Relive WEN Cafe: Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts

Thursday November 3rd, 2022
A photo from the WEN Cafe event of Catherine Fookes, Nicole Bird, Cara Walker, Jessica Dunrod and Ify Iwobi.
L-R Catherine Fookes, Nicole Bird, Cara Walker, Jessica Dunrod, Ify Iwobi

On Wednesday 26th October we came together at a WEN event in person for the first time since 2019 – this was the first hybrid WEN Cafe event, with an in-person panel at the Temple of Peace in Cardiff streamed online to attendees across Wales. We launched the WEN Cafe series of events during the pandemic, and to see the format make its way to a physical venue with the opportunity to interact with panellists and audiences face-to-face was a special moment for Team WEN. Thank you to all who joined us on the day, whether that was in person or over Zoom.

If you missed it, or simply would like to watch again, you can watch the panel on Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts via YouTube.

Panel Lineup

Cara Walker, Creative Associate from theatre company Fio
Ify Iwobi, musician and composer
Jessica Dunrod, writer and author
– Nicole Bird, member of learning disabled drag troupe House of Deviant

Cara spoke about growing up as often the only, or one of the only, people of colour in arts environments and how that dynamic played out in casting for shows like Hairspray and Casualty. She began to think the arts were not a space for her and made a foray into science before realising she had to go back to her artistic roots. That’s when she met Creative Director of Fio Sita Thomas. Being a part of Fio meant having people of colour all around her as role models, for the first time in her life. The space enabled her to hone her creativity and bring her perspective as a young black woman in Wales to the fore as a Creative Associate at the company.

The support of a group was also a theme that came up for Nicole, performing as a drag queen as part of Wales’ first and only learning disabled drag troupe House of Deviant. The House of Deviant project is described as a vehicle to explore self-esteem and autonomy with adults with learning disabilities, and Nicole says that performing as her alter ego Flossie Sunshine makes her feel fabulous and happy. She would tell her past self to be brave.

Jessica, Wales’ first Black children’s author, spoke about the barriers she has faced to being published as a Black author and called for publishers and gatekeepers to do better and publish more Black authors.  Looking back at her experiences at school, where she was the only Black pupil in the class, the institutional barriers and racism that she faced are much clearer to her now. She says she would explain to her 16-year-old self what George Floyd meant so that she would understand this at an earlier age.

When asked the same question of what advice she would give to her 16-year-old self, Ify spoke about the importance she places on putting yourself out there and paving the way for yourself. Cara agrees – she would tell herself to be the change she wants to see. She was dealing with a lot of anger and frustration during the re-emergence of Black Lives Matter, and it was a challenge to channel those emotions into something good – which she is now doing through her art. Jessica, through her experiences in the literary industry, has learned to trust in herself and her own expertise – the particular expertise that only she can bring to the table. She doesn’t feel that she’s overcome the barriers she’s faced, but she’s kept going.

In the record industry, Ify discussed the relative lack of local record labels distributing Black music and the struggle to get the support to be nurtured as an artist of colour. Again, support networks emerged as a key need in order to remain resilient in an industry where those support networks for minoritised people can be rare. For Cara, being resilient is about taking the barriers you face and using them as motivation, otherwise they will tear you apart. “I think that’s what a lot of art is – it’s about using the horrible things that have happened to you and turning them into something beautiful.”

Nicole has found resilience and pride as part of House of Deviant, as have the other members of the drag troupe – “We are proud of who we are!” House of Deviant’s next show is at the Riverfront Theatre in Newport, on Saturday 10th December at 8pm – book your tickets here. Nicole also takes part in Gig Buddies Cymru, a befriending project that matches people with a learning disability with a volunteer who shares the same interests, so they can go to gigs and other events together. She explained that this scheme enables her to go out and have fun.

Looking to the future, panellists want to see more diverse faces in the media, particularly behind the scenes and at the top of the hierarchy. They want the routes into the arts to be easier for the generations that follow them – and they’re doing so much of the work that will make that possible.

To hear all this and much more from the panel, watch the recording here.

By Megan Evans