Sedrig Verwoert en Djuwa Mroivili| Foto: Milagro Elstak
Foto: Milagro Elstak

Black Achievement Month: a nice initiative that shouldn’t exist

A conversation with Black Achievement Month curators Djuwa Mroivili and Sedrig Verwoert

Black Achievement Month is an opportunity to spotlight and celebrate artists of color. But it is also an initiative with a less positive side which many people do not stop to consider. Pianist Djuwa Mroivili and choreographer Sedrig Verwoert, two young creators and performers who have been appointed curators of the BAM programs for Dutch National Opera & Ballet, offer insights into the paradoxical nature of this well-intentioned initiative and the many steps that remain if we are to arrive at a world in which BAM is no longer necessary.

 

Text: Rosalie Overing 

QUALITY VERSUS COLOR

For example, as Mroivili sees it, BAM entails the risk that black artists are viewed solely through the lens of their race and color. As a result, the focus is no longer on their work as artists but on their identity as people of color, and in this way the initiative can end up backfiring. ‘The only time you see “black faces in prominent places” is when they’re linked to their color,’ Mroivili points out. ‘Within white institutions they never get the opportunity to create work that deals with other themes. Why can’t black artists make art about love or the meaninglessness of life?’

 

Verwoert agrees: ‘I notice that the first thing people see is the color of my skin. This is especially true here in the Netherlands. Although there are people who can appreciate my qualities as an artist, most people know me as “the black guy in a white company”. So then as a black artist you immediately get pigeonholed, and so you sometimes have the feeling that you’re only allowed into certain spaces because of your skin color, not your artistic ability.’

 

A FAVOR OR AN EASY WAY OUT

This feeling is magnified by the fact that many institutions depend on grants, and in order to be eligible for them these institutions have to meet certain diversity quotas. ‘This is one of the reasons I’m on the fence about BAM,’ says Mroivili. ‘On the one hand it’s terrific that these opportunities exist, but in a sense it gives cultural institutions an easy way out. If they do something with BAM, they can check off the “diversity box”, and then they can forget all about us for the rest of the year. This is why it’s all the more important to keep focusing on these issues throughout the year.’ In Verwoert’s opinion this is an example of the ‘upside-down reality’ in which we now live: ‘From as far back as you can go, institutional structures were built to keep us out, and now all of a sudden, these institutions need black artists to stay afloat. But at the same time people still act as if they’re doing us a favor.’

 

FRESH OPPORTUNITIES AND STOLEN TIME

Verwoert and Mroivili also think that all too often the wrong people are asked to provide solutions to problems relating to inclusion, diversity and the creation of safe spaces. As Mroivili explains, ‘Black artists frequently get asked how to go about solving these kinds of institutional problems. But we’re creators, not policymakers. Not only does it feel like a huge amount of pressure to be putting on creative types like me; it’s also an imposition on our time and energy. We’re given an opportunity to put on a show, but keep getting asked how to “fix things”, and this deprives us of time that could be better spent on our artistic development. And that’s a real shame. That’s one of the reasons that treating the time and energy of people of color in a respectful manner is a major part of the program Reclaiming Our Time – Dutch National Opera’s contribution to BAM 2021.’

‘This is part and parcel of the set of expectations that get imposed on black artists,’ Verwoert adds. ‘Unlike white artists, when we’re interviewed, the emphasis is always on these kinds of issues, and once again we find ourselves pigeonholed. And I’m not going to solve those problems for an institution. I want to do it collaboratively.’

 

FAILING TO DO YOUR HOMEWORK

Does this mean that we shouldn’t engage in discussions about diversity and inclusivity with artists of color? ‘No, definitely not,’ Verwoert replies. ‘In theory everyone is open to a conversation. It only starts taking up a lot of your energy when the conversation turns into a debate. When that happens, it reopens old wounds that are just starting to heal.’ Unfortunately, this happen frequently in practice. As Mroivili does on to say, ‘People say they want a dialogue, but in the end it turns into a debate in which you, as a black artist, have to demonstrate why you deserve to be here. Plus, the various parties to these kinds of conversations often aren’t on the same footing. This can only be achieved when each side is equally well informed about where the other side is coming from. When we were students, we were expected to do lots of research about all things white and male, but during my five years at conservatory no one ever told me that in addition to all these old white men, there were also a lot of fantastic female black composers. But the converse never happens. People need to do their homework, all the more so since these conversations can be super personal and emotional for the one side.’

 

CONTINUE TO CONTRIBUTE

Despite the ambiguous nature of the initiative, it is a fact that as a society we have not yet reached a place where we can do without a Black Achievement Month. Despite their ambivalence towards BAM, for creators like Mroivili and Verwoert they remain dedicated to the project. Verwoert says, ‘We’ve now reached the point where we can make a contribution, and I feel a responsibility to do that.’ The curatorship of the BAM programs also gives them the chance to turn National Opera & Ballet into something of their own. ‘I’d like explore the possibility of making this space into a place where I can experiment and surround myself with all sorts of talented people who aren’t necessarily the usual audience for this company. Some of the people I invited for the program Reclaiming Our Time have never even been to a classical concert before.’

 

CONNECTED GENERATIONS

Moreover, the two creators feel a strong personal link to the theme ‘connected generations’, which runs like a thread through BAM 2021. ‘As a black artist, when you find yourself in a situation where you’re constantly asked to come up with solutions and you never know for sure if you’ve been invited somewhere because of your abilities or because of your skin color, that can be very hard, mentally, and it can have an impact on your creativity,’ Mroivili remarks. ‘It’s nice to have a lot of people around you, especially because you can ask members of the previous generation for advice. For example, I’m very grateful to have met the composer Neo Muyanga at the beginning of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. I noticed that I was anxious about what would happen when this wave of activism was over, and it was good to talk about this with someone who’d already been through something similar.’

‘I look around and I notice that people who don’t have this kind of network or a close-knit group around them just can’t make it. A whole crop of artists have quit for this very reason,’ Verwoert adds. ‘A sense of community and a connection with other generations is really important, so that’s a big focus of mine. This is why I’m glad we made an effort to program people from various generations during BAM 2021. We’re celebrating not only the future, but also the past, and that’s exactly where I want to be right now.’

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