Critical Mass

Over the past 5 years I have noticed a growing presence of focus on the underrepresented voices in Higher Education.  Within University of the Arts London, I don’t think this is new. This institution have for many years engaged with collectives of the marginalised but what has changed are these voices visibility.  Some of the activities, collaborations and or supporting organisations this particular institution has engaged in includes:


BAME Talent Day

Careers and networking event for all undergraduate and postgraduate graduates, as well as industry representatives that are interested in entering the teaching profession.  The talent programme that was started at LCF by Angela Drisdale Gordon, which has now been rolled out at several colleges across UAL and has contributed to the progression, access and invitation to industry specialists from diverse backgrounds, many who are UAL alumni.


Black Art & Modernism

Launched in 2015, a three-year research project in collaboration with Middlesex University exploring the question: “How do artists of African and Asian descent in Britain feature in the story of twentieth century art?”. The project is being led by Professor Sonia Boyce, Chair in Black Art and Design at UAL who will produce a range of materials based on the research findings.

Black Blossom

This exhibition was curated by the then Arts Student Union Education Officer (2015/16) Bee Tajudeen, supported by UAL and Shades of Noir. It ran from July to October 2016 and celebrated the voices of black women. It included paintings, photography and illustrations from recent UAL graduates predominantly exploring the intersections of gender, race and identity. Around 800 people attended the exhibition, making it one of UAL’s busiest Showroom events. This organisation has now grown beyond this institution.

Diversity Matters

In April 2016, UAL alumna Kai Lutterodt ran a Diversity Matters Awareness Week in collaboration with the Diversity team, Teaching and Learning Exchange, and Shades of Noir. The aim was to highlight the relevance of diversity within arts, media and education. The initial successful collaborative intervention propelled Diversity Matters to continue to develop and live beyond the institution.

Group for the Equality of Minority Staff (GEMS)

This group was established in the mid 1990s and was then chaired by Avril Horsford, who is no longer with the institution, however GEMS continues.  GEMS endeavours to promote the personal development and create a network of Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) staff.  GEMS has a membership of over 100 BAME staff across all departments and levels. We are the largest and longest standing staff network at UAL. This community of members contribute to discussions, and monitoring the progress of the University’s published objectives, including the Equality & Diversity Strategy.  Additionally it is a forum to meet and develop friendships and support beyond your department and or college via face to face or virtual interactions.

International Curators Forum

A network that meets to discuss emerging issues of curatorial practice in the context of key events in the international arts calendar. It offers bursaries and professional development opportunities to curators and works in partnership with key national and international bodies. This program has been conceived to promote opportunities for curators to visit and participate in several major international art events to enable them to network and gain experience for their career development.

Shades of Noir

Shades of Noir (SoN) is an independent organisation, created in 2009 by Aisha Richards and delivered by evolving groups of students, graduates and academics to inform teaching and learning within Art, Design and Communication Higher Education (HE).  Its aims are to enhance the practice, process and experiences of students and HE staff. SoN do this by placing marginalised communities at the centre of HE and embedding social justice in all aspects of curriculum design, teaching practices and institutional processes.  Additionally, SoN provides space, knowledge, expertise and a visible intersectional presence for students, graduates, HE staff and creative practitioners both virtually and physically.

Transnational Art, Identity and Nation (TrAIN)

The University of the Arts Research Centre for Transnational Art, Identity and Nation is a forum for historical, theoretical and practice-based research in architecture, art, communication, craft and design.  Central to the Centre’s activities is a consideration of the impact of identity and nation on the production and consumption of artworks and artefacts in this new global context. Transnational relationships are explored through crossings that traverse different media including fine art, design, craft, curation, performance and popular art forms.

Whilst this in many ways may illustrate the overarching institutional support to give voice and space to the underrepresented which they should take pride in. It doesn’t however illustrate the challenges to circumvent the following effecting the marginalised individual, the things I have experienced personally, witnessed happen to others, or and heard of from staff and students of colour includes:

Marginalisation – Treatment of a person, group, or concept as insignificant or peripheral.

Cultural Misappropriation – The adoption of cultural elements in a colonial manner: elements are copied from a minority culture by members of a dominant culture, and these elements are used outside of their original cultural context—sometimes even against the expressly stated wishes of representatives of the originating culture

Oppression – The exercise of authority or power in a burdensome, cruel, or unjust manner

Prejudice – An unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason.

Racism – A belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.

Tokenism – The practice or policy of making no more than a token effort or gesture, as in offering opportunities to minorities equal to those of the majority

All of the above still linger in the air within arts higher education.  I know this may not sit well with some.  However, here are some questions for the creatives, staff and students reading this to think about.  These may help understanding and identify some practices that have negative effect on people of colour, impact lives and attitudes:


  • How many staff of colour do you have in your facility, department or organisation?
  • How many times have you gone to lunch with a creative, staff or student of colour?
  • Can you name any senior staff of colour in your institution or organisation?
  • Have you ever witnessed racism and challenged this in the workplace or educational setting?
  • Have you ever suggested to a staff member of colour to go for promotion?
  • Do you use the term ‘BAME’ even when talking to a person of colour who doesn’t use this term?
  • Have you ever talked to people about issues you’ve witnessed regarding racialised inequality?

To be honest these questions only touch the surface but I think they are a good start for reflection and understanding. Who and how we can be complicit as individuals even when an institution is making steps to transform.  This institution feels like it is on a journey of meaningful transformation, with a growing critical mass of marginalised communities supporting sectorwide change – let’s see what happens…


There is one comment

  1. Angela Drisdale-Gordon

    Great to see so many initiatives and we have come a long way – however, they are only effective if everybody takes ownership and understands why this is happening and why it is so important to all of us.

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