Resourceful Asian seeks partner with money

September 10, 2004

A rich repository of South Asian culture needs a backer, but universities, though an ideal match, lack the funds, says Sara Wajid.

Partnerships between independent archives and universities are like an arranged marriage that suits everyone except the bride and groom. I work at Salidaa (South Asian Diaspora Literature and Arts Archive) and have been meeting unsuitable boys all year.

Countless matchmakers, particularly prospective funders, have suggested that Salidaa team up with a university when our New Opportunities Fund lottery grant runs out in November. In theory, this would satisfy all parties: donors of material are assured of its long-term safety, funders' costs are offset and the university gains a tangible piece of precious cultural capital. If the archive has, as Salidaa does, its own network of donors and users, it could attract new students to the campus.

Archives do seem to be the new status symbols for academics; you're nobody these days if you don't have one. Take an ambitious professor "without portfolio", add a few spare rooms in an underused part of campus and, most important, an archive, and you could land an Arts and Humanities Research Board grant for a research centre.

But what effect does this surge of interest from universities have on the efforts of ethnic-minority groups to preserve and interpret our own history? Intellectual and cultural property rights are at stake, particularly as universities on tight budgets want a lot in return for any support they offer.

Salidaa was formed in 1999 by a group of concerned intellectuals and practitioners to preserve South Asian arts heritage in danger of being lost and overlooked. Most people know the film East Is East , but few know that it grew out of a play that was painstakingly workshopped over years by a British Asian theatre company. Salidaa aims to set the records straight, literally.

In 2001, Salidaa received a three-year grant from the New Opportunities Fund, which distributed £50 million of lottery money for digitisation projects to produce online learning resources. This was part of a move from the heritage sector to devolve responsibility, access and power for making and sharing history to "normal" people using new technologies. The NOF agenda chimes with Salidaa's aim of making material freely accessible to the public and raising awareness of the South Asian contribution to British arts.

Furthermore, as the only Asian-led dedicated archive in Britain, Salidaa represents the beginning of a popular British Asian history movement. The board took the heritage sector's vows to support black and Asian-led organisations at face value and harnessed their energy, expertise and time to this elaborate digital archive revolution. In the process of collecting, cataloguing and publishing 28 collections online, the team became expert in digitally archiving British Asian cultural heritage.

The combined expertise of voluntary trustees such as Richard Bingle (ex-archivist, British Library, India Office), Rukhsana Ahmad (critically acclaimed playwright) and Ranjana Sidhanta Ash (translator and champion of South Asian literature in the diaspora long before it was fashionable) is the foundation of the project.

Minority arts have been undervalued by the mainstream arts and heritage sector for years. Now we're bypassing those cultural gatekeepers by digitally preserving and interpreting our own heritage, stashed in studio cupboards and in shoe boxes under beds, directly onto the internet.

Previous black and Asian archiving projects have made successful partnerships with universities: the African and Asian Visual Arts Archive at the University of East London, the Panchayat archive of South Asian visual artists at Westminster University and the Future Histories archive of black theatre practice at Middlesex University.

The professionalisation and canonisation of these arts archives in universities was a significant step forward for the black history movement.

David A. Bailey, the curator and former co-director of the AAVAA, explains:

"AAVAA was a product of the 1980s. It was formed by people who were independent archivists and who used to collect on their own initiative.

That it be supported, housed and nurtured within an institutional context and be part of the canon was revolutionary at the time. It made a contribution to teaching and informed research practice so it was not just a library but had a public life, nationally, locally and internationally within this institution. There was a moment where the synergy was almost too good to be true."

The Panchayat Arts Education Resource Unit was founded by five Asian artists in the late 1980s. It was a vibrant art collective run voluntarily and independently by artist Shaheen Merali. When the collective ran its natural course, Westminster agreed to hold the archive in 1998.

But things aren't what they used to be.

In 2002, UEL cut the funding for the AAVAA completely, although a new partnership is being discussed and the material is still available in the library. Without its founders' energy, the Panchayat archive is now an inert and underused resource.

Middlesex houses the Future Histories archive, but the revenue costs come from meagre, short-term Heritage Lottery Fund project grants. Future Histories director, Alda Terracciano says: "Universities want to work with independents because of their enthusiasm, drive and dynamism, but they are very underfunded so they hold the purse strings very tightly."

Hopeful negotiations began between Salidaa trustees and various higher education institutions in 2002. But after countless meetings and even a valiant but unsuccessful AHRB grant application from one keen department, we now know this: universities haven't got any money and we need a partner with money.

Poet Laureate Andrew Motion campaigned earlier this year to keep the manuscripts of writers such as Julian Barnes in the UK because "the basic value of the objects is matched by an equally basic feeling of collective ownership and belonging". For minority communities, this is even more true because historically we haven't been able to rely on national archives and museums to preserve the original manuscripts of writer Romesh Gunsekera or the costumes of renowned dancer Ram Gopal. To simply encourage Asian artists and writers to donate material to large institutions would mean relinquishing community ownership and our hard-won ability to interpret and platform our own cultural heritage.

According to Rahila Gupta, a Salidaa trustee: "To be in control of how our histories are recorded is an intensely political act. There is a reluctance among minority arts practitioners to surrender individual collections to mainstream archives. There was a fear of marginalisation and invisibility of materials, loss of ownership, lack of confidence in 'white' organisations to properly contextualise materials and that access to materials in these institutions may exclude the black community."

Last year, UEL acquired the Refugee Council's archive for its Refugee Studies Centre and has appointed an archivist to catalogue it. Middlesex took on the Runnymede Collection, a library of black and Asian social activism that is now part of the Centre for Racial Equality Studies. These acquisitions mark a shift back towards a more traditional donation model, giving ownership and control to the universities. This makes good financial sense for hard-up universities and means these fascinating resources will be made available to the public, but it doesn't bode well for the future of partnerships with independent archives such as Salidaa.

So, for now we'll just be good friends; there ain't no romance without finance.

Sara Wajid is project director (Development) at Salidaa.


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