The Issue with Representation in the Arts | Sabrina Sigler

Updated: Aug 1, 2019

Taken from Disobedient Magazine Issue 01

The arts industry is dominated by the white middle-class. This is a fact reflected in a recent study by Create London and Arts Emergency which shows that the percentage of those from working-class backgrounds working in the fields of music, performing and visual arts in the UK is at only 18.2%, while in the same field the percentage of BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) workers was at 4.8%. Even the Labour Party held a 2017 inquiry into the lack of working-class artists in the creative industries - stating that the word ‘class’ must be mentioned in the debate about accessibility in the arts.

It is obvious there is an accessibility issue when it comes to both working and studying within the arts, but why?

This is due to many variables such as elitism, racism, financial costs and stereotypes of those who study/have a career in the arts in relation to stereotypes of those from working-class backgrounds.

Here are the experiences of three young creatives affected by this lack of inclusion.

Khadija Moustafa by Julian Bailey 2018

Khadija Moustafa is a freelance photographer, raised between a Muslim Egyptian and Irish Catholic family in Glasgow’s city centre. Becoming especially interested in photography in her early teens, she quickly became intrigued by reflections and the power in which the medium can hold. One of her first photography projects was a series of the working people she met when travelling, focusing on their hands. Khadija then went on to study Photography and is now in her second year of an HND qualification at Glasgow Kelvin College.

Taken from hand series by Khadija Moustafa in Morocco 2015

At only 24 she is already making a name for herself in Glasgow and beyond, most recently working with the BBC and the popular Crybaby Zine. Khadija Moustafa as a brand is becoming more and more recognisable.

Her current ongoing project is documenting the Scottish Grime music scene and the artists within that, a genre she’s been listening to since she was 16. Scottish Grime is still a relatively small scene but with many unique and talented musicians, therefore, it felt natural for Khadija to document them and the subculture.

Joe Heron AKA Shogun, a popular Scottish Grime artist by Khadija Moustafa 2018

Looking through Khadija’s work, mostly portraiture, it is easy to see her unique talent in framing and editing, but also obvious her dedication to documenting the largely underrepresented working-class creatives in Glasgow. Covering many areas, from the students affected by the Glasgow School of Art fire and as mentioned, the upcoming artists in the growing Scottish Grime scene. Grime itself being a music genre which grew out of the housing estates of London.

Socio-political issues and urban youth culture are two themes that feature heavily in Khadija’s body of work, both issues go hand in hand - bridging the gap between artist and journalist with her documentary style of photography. On this subject Khadija stated;

“I like real life and real issues; I feel there are too many stories to tell to not document them. My chosen subject matter revolves around misrepresented or underrepresented people or subcultures. These people inspire me.”

Khadija cites her family, especially her mother as a huge influence on her choosing a creative path. Khadija was raised by a single mother in a council house who managed to study, work and raise three children simultaneously. Khadija’s mother, Glasgow mixed-media artist Louise Malone, encouraged creativity in her children often and did a degree at the Glasgow School of Art in Environmental Art and Sculpture. Despite this nurturing of creativity from a young age and having artistic role models, Khadija became increasingly aware that the arts were not always a realistic option and often deemed economically unfruitful. A large part of Khadija’s childhood creative practice came from utilising unloved items and being frugal – “turning nothing into something”.

Michelle Musyoka is an artist at the beginning of her career, starting a degree in Graphic Design in September. Michelle became interested in art after studying the subject throughout school. Michelle has ambitions of a career in editorial design, taking inspirations from fellow artists of colour. One of these inspirations in particular being fashion designer, Pyer Moss and the social/political statements he makes with his clothing. Bravely showcasing these pieces in Fashion Weeks across the world, a notoriously white space.

Michelle Musyoka

Michelle’s first realisation of injustice in the industry was to do with financial inaccessibility. She was looking for local portfolio prep classes and noticed that there was nothing cheaper than £400 for a week of classes, excluding materials. This made Michelle question if a career in the arts would be worth it.

Michelle also feels hostility in entering the arts industry as a black woman with there being so little working in the UK industry. On these doubts, Michelle said:

“I have this kind of subconscious self-doubt about my place in the arts as a black woman. I know how liberal the arts are, but I still have this fear that when it to the corporate side of the industry that I’ll face the same discrimination that I would, as a black woman, face in any other industry. That I won’t be taken seriously or listened to - it’s something that has been weighing on my mind for a while.”

Rene Matić, an artist from Peterborough, created a series of work entitled ‘Brown Girl in the Art World’ in response to the racist and sexist comments received when asking a gallery curator why he didn’t have any women artists in his gallery. In an excerpt from her 2016 poem ‘Brown Girl in the Art World 1’ Rene writes:

‘Do you remember catching sight of your mum after losing her in the supermarket? That soft landing when you see her down the aisle and you are safe. This is the way it feels when seeing another brown girl in a room full of white people... Safe -

Actually, that’s a good way to describe the art world: A room of white people.’

Pheobe Connolly is a Glasgow based actress, who started acting through local community classes as a child. She has starred in a short film and is currently co-writing a play. The acting industry initially seemed particularly inclusive, for example, finding herself interacting with queer people in a way she hadn’t seen before. As Pheobe has grown older and advanced in her career, she has begun to see cracks in this inclusivity.

Pheobe Connolly

Coming from a working-class background, a huge issue Pheobe has noticed has been with audition fees. Pheobe was always told that going to drama school is expensive, especially because English universities aren’t free and that Scotland only has one conservatoire, The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, but Pheobe wasn’t prepared for the cost of simply auditioning. On this issue Pheobe said:

“Auditions tend to cost £50 minimum but most of the schools I auditioned for asked for more. It may not seem like a lot to some, but when you are auditioning for 4 or 5 schools the cost really adds up. Not to mention a lot of schools not hosting auditions anywhere apart from their premises, which means travel and a place to stay. I easily spent over £1000 that I had saved over the course of a year, money which I had planned to spend elsewhere.”

The cost of auditioning not only puts off working-class people from a career in acting, something visibly seen within the current British acting elite, but also it puts extra pressure for actors to get a role first time. They simply can't afford to try again. A main inspiration for Pheobe is actress Maxine Peake, who herself is from a working-class background.

For many working-class and/or artists of colour this blaring exclusivity alone validates their existence in the industry. More and more projects are being founded in resistance to this oppression in order to create unity and collaboration amongst artists.

As mentioned above this issue stems from many aspects but one, in particular, is the cost of actually creating in the field as an artist. Within the art communities, especially at universities, it has been a constant controversy. The large cost of equipment and resources and the effect not being able to afford this can have on a student’s performance. Often these costs are not covered by the school, therefore, automatically creates inequality amongst the students and potentially, their art itself.

There is a problem when the producer is not representative of the consumer.

About Sabrina


Sabrina Sigler (b.1999 Miami, Florida) is a Scottish-American aspiring journalist and documentary maker based in Glasgow, Scotland. Sabrina is also the Editor-in-Chief of Disobedient Magazine. / Instagram: @sabrina.sig / Twitter @badgalsabi