OPINION: The UK's art curriculum is too white. We want to change it

by Halima Begum | Runnymede Trust
Sunday, 21 March 2021 10:55 GMT

Runnymede Trust CEO Halima Begum in Brick Lane, east London; a hub for British art, in this handout photo by @KoisMiah via Thomson Reuters Foundation

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The Runnymede Trust and Freelands Foundation have launched Britain's first major commission to broaden BAME representation in art education

As a girl born in rural Bangladesh and raised on east London’s Brick Lane in the 1980s, there was no shortage of south Asian colour in my home life. In particular, I recall the eclectic beauty of rickshaw and truck art so loved by myself and my brothers, and the vivid hues of the sarees my mother would wear.     

The National Front, a fascist political party, had a newspaper stand outside the street door that led to our squat. To get to school often required running the gauntlet of invective and physical blows that our identity provoked in the men peddling racial hatred outside our home. My mother would clutch us close to the sapphire folds of her saree, and only on reaching the school gates did we feel truly safe.    

Of course, entering school in those days meant entering a staunchly Anglocentric education system devoid of any representation of our home lives or heritage. The Commonwealth may as well not have existed for all the riches in learning that it provided.    

A keen amateur painter to this day, it was in the art room that I most felt the absence of diversity in school. All my teachers were white and, understandably enough, all their cultural references were reflective of that reality. Though I treasure the work of British landscape painter John Constable, as a child, the bucolic resonances of Suffolk were as far removed from my identity as the court of the Qing emperors. In my late teens, I recall being shown a slide of a painting by Tilly Kettle. ‘Dancing Girls (Blacks)’ was the first representation I had seen in British art of anyone who looked like me, albeit a 200-year-old depiction of Indian women through the colonial gaze of a minor white male painter.       

In artistic terms, it was in the Islamic Gallery at the British Museum that I felt most at home. Like all teenagers, I was convinced I was effortlessly trendy. But there I was, condemned to forge my appreciation for art through British notions of ancient history. 

Today, my Brick Lane neighbourhood and the East End are synonymous with British art. From Gilbert and George to Tracey Emin, the energy and diversity of the area have provided creative inspiration and a home for some of the country’s best-loved artists. Sadly, little of that artistic output is produced or consumed by local Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities.    

Call it modernisation or decolonisation, updating the national curriculum to address the representation deficit embodied by the East End art sector is emerging as a key issue to change-makers. And a few months ago, I received a phone call from television executive Elisabeth Murdoch to discuss related issues.    

Freelands Foundation, established by Liz to broaden access to the visual arts in the UK, had come across Department of Education data from 2017. This showed that the 31% of children in British schools who identify as BAME are introduced to the visual arts by teachers, of whom 94% identify as white.   

“Halima,” Liz mused, “It doesn’t seem much has changed since your schooldays thirty years ago.”    

This week, Freelands Foundation and the Runnymede Trust, the race equality thinktank of which I am CEO, established the first major research commission into access to the visual arts for Black, Asian and ethnically diverse students in the UK.   

It is a significant step for a sector in which artists like Sonia Boyce, Lubaina Himid, Steve McQueen and Chris Ofili have achieved international acclaim, but in which only 2.7% of the workforce defines itself as BAME.   

Among its objectives, the Commission will publish a report in late 2022 detailing how and why young people from non-white backgrounds are excluded from art education, and propose practical recommendations to address the issues.    

Our school students are a blank canvas. It is imperative they are able to see and appreciate diversity in art. With representation comes inspiration, and it is the hope of the Freelands Runnymede Commission that in the not-too-distant future British children, regardless of their ethnicity, will learn about, appreciate and cherish a new wave of British art emanating from our BAME communities – art that will adorn our nation’s consciousness and public galleries for generations to come.