Safe/Selamat brought together London-based community arts company All Change, writers Priya K (Malaysia) and Francesca Beard (UK) and their communities in Malaysia and the UK for a creative conversation about safety and risk in creative practice.
Here Francesca and Priya reflect on their experience:
Francesca: Priya and I first met in 2008 through Speechless, an ambitious British Council project which brought 5 emerging and established spoken word artists from South East Asia to the Albany Deptford to make a show which toured the UK. Priya was only 21 at the time and had fallen into spoken word by default, being the only one willing to go up on stage on the night her and her friends had decided to start an open mic night.
Actually, I think that many spoken word artists become so by accident, I know I did and was very lucky to fall into the circle of the mighty Apples and Snakes and through the gigs I did with them, I started touring with the British Council. One of the best aspects about working with the British Council was the emphasis placed on cultural exchange. So the tours I was involved in were never solely about performance, about showcasing British talent, they always had a networking and skill sharing, facilitation and co-creation element. And as I moved through my career, I was always looking for that community co-creation aspect to be part of the artistic process, so when I met Suzanne at All Change, I remember thinking OK, this is an organisation I really want to be part of , because All Change was so committed to ambitious, excellent, public facing work but with a profound attention to taking care of each participant on a long term journey.
Priya: I definitely already had that implicit trust with Francesca, and I felt the same working with All Change as well; the warmth, transparency and passion was immediately apparent. It’s also important that I also trusted the BC team, especially here in Malaysia, that they had our back - it meant that I didn’t waste energy over having to keep up appearances.
Francesca: We reconnected through a BC funded collaboration with All Change in 2020 - Connect 360 - which connected writers and communities in Malaysia, Uganda and the UK. Through this project there was an emerging conversation about how artists and participants keep themselves safe, negotiating the online world as well as the political restrictions and potential risks of speaking out and telling stories that will not forgive silence. When this (CTC) opportunity came up, it offered us a chance to do some active research on intersectionality with Priya’s cohort of ‘Women in Gaming’ - which included not women and not in gaming - who had found their way to this safe space, and with an All Change cohort of young women and those questioning their gender identity.
Priya: Emotional safety was a regular topic throughout Connect 360; especially the onslaught of disinformation, post-truth quackery, and the deeply divisive ways people were interacting with each other online.
Francesca: Working closely with All Change has given me a deeper and growing understanding of how important safeguarding is to my artistic practise. There can be a kind of dismissive attitude to safeguarding, it’s the bureaucratic boring bit, the tick boxy bit, the limiting, dry, fun-stealing bit that stops adventure happening. In fact, I am learning that the reverse is true - done well, it means you can go to really adventurous quite dangerous terrain, you can understand how far you can take an audience and what the really worthwhile ground-breaking experiments might be. You can take risks with a sense of principle and responsibility.
Priya: As an older millennial, I came of age during the time where mainstream discussion of “safe spaces'' was starting to be a thing - along with copious amounts of eye-rolling at the concept. For me, this project reinforced the fact that safety is not about coddling or being “nice” - and the appetite for how we might pragmatically do this was voracious.
With the right elements of safety in place - trust, transparency, compassion, and a sense of being heard - there is courage to truly unpack and grapple with important social issues, along with better understanding of how these affect different people.
Safety also plays into the sustainability of creative practice. How can an artist take risks if they’re unable to have basic security? We like to romanticise images of lone artists willing to burn themselves for their ideas, but a world like that also means that so many more stories are extinguished before they are even heard.
The ability to see how safety is conceived in various international contexts was important too. A striking example that has stayed with me was the comparison of those in highly repressive communities where there is fear of speaking out, to those who feel that the freedom of saying anything has rendered them silent because there’s so much noise.
Francesca: So what was really remarkable was how much this subject was richly creative for other artists, it felt like it touched a previously maybe ignored source of energy and channelled some intensely profound and important conversations. I feel quite passionate that I want to be able to continue this conversation in international collaborations as it feels that everyone has something at stake and that it is so intersectional and diverse for everyone, but within that we can begin to develop a language for what really deeply connects us as artists.
Priya: I’m interested in now seeing if there can be a permanent online space to not only keep these conversations going, but also see how these discussions can directly generate more creative writing that can be showcased.
Visit the website for the Safe/Selamat project discussions, outcomes and resources.
Discover more Connections Through Culture collaborations here.
Check out the opportunities from British Council here.