We need more platforms for female artists of colour


Candy Royalle

Candy Royalle: We need more platforms for female artists of colour

Candy Royalle: We need more platforms for female artists of colour Photo: Nicola Bailey

When I was 18, a friend took me to a smokey, dingy pub in Sydney, called The Friend in Hand Hotel. It was the birth place of Bardfly, Sydney's first regular Spoken Word event hosted by two performance poets Tug Dumbly and Benito Di Fonzo, who ran a wonderfully shambolic ship.

I watched, spellbound, as people took to the stage to perform their poems - some were godawful, others incredible. People bared themselves on that stage, telling tales of love and sex and sharing political rants. The audience weren't the silent, polite type - they were drunk and raucous, jeering, clapping and whooping in equal amounts.

I sat in that smokey dive wide-eyed, heart thumping and knew I'd found my home.

Over the last 15 years I have worked hard to establish myself as an artist and have performed all over Australia and the world. I had no idea that this journey would be made particularly difficult because I was a queer woman of colour.


Platforms for women and women of colour were almost non-existent when I was starting out and the idea of diversity seemed like a distant illusion. Even now, events run by and for women of colour are an exception rather than the rule.

As my profile has grown over the years and I've become a full-time artist, I can't count the number of times I've been the only woman at an event, or the only person of colour, or the only queer person. I don't believe there is a conscious movement to exclude female artists from stages, I believe it actually demonstrates how unconscious event producers, organisers and even other artists are about how much space they're creating for diversity -- this, in my opinion, is just as dangerous.

Recently, I was asked to feature at an event and was told my set time would be 25 minutes. This time kept being reduced in the lead up to the event until I was told I had only 10 minutes to speak, as they needed to offer more space to the other artists -- all of whom were male, four of six of those men were white.

When I brought this up with the event organiser (who was a white, heterosexual male) he immediately apologised, asked me to do the full 25 minutes and found another female performer. This proved that he wasn't consciously trying to exclude, he just wasn't aware of the subconscious bias, and this has been my experience over the years.

Whenever I am asked to perform or appear on panels, I always ask about the diversity ratio. Recently, I was asked to emcee the upcoming Sydney International Women's Poetry & Arts Festival run by Saba Vasefi -- an Iranian feminist, academic, filmmaker, poet, Ambassador for the Asylum Seekers Centre and recipient of the Edna Ryan Award for making a significant contribution to feminism. Happily, I knew I wouldn't need to ask about diversity in this instance.

Now in its third year, the festival brings together an amazing array of women including academics, poets, politicians and performers from incredibly diverse backgrounds. Dr Mehreen Faruqi of the Greens will be there as well as feminist activist Professor Eva Cox, Wiradjuri Elder and poet Jenny Munro and the well known commentator Jane Caro. There are over 20 female artists performing poetry, hip-hop, dance and even a wind ensemble.

This Festival is literally a showcase of diversity, featuring performances by Indigenous, migrant, LGBTI and refugee, as well as Australian-born, women.

When I asked Vasefi why she felt the need to create and direct this festival, she said "It's necessary to unveil how opportunities, access and power are racialised, and how marginalisation and subordination of women of colour are legitimised and normalised.

"There aren't any artistic platforms which bring a cross-section of women together. This event empowers women and functions as an act of solidarity and civil resistance." . 

Vasefi also shares my experience of feeling alienated on the art scene: "Through my work in Australia I have discovered that marginalised women's contributions are underrepresented and somewhat devalued.

"In a sense they are [doublly] marginalised, and this has moved me to organise a platform to challenge this kind of multilayer discrimination and encourage those who are privileged to stand in solidarity with marginalised women."

Having fled Iran with her young daughter after she was targeted by the regime for her activism around child executions, Vasefi is no stranger to feeling marginalised. She's also a survivor of domestic violence and knows first hand the need for spaces where women can share their stories and experiences in safe spaces.

But is bringing together all these women, most of whom are going to have the same political ideals, really going to change much out there in the wider world?

Vasefi thinks so. "Including women of colour and considering their contributions as viable can have a powerful effect on civil society. How many marginalised women are leaders or decision makers in organisations? We need to care about the fact they are not represented in government. This is not by accident -- it's the result of institutional bias and structural exclusion."

Hopefully, by bringing all these women who are creators and thinkers, activists and politicians, poets and professors into one space, a ripple effect of diversity and inclusion will be created that will continue to spread long after the festival has finished.


The Sydney International Women's Poetry & Arts Festival will be held at NSW Parliament House on March 16, 5:30-9:30pm.