Chi Onwurah MP, Shadow Minister for Culture, introduced the International AV Festival in the North East with this address.
I’m delighted to be here at the Mining Institute, Newcastle, one of my favourite buildings in the city, built by engineers for engineers, and now enjoyed by everyone. As an engineer myself that is a particular pleasure. And I should also add that its great to have two women up here, speaking, contrasting and competing with all the portraits of men that hang around us.
And I’m delighted that The Road to Wigan Pier has been chosen as thematic framework for 2016 and 2018. I first read the book when I was 12 or 13. It was part of my political education, helping shape the values I still hold today – values I do my best to uphold and promote in Parliament today. It’s one of the reasons that Orwell became my favourite political writer.
I do however remember being confused to begin with by its being commissioned as a tour of the North when he spent all his time in the South. The South began at Durham when I was a child. But over time I understood better both the geography of the Northern identity and the importance of the book. The importance of trying to convey the real lives, the very real poverty and struggle that ordinary working class people lived through every day, albeit conveyed through the eyes of an Old Etonian. So when the curator, Rebecca Shatwell, told me this year’s theme, it was just one reason that I was so keen to be here.
But it was not the only one. Personally, I was sorry to see the demise of the Tyneside Film Festival. It was a great reflection of the region, focusing as it did on politically engaged film making. But I was pleased that the passing of the festival did not dim the role and importance of the visual arts in Newcastle. Far from it. Far from it. We still have the Tyneside Cinema, best cinema in the world, and I’m pleased that we still have the fantastic cultural contribution of the biennial AV festival which we are launching tonight. Not only does it benefit those lucky enough to call Newcastle home but it draws in visitors from all over the country and the world too.
Festivals are so important, and unique, in the way they inspire interest and allow the power of contemporary culture to burst forth. They create, capture and harness energy of visual artists and visitors alike around a particular theme. The AV Festival has been doing that work here for over ten years and this is a fantastic, diverse and ambitious programme that I hope you’re all as excited as I am.
One of the great things about this festival is the bringing-together of the wider visual arts. All visual artists should be engaged in this critical discussion and debate. In January I had the pleasure of introducing John Akomfrah at the Tyneside Cinema, at the opening of his exhibition PERIPETEIA. After the event we discussed the power and pitfalls of narrative – whether stories should have structure, a beginning, middle and an end as it were. It’s not necessarily the sort of discussion I ever thought I’d have, growing up on a council estate in North Newcastle, but I’m glad my experience of culture has brought me in touch with all kinds of debates.
I was surprised when John said narrative was something he has spent much of his career avoiding. But thinking about it, that is part of the power of the visual arts, to inspire and to inform, to connect you viscerally to important issues without necessarily imposing a particular point of view. I know when I see a photo or an installation about a council estate or poverty I don’t necessarily want someone elses perspective imposed.
Its an important part of the visual arts not only telling a story, but letting us, the viewer, decide our own story, inspiring us to tell our own stories. And telling stories is so important. Telling all our stories. Why are there so few Northern working class voices on television and in the media, or black or women or LGBT people, or those with disabilites? Too often and for too long throughout history people who did not have the power of the pen or film were not in a position to tell their stories.
My grandfather was a shipbuilder on the Tyne in the twenties. I know almost nothing of his story. The lives of so many working class people have been erased. That is why it is so great that the AV Festival has sought out and found the stories forgotten or passed over.
And as Shadow Minister for Culture that is an area I will be focusing on – ensuring greater diversity in the stories told. I am tired of having our life experience mediated by Old Etonians – or those from any public school. Labour believes in culture for all, access to culture for all.
Tthat access is under attack. We have a Secretary of State who is focussed on getting the UK out of Europe, not getting everyone access to culture. The Minister for Culture talks a good talk but it does not translate into ensuring culture for all. The Chancellor is now talking about a return to austerity and we will see in the Budget in a few weeks time what that means for the arts but the huge, swinging cuts to local authority budgets have already undermined arts provision in many areas. We must stand up to protect the arts for all.
Culture has the power to inspire, to change lives, hopes, expectations. It is far too important to be left in the hands of a narrow elite.
In 2015 the most searched word was socialism. Despite that, we still lost the election. Perhaps the problem is that people were searching for the meaning of socialism on the internet, devoid of context and passion.
I am proud to call myself a socialist. In Newcastle we never stopped calling ourselves socialists, even if some of my comrades elsewhere in the Labour Party did. There is no shortage of issues that need socialism in today’s world. Be it the rise of foodbanks, the desperate plight of refugees, children in poverty, the insecurity and precarious nature of modern working life if you’re lucky enough to have a job, and the lack of diversity at the top and throughout many institutions and organisations.