As the sun beamed through the windows of the St John the Baptist church in Newcastle this morning, the people gathered in the pews were bathed in lustrous hues of aquamarine, magenta, tangerine and luminous yellow. It felt like an auspicious moment for the Platforma Festival, a celebration of creativity and the arts by and about refugees and migrants. The festival is organised biennially by Counterpoints Arts and this year’s programme is set to enthrall and inspire in equal measure across the north east of England.
This art exhibition in the church was created by French-Algerian artist Katia Kameli. The project was commissioned by Art and Christianity Enquiry and organised in collaboration with Platforma to explore themes of residency and belonging. Kameli’s vibrant installation uses diamonds of colour that reference design motifs native to some of the primary countries from which refugees and migrants relocate to Newcastle. Her work was inspired from all over the world: Chinese and Iranian design, Kuba cloth from DR Congo, Iraqi mosaics, Eritrean fabric design representing the Rashaida people and Phulkari cloth from the Punjab region. In the bright morning sunshine it created a magical, reflective, kaleidoscopic effect.
The official opening of the Platforma festival followed on from an exhilarating two-day strategy session, run by Counterpoints Arts and supported by Unbound Philanthropy and the Social Change Initiative. The session explored how pop culture has the potential to be a driving force for social change in the UK, exploring a range of themes:
• There is an urgent need for authenticity and representation in our mainstream, popular culture in the UK. If your personal identity is not aptly represented in popular culture then you are likely to feel marginalised. Poor representation breeds mistrust and lack of respect. Conversely, diverse representation in pop culture builds tolerance and understanding. As Riz Ahmed states: “Every time you see yourself reflected in the media, it’s a message that you matter”. There is a role to play for broadcasters, funders, production companies, public figures, and many others to make diverse representation real and authentic.
• Stories and narratives have the ability to educate and empathise, nudge and normalise. Subtle narratives, messages and stories can change hearts and minds, particularly when using a ‘show don’t tell’ approach. Sharing stories is a powerful way of bringing social justice issues into the mainstream, busting stereotypes and injecting pathos into the public debate. And where better to get mainstream awareness than in our popular culture. A recent example is the gripping storyline in The Archers, featuring a searing, powerful portrayal of domestic abuse. The show was the trigger for a new law in the UK to create an offence for ‘controlling or coercive behaviour’. It strengthens the notion that political and policy change is more likely to come about following a cultural shift in the population at large.
• Social movements arise by tapping into the zeitgeist – i.e. by riding the waves of emerging trends and innovation. When something captures the public imagination it can reach out to millions of people, particularly when something feels new, trendy and ‘of the moment’. Jigsaw’s recent ‘love immigration’ adverts demonstrate how the fashion industry can set more than just sartorial trends. YouTube’s Creators for Change initiative is raising up a diverse group of socially-minded YouTubers through an ambassador programme which is boosting their profile and reach. See also Majid Adin’s re-imagining of Elton John’s rocket man, supported by YouTube, which has 11,137,268 views and counting…
• If we are going to be truly successful in leveraging the power of pop culture then we need to build relationships and networks across and between sectors in the UK – particularly between the media and entertainment industries, philanthropy and the voluntary sector. This will allow us to forge friendships, spark new ideas and share true and compassionate stories about refugees and migrants. There is already a great body of work emerging in the USA that is bolstering networks, pioneered by the Pop Culture Collaborative and the #PopJustice report series. We were lucky to learn from the influential work of two PCC grantees carrying out pioneering work in the pop culture arena: Caring Across Generations and Define American.
Refugee and migrant activists are all too aware of the need to reach beyond the choir and seek out a broader audience for their work. Leveraging the power of pop culture presents an exciting opportunity. But, there are challenges with riding the waves of popular culture – notably an understandable reticence on the part of arts and culture funders to delve into a commercial environment. Not to mention an appreciable wariness from creatives about politicisation and being hijacked by a cause.
But, nevertheless, the opportunity to influence pop culture is a nascent field with exciting potential. And it’s not just about investing in the unpredictable, and often fickle, world of content creation. There is a role for funders in supporting opportunities to bring people together from different industries to provoke the sharing of ideas and stories. There is also a pressing need to create more diverse representation across our popular culture – on which many industries have a role to play.
Community and cultural arts projects may not always reach the mainstream, but they seed ideas, provoke thought, raise the profile of the voiceless and offer much-needed hope at a time when vulnerable people are so often disregarded and disrespected. Platforma is a welcome and much-needed space for artists like Katia Kameli, and many others, to share stories and create messages of hope.
Likewise, leveraging pop culture may not be the panacea to addressing large-scale social problems and it certainly presents many challenges. But, pop culture does have the potential to change hearts and minds with far-reaching consequences. British pop culture spreads its tentacles far and wide, be it television, film, music, fashion or sport. We should consider ways to connect these industries with the philanthropic and social justice sectors so we can ride the waves of popular culture in the months and years ahead.