8 June 2017

In 1976 Naseem Khan's report, The Arts Britain Ignores, was published. Commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain, the report changed the face of Britain's arts landscape forever and was instrumental in shaping arts policy for the future. 

In her report, Naseem shone a light on the burgeoning arts activity among Britain's minority ethnic communities, which at the time lay in uncharted territory. In doing so she set in train the widening of state support for minority ethnic arts and brought them to public attention. The report led directly to the recognition of diversity as a vital part of current arts practice; a recognition that is evident in the variety of diversity initiatives by large and small arts organisations in the present day.

Naseem was the child of an Indian father and German mother and grew up in a village in Worcestershire during the war. She was educated at Roedean and Oxford. This upbringing gave her an acute insight into the rich cultural crossings that have become integral to modern Britain. She devoted her life to interrogating themes of diversity, innovation and social change locally, nationally and internationally. In 1999 she received an OBE for her work - a fitting way to mark the end of a century of momentous cultural change in post-war, post imperial Britain.  

Following The Arts Britain Ignores, Naseem went on to frame diversity policy for several organisations including the Council of Europe, UNESCO, The Museums and Galleries Commission, The Gulbenkian Foundation, The Asia-Europe Foundation and the Arts Councils of England, Scotland and Wales. After serving for seven years as Head of Diversity for Arts Council England, she returned to freelance life, becoming increasingly involved in local community development in Arnold Circus, where she lived. 

I first met her at Tara's inaugural production, Sacrifice, at Battersea Arts Centre in August 1977. Soon after, I invited her to come and talk to our fledgling company where she opened our eyes to the possibilities of taking our place in the wider arts ecology. In her own words, the sensibility of "striving to find a world in which all sides are possible, contained and honoured”, found a ready echo in our own ambitions for Tara.

She set up the Minority Arts Advisory Service in 1977 and for a while I worked for MAAS as its Northern Co-ordinator, my job being to follow up on Naseem's report. She introduced me to my landlord in Hebden Bridge, where I stayed for 6 months, meeting a range of unknown diverse artists and companies to ensure they were on the map of artists in the country. The opportunity Naseem offered is one of my most precious experiences in getting a better sense of the country in which I hoped to develop my arts practice. We met regularly after that and she consented to become one of our first Patrons. When I started the process of re-developing the Tara Theatre building, she was one of the first whose advice I sought. Over an extended lunch near her beloved Arnold Circus she generously made available her contact book. 

2016 marked the 40th anniversary of The Arts Britain Ignores and Naseem delivered the keynote speech at the Diversity Conference at Leicester's Curve Theatre. She'd been in touch the day before, to warn me not to feel disheartened at her frailty. But, as she delivered her speech in her calm and measured tones, her strength and sense eclipsed all thoughts of her as a severely ill woman.

As the illness took hold, she began to compose her Memoirs, continuing to deny the onset of night through inspirational and witty Instagram posts and emails. In our last exchange, she wondered what I would make of her characterisation of myself and the two other founders of Tara, Sunil Saggar and Ovais Kadri, as we perched on the edge of her desk one day in the late-70s "talking over each other like young lords and drop[ping] cigarette ash in pretty saucers." She had seen then what we barely appreciated - our willingness to face the downside of Asianness: "Not just the energy, warmth and rootedness that I know but the tyranny of convention, the fear of difference, the gossip, hypocrisies, snobbery and the ubiquitous army of prying aunties." By a strange twist of fate, her Memoirs will be published by a company based in Hebden Bridge.  

When she slipped away on the 8th of June, Naseem's children, George and Amelia were by her side. In her passing, I feel as if she holds all our hands. She is not only a huge personal and professional loss but, thanks to her indefatigable energy, she leaves behind the enduring legacy of an Arts that Britain no longer ignores.

She was a wise woman, perceptive, kindly and honest and much beloved grandmother to Felix and Eugene, who were both such a part of her final years. We will all miss her. Rest in peace, dear Naseem.

Jatinder Verma

Other Tributes, by Suman Bhuchar, can be found here.


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