FirstWaves: The legacy of the Race Relation Acts
Scarlett Crawford has always focused her art on politics, race and class. Naturally, she jumped at the chance to pitch for the First Waves project, an exhibition on Race Relations legislation in the UK currently showing in Westminster Hall. With an eclectic mix of contributors, the artist hopes her work illustrates what it is to be British
I saw an advertisement for the First Waves exhibition on social media. The project explores and celebrates the 1965, 1968 and 1976 Race Relations Acts. I rang up the curator’s office just to find out more and said even if I’m not a suitable candidate, I’d really like to follow its progress. My own work is very much about politics, race and class. If I hadn’t got the commission, I’m sure I would have brought my students to come and see it.
I had to do a proposal and share some of my existing work before being doing an interview. It was quite nerve racking, I’d never actually been inside the Houses of Parliament. But I’ve never felt that politics was out of my reach. When I was a kid living in Belfast I used to write to John Major and get letters back from his secretary. The way that I access politics is through the arts. Because of that, I felt that the arts was a way that you could be empowered politically as well as socially.
The project coincided with the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Act. I travelled to communities across the UK to hold workshops and capture the voices of generations who have been directly impacted by the legislation.
I use lots of different mediums, but lens-based is the one I work in the most. With photography, even people who haven’t got much experience in art, in galleries, can engage with it because we’re constantly using photography in advertising and in media. We understand how to read them. From the very onset of my career, I wanted the people I was depicting in my work to be able to engage with it. I didn’t want it to be far removed from Brixton to an art gallery. That gap can be so hard to bridge.
I asked participants to choose from four non-culturally specific items to visualise their feelings on race relations legislation. The lightbulb was to symbolise bringing light to a dark period or the idea of the Acts themselves. The parchment paper was to represent legislation. The ribbon is what they used to tie together the physical Acts. That was used to represent community. Then the pens represent being mightier than the sword. It was to honour the people that had protested for the legislation to be brought into place.
What would I have done with the symbols? In the previous piece of work that I did that inspired this project, it looked like I was either throwing a lightbulb towards the camera, or it was coming towards me, or it was hovering above my hand. So, you’ve got optimism but is it coming towards us or going away?
We also interviewed participants and recorded their answers, putting some of them into a soundscape. There was a lot of humour in the face of adversity – the stories often came across as quite funny and light-hearted. When you get deeper, you realise that so many people have these stories that have been brushed off.
The thing that surprised me was how well the different groups engaged with the arts activities and ideas that I was bringing. The first group that we worked with was 60 south Asian women in Glasgow, and they got it straight away. The variety of responses we got was amazing. Some were so simple and powerful in themselves.
In the exhibition you can clearly see there are lots of people who are frustrated and angry, but there also people who are really hopeful and happy that the Acts were brought in. So, there is a really good balance of responses.
For me, it is remarkable that a piece of legislation like the Race Relations Act 1968 was made at the time that it was. The fact that there were three amendments to the act itself shows that it was in flux and would change. In terms of race relations, that’s the thing – there’s no fixed point where you’ve got it right. With the changes in our society, the different people that are coming all the time, what we have to do is take the experiences – negative and positive – and learn from them.
The Windrush scandal came out while we were undertaking the project. It impacted upon my own family and my father. It’s all sorted now, he is a British citizen. Going into the community groups, I was initially quite nervous. I thought there would be a lot of angry people or people who wanted to talk about Windrush rather than the actual project. Then I realised that it was so vital that this project was being done at this time, because it did give the community members the opportunity to amplify their voices when they really felt like they needed to be heard.
I really hope that all the audiences, including the MPs and people who come to see the First Waves exhibition, realise this is something that we all can engage with. I really hope that by having such a wide and diverse range of cultures within the project, ranging from Irish to Vietnamese to West African to south Asian, we can start to understand that this is what means to be British.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Race Relations Act, First Waves, an exhibition which includes artworks co-created by communities across the country, will be on display in Westminster Hall until 13 February