The new leader of one of the UK’s leading British Asian arts organisations has expressed fears that the language of the government’s rescue package for the sector will be a backward step for diversity.
Abdul Shayek was announced on Tuesday as the new artistic director and joint chief executive of Tara Arts, a company created in 1977 in response to the racist murder of a teenage Sikh boy, Gurdip Singh Chaggar, in Southall, west London.
Shayek, his successor, said he was determined the company would continue to be a powerful creative voice for the largest minority group in the UK.
He said that yet another racist murder, that of George Floyd, and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, had shown an urgent need for change in the arts as well as society more widely.
“Things aren’t working. This is a real moment and we need to seize it. We need to do things differently,” he said.
Shayek said: “The ‘crown jewels’ in my opinion are the freelancers who make things happen, and I am worried with the language being used.”
If the bulk of the money went to large organisations, it would be a “missed opportunity”, he added.
“We are a forest, and in a forest you have a variety of different-sized trees and we need to save as many of them as possible. You can’t just save the tallest trees and think that the rest of the forest will live on.
“We could really think about how we come together and reimagine and create a sector which is more representative. Because of the language and the approach being taken, we may miss that opportunity.”
He said larger organisations needed to speak out on issues of diversity and representation. “I’d love to know what the ‘crown jewels’, whoever they are, feel about the issues. There is a fear that we could end up back where we were.”
Shayek, the founding artistic director of the Welsh theatre company Fio, said his first piece of work would explore how the people of Wandsworth say a proper goodbye to loved ones lost during the pandemic.
He said a priority for him would be to listen to the needs of artists and create a space for debate and action. Over the autumn he wants residents to join him on walks across Wandsworth to share stories and places of interest.
“We will listen to those who have been affected most by this current crisis to tell us how best we can serve them.
“We understand our sector and society is in the midst of challenging times. We will rise to this challenge. We will seize this moment of opportunity to listen to the needs of our sector, our community, our audiences, our artists and we will support and nourish them.”
Sunita Pandya, the chair of the Tara Arts board, said she was thrilled by the appointment: “Abdul brings great programming and curatorial experience, and a genuinely refreshing approach to connecting to local communities.”