'Who are you to tell the story?': Exploring the experience of Central and Eastern European migrant artists

Dr Kinga Goodwin, Policy Impact Post-Doctoral Fellow in the Department of Modern Languages works on the project ‘In-between spaces: Central and Eastern European Art and Artists in the UK in the UK Creative Economies’.  Here she discusses the lived experience of CEE artists, and the implications they feel their migrant status has on their careers, based on the findings of the ‘In-Between Spaces’ policy report released today (9th March).

Sculpture in Plovdiv, Bulgaria (Kinga Goodwin, 2018)

More than Folklore 

When the film ended and credits started rolling, it was a common custom for many of us who grew up behind the Iron Curtain to try to spot familiar sounding surnames. It was even more exciting if one of the characters was somehow related to our country. This excitement was, however, often mixed with amusement on how our respective cultures were portrayed. Even now, certain stereotypes are present in contemporary Western imagery and art. This imagery is rooted in complicated West-East power relations, and uncertainty around whether Central and Eastern European (CEE) cultures should be treated as similar (European and predominantly white), or different and exotic. As a result, we rarely see more than generic ‘old women in the countryside (…) wearing folk costumes, singing’ in what is supposed to be a contemporary CEE country. Even in the otherwise stereotype breaking Killing Eve we see a dilapidated Polish village with hen-feeding babushkas, and a ‘drugged out Polish woman’ (played by Edyta Budnik, who mentioned that the roles she is offered are ‘almost always those of cleaners, prostitutes or migrants who barely speak English’.) 

Across the UK, CEE artists are underrepresented in major art galleries, spaces and festivals. They often struggle to find effective career strategies as a group ‘not diverse enough’, and yet still othered. This is a key finding of the project ‘In-Between Spaces: Central and Eastern European Art and Artists in the UK Creative Economies’, started at the initiative of Centrala Space, who observed the lack of representation of the UK’s CEE community in the cultural sphere. The resulting report – to be launched on 10 March – explores the lived experiences of CEE migrant artists through a series of one-to-one interviews.

The Mysterious, Shadowy East

When encountering CEE characters in films, it is not uncommon to realise they either speak with an incorrect accent, use the wrong language, or inhabit an unspecified, vaguely Eastern terrain. Many major media outlets mix up CEE countries, lumping smaller countries with their larger neighbours. ‘Balkans are mixed with the Baltics (…) [with] no interest in what is happening in the East of Germany’ said one artist, while another added ‘most people (…) have no idea where Serbia is (…) and that I’m from Yugoslavia originally’. At the same time, an assumption of commonalities amongst the former Homines Sovietici leads to amusing situations such as treating Serbian and Romanian artists as a collective. ‘This is absurd’ – recalls one of the artists – ‘we don’t have the same cultural heritage, we haven’t been to each other’s countries, we don’t (…) understand each other’s languages’. Some believe that the lack of a colonial link between the UK and the CEE regions results in little interest and uncertainty of how to pigeonhole CEE communities, who are not seen as ethnic minorities in the same way as those from post-colonial cultures. This ambiguity is (as some artists believe) combined with the aesthetic and political conservatism of arts institutions, a penchant for the decorative rather than conceptual art, and a culturalist tendency to perpetuate outdated stereotypes. 

Ticking the Boxes

Arts Council England (ACE) declares its commitment to fully reflect and represent England’s diversity in the culture it produces, and acknowledges there are different barriers to representation. This stance is, however, poorly reflected in ACE diversity measures, that fail to capture CEE as cultural and ethnic minorities and exclude them from opportunities created for ‘diverse communities’. As many other institutions, ACE follows the Office for National Statistics diversity classifications for England, in which the only category for CEE is ‘any other white’. This ‘leftover box’, as one artist describes it, is not included in ACE’s diversity assessments, which rather focuses on other minorities such as LGBT artists, disabled, females or BME. 

Both terms ‘BME’ and ‘white other’ have been criticised as outdated, and are increasingly replaced by more precise measurements that do not exclude white minorities, and people with a mixed ethnic background. Nonetheless, many CEE artists feel they do not ‘tick the right boxes’, and that the diversity policies of the Arts Council are mainly about ‘looking different’, which leaves them in the ‘grey zone’. At the same time, they notice that performances of a stereotypical CEE identity are popular and encouraged. ‘People have assumed that I should make work about being a Bulgarian just because I am a Bulgarian’ – says one artist, adding that she thinks of art as an emancipatory process of ‘transcending who you are and where you are from’, and does not want to perform ‘sellable’ differences. ‘I didn’t want to explore my grandmother’s craft’ – says another one –‘[and] make a product of it’. 

‘Who are you to tell the story?’

The curious position in-between spaces and feeling of ‘being surrounded by invisible walls’ is experienced by many CEE artists. On one hand they are not included in diversity assessments as ethnic minorities that need representation, on the other they feel they are expected to perform outdated cultural traits. At the same time, they report that progressive cultural institutions do not engage, many doors are closed, and there is significant discrimination when it comes to CEE sounding surnames and qualifications. A lack of established networks and the inability to attend private viewings, for example, also makes it ‘harder to break through’, and as a newcomer, one needs to be careful in formulating concepts as to ‘not offend an art institution’. Imagological research shows that ‘national stereotypes have been central to the development of art scholarships’ and the power balance between the ‘high’ and ‘low’ art often mirrors dynamics between the observing majority and the observed (and consumed) minority. These dynamics between the CEE artists and established arts institutions are a part of a larger relationship between the East and West, which often sees CEE communities only as menial workers.

CEE communities are well established in the UK, and an important part of the contemporary British Heritage. As there are dedicated spaces for CEE artists such as Centrala, it may be time for ACE and other arts institutions to properly include them, and let them have their own voice.

Read the full report, In-between Spaces: Inclusion and Representation of Central and Eastern European (CEE) Artists in the UK Creative Economy, here