is Australia’s key organisation promoting cultural diversity across all art forms and creative industries. DARTS advocate for, commission and profile artists from diverse cultural backgrounds and collaborate with the arts and cultural sectors to find innovative ways of improving inclusiveness and diversity.
As someone who is from a Malaysian migrant background working in the creative sector, I am fully aware of how institutionalised racism and discrimination play a role in favouring the stories of dominant cultural groups, and silencing other minority communities. One of the advantages of having two bases, Australia and Malaysia, has allowed me to view a diversity of perspectives and understand the conditions in each country, and how it has either encouraged or diminished the diversity of cultural expressions.
“As someone who is from a Malaysian migrant background working in the creative sector, I am fully aware of how institutionalised racism and discrimination play a role in favouring the stories of dominant cultural groups, and silencing other minority communities.”
For the past 61 years, since independence from the British, many Malaysian artists and creative professionals like myself have had to make compromises and seek other means of making our living and our art. Some have persevered in their homeground, while others packed up and left the country for greener pastures and opportunities. For me, because I don’t belong to the dominant cultural group in Malaysia, the opportunities offered to me as a ‘non-Bumiputera’ (non-Malay Muslim, literal translation: ‘sons of the soil’) creative professional are limited. This forces non-Bumiputera people to work harder, smarter and become more resourceful in their work and practices. In the long run though, we can’t deny that systemic discrimination in Malaysia towards non-Bumiputera will wear this community down, killing the creative spirit.
Likewise, in Australia, where I have been living since 2004, my life as a first-generation migrant and creative professional has had its ups and downs. In trying to promote, exhibit or showcase my work in Australia, the usual responses from producers, programmers and curators were, “it’s not contemporary enough”, “it doesn’t connect to an ‘Australian’ audience”, “it’s too niche” and the list goes on.
I firmly believe that the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (Convention) is increasingly relevant and important to the growth and sustainability of the Australian (and Asia-Pacific) creative and arts sector, and in particular for Australia and Malaysia as they become even more multicultural, multilingual and multireligious.
Despite Australia signing on to be a party to the Convention to protect and promote the diversity of cultural expressions since 2009, it is still lagging behind in terms of a creative sector that truly reflects society, and what we see on the street. So what is the cause of this? There are a multitude of reasons – not enough diverse decision-makers, the arts and cultural sectors exhibiting systemic discrimination and unconscious biases, diverse artists and creatives needing mentoring and capacity-building and different notions of leadership styles to accommodate difference.
However, I do believe that there is a minor shift happening in the arts sector to reflect the diverse perspectives in Australia, but it is far too slow for my liking. Most of these initiatives are quite superficial in nature, and address the surface issues by curating a tokenistic ‘diverse’ work to claim their diversity quota. Without identifying the real barriers for culturally and linguistically diverse artists, and the reasons for the lack of diversity in leadership positions in the arts and cultural sector, I am less optimistic that these changes will happen.
For artists of colour, to put one’s ‘skin’ in the game can mean to open oneself to a place of vulnerability, but also perhaps illuminates a potential for power. What role do you see art playing in social change?
Art has huge untapped potential to drive change. Today, the arts are poised to have a major impact on all levels of society – be it government, or the corporate or community sectors. Often, however, the arts have been an afterthought in government policy or in engaging society on important social causes. The Australian Public Service Commission’s publication, ‘Changing Behaviour’, states that “it has become increasingly clear that a major barrier to governments delivering key policy outcomes is a disengaged and passive public.”
In 2013, I kick-started a movement of artists for social change called Carnival of the Bold with Zara Choy. In the past 5 years, we have partnered with Vivid Ideas, Seymour Centre and City of Sydney to create a vision for a more just, equitable and compassionate world by catalysing conversations, collaborations, new ideas and initiatives using the arts for social change.
The arts can drive social change by captivating, challenging and inspiring hearts and minds. We wanted to create a space where arts are produced and social issues are discussed, crossing generational, racial, economic, gender and political lines. By weaving a larger and more compelling story, it helps us as a society to construct a better world.
The arts needs to be at the centre of problem-solving and fully ingrained in tackling social issues. Through the arts, we can give a voice to marginalised communities. The arts allow us to consider complex, multi-faceted and sensitive social issues that are rarely mentioned.
Carnival of the Bold also plays an important role in connecting Australian artists and not-for-profit organisations to showcase socially-driven projects that help deliver key messages. Championing the arts for social change, Carnival of the Bold is a movement and a coming together of artists who drive the important issues of our time to create deeper engagement around social causes. We engage continuously with artists, change-makers, arts supporters, activists, academics, media and not-for-profit organisations to provoke reflection, thought and action among the audience, but also allow the artists to reflect on their practises and engage in discourse.
“The arts can drive social change by captivating, challenging and inspiring hearts and minds. We wanted to create a space where arts are produced and social issues are discussed, crossing generational, racial, economic, gender and political lines.”
The Chindian Diaries, as well as your recent Chindia Exhibition, spoke to me of the complexity of cultural identities – a depth that is sometimes lacking in conversations around hyphenated or mixed-race identities. How do artists and people of colour push beyond the tick boxes that seek to categorise them into neat or reductive stereotypes?
When Australia begins to talk about race, there is a clear uncomfortable silence around it. For people of colour, our identities are often a result of conversations about how we view ourselves and what Australia ascribes to us. Often, belonging and place are not as clear cut as they seem – especially in the era of globalisation.
Artists have always been ahead of the conversation, asking the difficult questions. So who better to reject box ticking and categorisation than artists themselves!
Growing up in Malaysia, my mixed race identity caused much confusion for me, but I have since reclaimed that space and educated others of my own identity with the Chindian Diaries project. I did this by creating a platform to have conversations about biracial experiences, identity issues and straddling cultures.
When I curated the Chindia project this year, I was interested in unpacking the multiplicity of migrant identities in Australia by looking at the perspectives of those with Chinese and Indian heritage as a starting point. ‘Chindia’ provided a space for diverse artists who explore issues of cultural and national identity, politics, displacement and diaspora histories. Through that project, I have learned that for us to go beyond ticking boxes, artists and people of colour need to start creating our own space to tell our stories in our own way – without interference, censorship or whitewashing.
As Roanna Gonsalves, an Indian-Australian writer says, “We must be able to take all kinds of selfies, not just visual, to tell our own stories, to self-represent on the page, on the canvas, on screen, on the airwaves. This means moving beyond the tired and condescending argument of ‘giving voice to the voiceless’, and actually creating pathways, and access, for diverse writers, artists, performers, storytellers to tell our own stories.”
What does your cultural identity mean to you?
Culture is forever evolving and changing. As racial profiling is practised openly in Malaysia, the government considers the Chindian community to be an ‘unclassified’ ethnicity. My cultural identity has been a complex journey. Coming from a country that has divided its people for so long, to understanding more about my ancestry and place in this world, has now given me more questions than answers. As I get older, I am learning how to appreciate the nuances of these complexities and, in fact, see my cultural identity as a blessing more and more with each passing day.
Join Kevin Bathman in the final instalment of the series ‘Artists & their Mums’, hosted by Carnival of the Bold and City of Sydney Late Night Library. On Thursday, 23rd of August you can catch Frida Deguise with father Mohammed Daguize at Customs House Library, sharing Frida’s journey as a creative, and the role that family and culture has played.