An interview with Hassan Mahamdallie, Senior Diversity Strategy Officer, Arts Council England by Lynne Blackwood.
When asked to interview Hassan Mahamdallie for Disability Arts Online, I had only read introductory lines about him on the Personal to the Universal Symposium programme. While researching and finding out more about his activities, or should I say activism, I discovered a man of convictions; an intelligently humane person and tireless activist working in the interest of all members of society, strongly advocating the case for diversity with all its aspects and components.
I awaited his delivery from the symposium panel with curiosity. I knew Hassan had things to say and neither the audience nor I were disappointed. His energy and passion enthused and galvanized the attendees.
He told of how as a mixed-race boy of 10 or 11 in the 1970s, he was regularly chased down the road by skinheads and began taking refuge in the local library where his love of books grew. It was there he discovered a love for Charles Dickens.
So when I spoke to him over lunch, I asked if Dickens had made him aware of classes and systems and whether it was a major influence in his future activism. His reply was that he loved Dickens as a, “quite complex but wonderful storyteller.” But what struck him was that “in the middle of it, there’s this burning injustice. Now, whatever you think of Dickens whether or not his morality is something that we could adhere to today, those raw questions of class, injustice, power, corruption, you have to relate to those things that he talks about.”
He continued by explaining the further influence on him of his mother who was “a class warrior” in the 1960s when mixed-race marriages were unacceptable. How “she was a very principled woman who turned her back on her own mother” when approval of her relationship with Hassan’s Indian-Trinidadian father was not forthcoming, and, “never crossed her mother’s front door for twenty years. Never spoke to her for over a dozen years, even though it completely cut her off from her own roots.”
Family, principles, childhood and Dickens have all influenced Hassan’s particular form of arts and diversity activism. He is collaborating on the Loyal Enemy project, inspired by Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall’s life. The same principles or his childhood experiences applied when he spoke admiringly of how Pickthall “escaped his roots but managed to construct himself another life completely. He became as much of a Muslim, or maybe even more of a Muslim, than people who are born into Islam.
“The choices he made were difficult choices, to break with all that and become an outcast, an outsider shut out of respectable society, to find some kind of solace in being an outsider on the periphery.
“That says something about humanity, which I find very hopeful in one sense. That question of empathy, that notion of human beings being able to immerse themselves in another human being’s experience, become extremely knowledgeable about it then begin to translate and express it. There’s something about an artistic or a creative process in there somewhere.”
Hassan’s belief that our differences can transform our lives and influence the lives of others underpinned his work on the Arts Council England diversity agenda, The Creative Case for Diversity in the Arts. For him the reaction of arts organisations to this is “overwhelmingly positive. They might not all match up to their rhetoric of what they say they’re going to do. But I can hardly say it’s been a difficult argument. The Creative Case has been an extremely well-received set of ideas. There’s a consensus around this notion of the relationship, the intimate relationship, between creativity and diversity.”
So what of the burning question on everyone’s lips at this moment: the future of art, diversity, multiculturalism and equality in an increasingly divisive and intolerant society? Hassan’s response embraced and included in his vision of society and the arts, all of these things.
“Our society is being divided. We are encouraged to be intolerant. But would I say that it has gained hegemony, that that is the only game in town? I don’t think so.
“When David Cameron made his speech condemning multiculturalism a couple of years back there was quite a grassroots rejection of that position. I understand where that came from. Because if I think about my own experience I was brought up in the 60s and 70s, when it was quite hard times if you were black, in one sense, in terms of structural inequalities, we have come a long way. The reason why we have come a long way is because people struggled and fought.
“Multiculturalism [for me] is not something imposed as some kind of grand conspiracy from the top of society. Multiculturalism has grown like grass grows on the lawn, or weeds are entangled up in it. It’s a natural process. There have been acts of negotiation between ordinary people and communities where they have managed to negotiate around what they have in common.
“That, it seems to me, is a process which I think will be very difficult to reverse. I think that would take some really extreme ideology to unravel all that. That lived experience of multiculturalism is something which people are prepared to defend. Because I believe it’s actually part of their DNA now, either literally or metaphorically.
“Equality is a simple thing. The heat of the attacks on, for example, disabled people and stigmatisation of disabled people reveals the strength of feeling there is on the ground around the question of the welfare state, the notion society should have a safety net. That that’s actually being part of the community and some support that people need should be given to them. They have a right whatever it might be.
“Equality, diversity, all these issues, come and go. These headlines come and go. I have to believe that underneath is a reservoir of support for that kind of work.”
In this context, Hassan announced that all the members of the diversity team at the Arts Council are being made redundant in this latest round of cuts. So what next?
“Back to my theatre practice, which I really want to do. Because I enjoy that and I think I might have something to offer there.”
And evidently, “…activism wherever else it needs to be.”