Many Voices Q&A with Claricia Parinussa
As part of her Many Voices project, Arusa Qureshi speaks to industry figures in Scotland to hear their thoughts on diversity and the inclusion of underrepresented voices in their respective fields
As a movement researcher, artist and producer, Claricia Parinussa has worked in some of Scotland’s most innovative and exciting creative spaces, lending her talents to a range of projects. As well as being an Associate Artist at Dance Base, she is a part of the core team of multi-disciplinary collaborative company V/DA and currently works with Tramway, //BUZZCUT// and independently with artists like Farah Saleh. In 2017, she co-founded the House Ball community platform Vogue Scotland, which celebrates Black and POC queer people through the artforms of the Ballroom and was invited into the Iconic House of Revlon in the same year, becoming the first Scottish member of a mainstream house. More recently, she formed the queer POC-led and focussed collective ID.Y with collaborating producers Zoë Charlery and Natasha Ruwona to help create and facilitate space for artists, researchers, curators and producers in Scotland, bringing her experience of working in dance and theatre to supporting independent artists, especially at a time when such support is vital. In this Q&A, Claricia discusses mentorship, access and why a willingness to discuss the issues is just the first step to making real change.
When you entered the industry in Scotland, did you see anyone like you that you could look to for mentorship or support?
I did have mentors early on, through programmes like DEBS and Breakin Convention Open Art Surgery 2012. In 2017, I came onto the Dance Base Associate Artist programme with Bush Hartshorn – I didn’t even call myself an artist before that point – and at the same time was also part of the Project X Associate Artist programme and this was where things changed. Across all my strands of work, Ashanti Harris, Rhea Lewis and Mele Broomes have mentored me from the beginning, even when they weren’t aware of it.
Lucy Suggate has mentored me since 2017. I was her biggest fangirl and still am! Then when she asked me to work with her I was like, what me?! Also Marikiscrycrycry who I’ve spent shorter amounts of time with, and who has influenced and supported me so much. We have to acknowledge those artists who are speaking out all the time and really challenging things like they are, not just speaking out on what happens so often and just chiming in online. But speaking to the ones at the top of hierarchies; holding those spaces, inviting people to hold themselves accountable, and taking time to support their peers, whilst making incredible work
My collaborators also, Zoë Charlery, Natasha Ruwona, are incredible minds and souls to work alongside; and Sabrina Henry too for her generosity and consideration. It’s the people who you know you could call when you’re in a situation where you can’t think anymore or someone’s trying it or any of those things, and know that they’re there. And you’re there for them. Otherwise it just wouldn’t be possible.
And people I spent really short amounts of time with like Rosina Bonsu, rest in peace. She only ever needed to say about three words and she had such a huge impact on my work and the way I think and create, and I look at her and go, she was here from the beginning. It’s the people who only need to say three words and change everything. So there were people around and there still are.
One reason individuals don’t pursue such an industry is because they don’t see people of colour in senior/management positions and don’t feel as if they could ever be in those positions as a result. What’s your opinion on this? Is it a concern you share?
In terms of being an artist, I’ve definitely had people to look up to, the people I’ve mentioned are in Scotland, but a lot weren’t and it was about me looking for those people, even if they weren’t right in front of me. I think the same in terms of producing as well, because there were very few producers that I’d met at a certain time that were people of colour. When you look higher up in organisations, as an artist that’s where I do notice it. But to an extent, I work independently; I work on my own projects and I make my own projects rather than working within a company. So I determine a lot of that myself and I surround myself with the teams that I want to work with who happen to be BIPOC, whereas as a producer and working in an organisation, that’s where I might feel the difference a bit more acutely.
At Tramway, Naomi Shoba the Senior Arts, Music and Diversity Manager for Glasgow Life is amazing. Being able to go to her with specific situations or a little bit of guidance on certain things or seeing how she works and learning the language she uses and how she navigates certain situations and how she advises me – that’s been really, really invaluable in my working there. So I think that’s really important and if I didn’t have someone like her in the type of job I have, I think things would be more difficult. And the change she’s able to make is supported and enabled by her seniority; this is why change so often can’t happen because it’s blocked elsewhere, further up the hierarchy.
With Project X as well, they did a symposium in 2017, Let’s Move to More Visibility and they brought up practitioners to speak like Oluwatoyin Odunsi. She facilitated the long table and I really looked up to her. And there was LEAP festival that I performed at in 2018 which had a whole panel of amazing pioneering Black women; Sharon Watson, Beverley Glean MBE, Jeanefer Jean-Charles, Carolene Hinds with Oluwatoyin. That was amazing and I remember staying an extra night just because I wanted to spend more time with them after we’d all met. It is just that thing where you don’t know that you need it until you have it. And it’s really emotional actually; I just turned up there alone, to perform, and you feel it and you didn’t realise that you’ve been holding on to something and needing that for so long until that point.
How open do you feel the Scottish creative industries are in terms of discussions of diversity, equality and anti-racist work?
Sure, a lot more organisations are open to having a conversation. And especially with the black squares farce on social media, there is an opening into that conversation because people exposed themselves. So there’s a question in terms of what has driven the ‘openness’ and what has driven it now as opposed to that openness not existing before, and whether that means it’s meaningful and intentional or reactionary, with people trying to maintain a public image.
Once the full scale or even the beginnings of the extent of the work to be done is made clear and is made apparent, the question then is, is there an openness to actually doing the work or is there only an openness to having certain conversations? By those I mean the type of conversations that go round and round or the conversations that happen between white people with a token Black or brown person in the room and where the same sort of hierarchies are maintained.
So there’s a lot of layers to that question. The openness or feigned openness can get you so far and it’s about the stamina that people have for those conversations and the openness that people have to actually have that conversation with themselves, because that’s what I don’t see. I see people being open to having the conversation in the context of their organisation and what they can do and the policies and the changes they can make. But it’s not like they’re prepared to give away any of their power or even admit they hold what power they do. And it’s like they’re not questioning their motives or their approaches and they’re certainly not questioning their own personal complicity in maintaining these structures which give way to the kind of symptomatic visibility or lack of representation that we see which are only symptoms of the actual problem.
There are a lot of people that are having the conversations and scrambling to have them. And it’s all words and it’s all a willingness to act, but it’s not a willingness to look in and understand that the action has to start from literally sitting with the fact that most people don’t understand how white supremacist thinking is ingrained in themselves and their actions until they undo it. And that’s literally the answer. People are like, “what can we do? And can you help us? Can you talk about that?” And I always say yes but I’m still going to tell you the same thing. It’s like people have to open that lens, then they have to lift it and be aware of it and everything that they do. And that’s when things happen. Like stop with the forums, you’ve been told already. I literally will only be repeating words that someone else has said already and hasn’t been listened to; that’s what’s so frustrating. It’s like oh can you help us? Sure, Q1 has a Black artist ever brought something to your attention where you could have done better? What have you done about that? People are out here acting brand new. Why are you asking me when it’s my mentors that have been telling you things for years and you’ve ignored them – why?
People might have an openness to an extent but they don’t have the patience or the stamina or the willingness or the accountability or the personal responsibility. It’s all of those things that you actually need to move things forward. And it’s about stopping sometimes; often, it’s about being quiet. Stopping this flurry of activity of wanting to be seen to ‘do’ something about BLM that doesn’t do anything, that causes more harm – just stop. And actually reflect.
What can be done to get more creatives of colour involved in the arts in Scotland in a way that is genuine and not tokenistic, with attention also given to sustained support?
I mean, we are involved. The industry needs to realise what a hostile environment it’s maintaining and stop pushing people out and denying that that’s what’s happening. It’s about value systems. Stopping and considering the decisions that have been made in any moment. Who decides who gets that opportunity. Who decided who got to decide who gets that opportunity. Who decides who decides who decides and look who it takes you back to. Creating meaningful relationships. There’s one small organisation that I’m working with and they’ve said we want to make change but we’re really aware that we’re a majority white organisation and we’ve not worked with many artists of colour before. How would we approach that in a meaningful way? They’re looking ahead in terms of a five year plan and this is the conversation I can have, because if an organisation is trying to work with more artists of colour and they don’t have any relationships, then those are relationships they need to build and not just reach for the first person they know. They need to actually think about what it is to cultivate relationships and allow the space and the time for that and for a trust to build.
I think in terms of having people coming into this sector and creatives, it has to start from really early. Right now there’s a lack of representation throughout the industry in a way, and that needs to filter through. I taught a three-day workshop to first year RCS students and that point there when someone starts uni can be a really crucial point in terms of whether they can make it through the course depending on the institution or if they even get to the institution in the first place. If they don’t, what routes are being opened for access into these creative careers? We all know it starts from as early as nursery.
I always say that you don’t need to go to dance college if you want to perform and it depends on what you want to make or what you want to do. Sure, go to college if you want but if you want to make work, it’s about whatever your form is, whatever your medium is, it’s about having a rigour in that and if you want to make then make. It’s about breaking down the value systems a little bit. I have a degree, but everything that I do now and everything that I’ve done has come from being given an opportunity. Being a producer, that all started with an internship that I got as a volunteer coordinator with the first ever SURGE Festival in 2010. I’d been working in restaurants and wanted to transfer my skills, which I did through that and making the work that I make now, that has literally nothing to do with what I trained at college. In my artistic work now, I had to unlearn what I learned at college. That’s where Lucy helped me a lot and me making my own training in a way through the Associate Artist programmes. So I think it’s about opening the access routes in and and looking at the ways in which we value different forms of training and different ways of getting experience.
It’s not a stable career, it’s not a secure career at all. And to an extent it’s still people with certain levels of privilege who can access certain opportunities. I was lucky with my internship, for example, that it was a certain number of days a week and my travel was covered and I could still work at the restaurant the other days of the week so I could make it work. But a lot of opportunities aren’t so flexible. Sometimes it’s either full time or nothing. So it’s about people who are offering opportunities being a bit more flexible with working. We’ve just spent most of the year working from home, whereas people before would say that would be an issue. And now it’s not. So if we can do that, then what else are you able to work with? Institutional systems have themselves and everyone they interact with, believe that things can’t work any differently and that’s just not true.
What steps would you like to see your industry take in getting more diverse voices involved more broadly?
I’m so tired of this word. But yeah, I can only speak from my experience and feeling part of a collective, a community, has never felt so important. Because people will have you question yourself to no end. Like I said stop pushing people out, stop drowning out the voices who are here.
If the infrastructures are really improved in terms of independence and sustained support, then step one is cultivating anti-racist practice. And I mean invest in time, resources, effort, commitment, energy. Consider really carefully the power structures at play in every invitation that’s made, in every opportunity that’s created. Stop just extracting from Black people, from queer POC. Credit people. The things that have been happening recently, it’s wild. Like oh we’ll create training opportunities for queer and BIPOC and anyone with any protected characteristic to get trained up in our workplace, our way of working. Notice why they immediately think that people aren’t qualified already. It’s about making the effort to widen your reach or widen where your job opportunities are going and make an effort to connect on a personal level with people. If you want them to apply, make an effort to understand. Don’t be putting out opportunities with a two week turnaround and then say, but we really would love for you to apply. If you’re not familiar to people that you want to be applying, then find a way to make an effort before expecting that people want to even work with you because maybe they don’t and maybe you’re not ready. Because if it’s not safe, if none one’s invested in an anti-racist practice, then chances are a person of colour coming in is going to have a really horrible time at some point because it’s inevitable. No amount of good intentions or reading books is going to help in a practical setting.
The premise of white supremacy is really simple. It’s simple because it’s dumb. It’s the manifestations which are convoluted and layered and operate on their own denial. I look at Sonya Renee Taylor’s stuff, who wrote The Body Is Not an Apology and they have these videos which speak really, really clearly and talk about this kind of bodily hierarchy where whiteness is at the top and blackness is at the bottom and everyone is on that ladder somewhere. They speak of the delusion, the sickness of white supremacy. And the ways in which we all internalise those systems. I think once you start understanding that on a personal level, that’s when you can make change in your individual work and then your collective work and then in the sector. It takes time.
For organisations, if you don’t have the reach and if you’re working with a practitioner, curator, who’s Black or POC, let them do their thing. Just support them to do what they need to do. Do what they tell you they need, and notice if your instinct is to hover around, step in, micromanage or any of those behaviours which indicate that the exchange is not meaningful. If it’s their job to bring in the artist, then let them do that. Literally, step back and don’t get in the way, be ready to support as asked of you.
And then in those ways, things can happen really quickly. Helen McIntosh, for example, when she was at Dance Base, she was asked to curate this autumn showcase and said, “I’m not really a curator, do you want to co-curate with me?” And she literally just facilitated what I wanted to do and we made a whole festival and that was only possible because she listened and because I trusted her, because the community was, is, literally my family. And that was ID.Y and that ethos has carried through to what ID.Y is now and advocates for. So I mean, there’s many steps. A lot of people just pretend they don’t know what they are.