I live in Cardiff, Europe’s so-called youngest capital, with around 350,000 inhabitants in 2019. A city only since 1905 and the capital city of Wales since 1955. Wales, Cymru. This small, beautiful, ancient, geographically varied, linguistically diverse and culturally rich nation on the western edge of the British mainland. Finally conquered and colonised by the English in the 16th Century, (with many much earlier attempts) it has been struggling with its relationship to its all-powerful Eastern neighbour ever since.
Nothing is straightforward here.
Wales forms part of the United Kingdom, but is the only nation not reflected in the UK’s national flag. Is it a country, nation, region, home nation, principality? Choose the wrong term, and your political allegiance – or ignorance – is laid bare. Devolution ensured the creation of the Welsh Assembly in 1999, and the Welsh Government now has 60 directly elected AMs (Assembly Members) with fully devolved responsibilities for education and culture, for instance. The Senedd, the seat of Welsh Government, stands proud in Cardiff Bay. Welsh and English are both official languages (the Welsh Language Act enshrines this in law) and the country has a dual education system, with demand for Welsh medium education rising.
I came to Wales in 2004, long before the 2008 financial crash, and before anyone would have considered the 2019 nightmarish reality of the ongoing Brexit chaos a remote possibility. And boy, have things changed in the arts since I first arrived. After more than a decade of UK Tory Government imposed austerity, public funding for the arts has seen reduction upon reduction, which would have been unthinkable in 2004. Local authorities, for instance, responsible for anything from schools, public toilets, care for the elderly, libraries and leisure centres, have in large parts of the country cut their arts budgets altogether, while dozens of libraries have closed (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-38654997).
When I arrived, I came as part of my degree in British Studies at Humboldt University in Berlin and undertook a 4 month work placement with the Arts Council of Wales. I was a German European, on a fleeting visit. I have now called Wales my home for 15 Years and have lived in Cardiff longer than in any other city. But I am not so sure anymore how best to describe myself or how other people might describe me. A European, German, Welsh, British, dual National or (in Prime Minister Theresa Mays’ words), a citizen of nowhere? Brexit has certainly had an impact on us migrant workers, even before it has really happened. Established concepts of identity, previously taken for granted, have shifted and despite us all having more in common than divides us, it has polarized attitudes and perceptions. I feel less British now than ever before, although I became naturalised as a British Citizen in 2017, in direct response to Brexit. I am more aware of my ‘otherness’ and will never quite be able to trust this country in the same way as I did before the 2016 referendum.
Brexit is all encompassing and all-around us. And yet, explicit cultural, artistic or literary works directly dealing with this theme are still relatively uncommon or less visible. Possibly because the shock of the referendum result still sits deep and the ongoing uncertainty also poses more questions than answers on a daily basis. It is the general paranoia and this state of uncertainty that comes through in many works and is a looming theme in cultural and intellectual debates everywhere.
One of the most direct Brexit-related art works I have seen recently is an exhibition called ‘Go Home Polish’, shown by Ffotogallery as part of the-city wide Diffusion Festival in Cardiff. It featured works by Polish photographer and artist Michal Iwanowski and chronicled his walk, on foot, from his home in Cardiff to his native Poland, after having seen the words ‘Go Home Polish’ graffitied onto a wall near his home in his adopted city. A deeply moving, thought-provoking and poignant piece of work, very much of these times.
Despite the unease and sense of uncertainty, there are many positive things to focus on and many areas of excellence, which Wales should celebrate and shout about. These are areas where Wales can offer unique learning points and inspiration to others and international cultural managers in particular.
Bilingualism and specifically our legal framework around protecting the Welsh language and securing its future are a key aspect. How this forms part of public and civic life, as well as how this is reflected in the education sector in Wales is exemplary and something we should be proud of. We have a lot to offer other bi- and multilingual nations in terms of best practice in this area. Additionally, Welsh Government’s strategy to roll out a new curriculum from 2022 and root the creative arts firmly in the education sector is impressive and worth celebrating.
The fact that culture and education are devolved matters is not well-known overseas (or even amongst many colleagues in the arts in England) and I think this should be emphasised and utilised more as an asset. The harsh financial environment and increasing necessity to ‘diversify income streams’ and justify ‘return on investment’ for any arts and cultural organisation has by necessity led to a more streamlined approach, professionalisation and maybe a better focus in the arts. There are now more experts in Wales in the areas of arts and health, arts and wellbeing and arts managers often possess a passionate understanding that the status quo is no longer acceptable. Arts and cultural provision has to be relevant, accessible, inclusive and representative of a wider group of people and many arts organisations in Wales are increasingly serious and innovative in making this happen.
Brilliant work is also being done in arts and health, arts and sport and in using arts and culture generally to meet the aims of the Well-being of Future Generations Act. The fact that Wales has legislation around protecting its indigenous language, as well as the wellbeing of future generations is in itself worth emphasising and many overseas individuals might be really interested in this kind of legislation, which is unique and different from that of other parts of the UK. Very recently, Welsh Government also declared a Climate Emergency, as one of the first governments to do so.
Wales is a tolerant, welcoming and inclusive nation and strives for a more equal society with opportunities for all. These core values underpin a lot of our cultural activities, particularly in international contexts.
So what of my identity as a Cultural Manager living in Wales in 2019? Am I still European? British? Welsh enough? German, still? Bi-national? More than anything, I believe we’re all humans, being. We’re in this together and we’ve got to find better ways to debate and find creative solutions to the bigger, global challenges. And if that makes me a citizen of nowhere, I take that anytime.
Foto by Jeremy Segrott, Winter sunshine and shadows: Coldstream Terrace, Cardiff, CC BY 4.0