Ashokkumar Mistry: The Eternal Interloper


Following on from his previous proposition for a creative and inclusive approach to curation within the visual arts sector, Ashokkumar Mistry writes about his personal struggles with intersectionality and the importance of the sector understanding an artist on their own terms.

Kaleidoscopic mirror

Falling out of view by Ashokkumar Mistry

I’ve often felt as though I don’t fit in this world and often wondered why. Even when I was around people with whom I shared a great deal there was some invisible barrier that led them to seeing/treating me as different. Before you get all teary eyed and full of pity, being an outsider isn’t such a bad thing because, if you don’t belong anywhere, you belong everywhere. My strategy has led me to become a cultural vagabond who just keeps moving and this trait is present in the multifarious nature of my practice.

Working in the arts has been a struggle as I’ve sometimes been coaxed or corralled into focusing on my race and ethnicity (as it is pretty obvious I am Asian) and in the process I have found myself completely ignoring being dyslexic or working class along with the effects of these characteristics on my practice and my career.

However, the questions I’d like to raise about the fact I can’t fit in, are for the institutions within the sector that I have tried to access.

Growing up in late 1970’s Leicester with white flight taking place, the national front marching against the presence of people like me, trying to understand a homogeneous-looking heterogeneous community full of brown people (and their, social stratification, religious rivalries, prejudices, myths and stories) and a school full of very strict white catholic teachers was disorienting, to say the least.

To add to this, I was diagnosed with an eye condition which meant that I walked around with an eye patch on my good eye in an attempt to coax the blurry vision in my other eye to correct itself. It didn’t work and with other conditions going undiagnosed these were tough years. I started kindergarten not being able to speak a word of english as my parents spoke to us in their mother tongue (a hybrid of Gujarati and Swahili), but thanks to watching oodles of children’s television, I soon caught up.

Starting kindergarten was like entering an alien environment with rules that I couldn’t understand and people that looked different. With a family situation that was complicated, my feeling of displacement was so confusing, that I often wondered if the life I was living was real or just an experiment to see the effect of such a shitty situation. I expected to wake on a gurney with the universe telling me the test was a failure.

I was the kid who seldom looked at mirrors and probably wouldn’t recognise my own reflection when I saw it. As a result, I would get to school each day with an unintended quiff of hair protruding at odd angles. I really didn’t care about how I looked, what I did care for was making things and exploring how things worked.

The eye patch was my saving grace in some ways, as wearing it meant that I wasn’t allowed to do any sports or PE (just in case I injured someone or myself). Instead, I was left in the classroom to draw, paint and make what I liked. So, while my classmates were taken off to run, jump and bash seven bells out of each other (remember this is in the 1970s in the early days of health and safety) the classroom became my studio, where I painted drew and constructed an understanding of the world I lived in.

Both then as now, I was an interloper in many ways. I neither fitted in at school, at home or in the local community because I could not find anyone who shared the same sense of displacement. There were no group of dyslexic kids who saw the world in the same way as me that I could coalesce with.

At university, the advice of one of my lecturers was to “find your tribe” – intimating that, as one of only a handful of ethnics studying in my cohort, I should embrace Indian painting traditions or something that was culturally closer to me.

In some ways, the lecturers were suggesting that I create my own niche of normality – a kind of exotic cocoon to stop me feeling so out of place that allowed other people to understand me based on their own assumptions of whatever they saw to be my ‘culture’.

Kaleidoscopic mirror

Fluid Moments by Ashokkumar Mistry

Though I was interested in Indian traditions of paintings, it was more from the perspective of its absence along with art from many other non-european countries from the syllabus and art history in general. So, the advice didn’t work. However, it did encourage me to consider the feeling of an invisible cognitive barrier around me.

Our protected characteristics are facets that make us who we are. The important thing to remember is that facets of one’s being intersect and should not be separated so that any one facet is given different values or ignored. My experience of managing my intersecting protected characteristics is fraught with complications.

When I was deep diving into debates around cultural diversity (which are extremely important to me), organisations only wanted to work with me based on my ‘Indianness’, ‘Asianness’ or ‘brownness’ without understanding what they meant to me as a neuroatypical person. The dyslexic or working class bits of me were just aberrations that represented my failings as a human being.

When I acknowledged being dyslexic and entered debates around arts and disability around five to seven years ago, I noticed the lacking presence of people from the BAME community who identified as neuroatypical or disabled working in the arts. The few BAME people that were around, seemed to be segregated from debates around disability and almost forced to concentrate on race. Within the broader diversity umbrella, it seemed at times that there wasn’t a place for brown people within conversations around disability nor a place for disabled people around conversations around race.

I know that BAME disabled or neuroatypcal people working in the arts should exist because a rough estimation of statistics suggest that dyslexic, dyspraxic and autistic people make up around 10%-14% of the population. However, people who are neuroatypical seem to gravitate towards arts and culture, making up anything between 30% and 55% of the cohorts studying creative subjects at colleges and universities. Incidentally, the only place where there are higher concentrations of neuroatypical people is in prisons. According to the 2011 census, BAME people made up 13% of the UK population.

Through my career, there were many BAME artists who were mentioned, in passing, as having traits of invisible impairments such as dyslexia, but few are prepared to acknowledge how their neurology informs their practice. Many outright denied being dyslexic, dyspraxic or autistic, preferring to deal with things their own way.

The question for me is, what are the perceptions of disability amongst migrant communities and what are the experiences of deaf disabled or neuroatypical BAME artists? There is a feeling amongst some young artists of all backgrounds that, identifying as a disabled artist means that one suddenly becomes an activist and this takes away from the purity of being an artist.

Being disabled is still seen as a defect and very few people from BAME communities will “come out” as having an invisible impairment and would rather use tricks or strategies to cover their tracks. One of the reasons for this could be that we are taught to work three times harder to negate the issues that marginalise us and not show any weaknesses in order to prove that we are as good as anyone else in society.

Disabling attitudes don’t just create barriers in day-to-day life but also, in the way we acknowledge disability. Asian migrants in the 1970’s tried their best to be seen to assimilate, conform and be accepted by British society. In the South Asian community of Leicester in the 1970s that I was born into, admitting you were disabled meant that one was accepting a sorrier state of marginalisation than that endured by the rest of the community, while everyone else was trying their best to conform. Disability was seen as cause and – effect  you do something bad and you come back in the next life to suffer for those sins either directly or indirectly.

Across many cause-and-effect based belief systems such as karma, sin is seen as an ‘I owe you’ to the universe that needs to be settled through suffering. As the currency of cause or Karma, suffering could be spent anywhere, not just in hell. A bit like placing an electronic tag on a convict rather than sending them to prison, but much more painful.

The logic suggests that sinful sentence to suffer could be spent on earth in life as well as in ‘hell’ and crucially, many people believe that disability is suffering and by extension, is a way of paying your dues to the universe. You may have heard or seen the lament of those who find themselves out of the bounds of ‘normality’ (if not in real life then in movies), “what have I done to deserve this”.

Kaleidoscopic mirror

Invisible by Ashokkumar Mistry

I remember once, someone trying to reconcile their perceptions and prejudices of Stephen Hawking, by saying, ‘he had a brilliant mind but he must have done something in a past life to suffer disablement’. This idea of disablement as penance pervades most cultures and religions, even those that do not believe in reincarnation.

The ideas also enter popular culture within drama and film (I speak of the film industry in a global context rather than just English-speaking cinema), displaying the trope of villains paying for their misdeeds by being injured so badly that survival would result in disablement. Moreover, some movies go as far as to tie disability to twisted ideas around vengeance, when the villain gets his or her just desserts. Again, becoming disabled is sold as penance for ill deeds.

At school, one needed to pay attention as one was being civilised by people who didn’t look, act or speak like you, but wanted to assimilate you. The strictness was for your own good but, at least mum and dad seemed to be grateful that we were learning something. The school was named after a Catholic martyr and there was a missionary zeal with which the education was executed.

Ability or difference of ability didn’t count, everyone was just expected to get on with ‘it’. And, you were fine as long as you knew what ‘it’ was. If you found something difficult it meant that you needed to try harder, no matter how much the words jumped around on the page. At home, disability was seen as kismet shining dimly on you and the idea of being labelled as such meant that obsolescence was confirmed.

The social model of disability shows us that a person is not disabled because of a defect or impairment in their physical or neurological being, rather, it is aspects of their physical environment or the perspective of people around them that create barriers. In essence, everyone should be able to achieve from the outset, regardless of impairment.

I only truly recognised being dyslexic around six years ago at the age of 40 and before this, tried, with a mixed degree of success, to fit in and mimic ‘normal’ society. At the time, I had just suffered a particularly stressful episode of life but, before this time, my attitude was that I needed to prove that I was just as ‘able’ as anyone else.

My state of mind was already fragile and I found it increasingly difficult to function in society. Everything around me would grate as I felt incongruent to the world around me. None of the strategies I had previously used to get by – such as electronic reminders, workflow systems or routines – seemed to work. It is only thanks to support from a few close friends that I was able to understand that the problems were being caused by my own attitude to who I was – a dyslexic person.

Many of the tricks and strategies I once used to ‘fit in’, don’t work and I have also developed a callus of belligerence against such strategies. Why should I fit in, do people not have the compassion to understand? In many cases, the answer is no and some of the reasons are our over-reliance on competition for motivation and indoctrination that we need to be normal.

But what is normal? I realised that for 40 years I was chasing a need to fit in and be normal rather than being the patch-eyed kid that liked to make things. Both in work and in my personal life I was taught that to be normal I needed to copy normal people, the only problem was who did I copy or fit in with?

I’ve always lived in a working-class area of Leicester that is predominantly Asian. The main message from the world around me was and is that any difference whether it was ability, race or class was a deficiency that needed to be hidden. As I started to build a career in the arts I started to create a middle-class mask which enabled me to navigate areas of the sector that I once felt were closed to me. Everything from my accent to my demeanour was based on mimicking my white middle class, counterparts.

At home, I was seen and referred to as a coconut as “I talked like a white guy”. At the time I was under the impression I needed to suppress my Asianness to progress but in fact, what I was really doing was also choking back the symptoms that made me dyslexic. I needed to make sure that people didn’t notice that I thought differently to them. In many ways I saw myself as an interloper, faking a persona that enabled me to eat at a table that was not meant for the likes of me. I was a race statistic that made native people and organisations look good for associating with me, I rode the wave.

I landed a desk job in a large corporate arts organisation. I felt good about my new role and dove straight into this shiny new world without a paintbrush or sketchbook in sight. All of the middle-class movers and shakers were perfectly propper with me. To the people I worked with, it was my race that made me ‘special’ (as there were not many brown people in the organisation) and they beamed their bright wide smiles when they saw me, checking that I was settling in (assimilating) well.

Kaleidoscopic mirror

Joker by Ashokkumar Mistry

I seemed to be fitting in and conforming just fine, people didn’t see me as different because I conformed to their values. This conformity became difficult as I didn’t see eye to eye with the incestuous practices of the organisation and as I pushed back against what I saw as the corruption, I was seen as a troublemaker and life was made much less comfortable.

Things started with a questioning of my conformity to the middle-class ideal. After a few months of cutting an ass groove into my swivel chair, comments and remarks started to drift back about my written work, questioning how I had understood or explained scenarios or commenting on my spelling or grammar.

At first, it was like being back at school with the well-intentioned catholic missionary teachers that tried to civilise the likes of me. Getting homophones mixed up or misspelling words didn’t seem to affect the job I was doing but it did single me out for less than civil treatment. The push back to my unconfirmed dyslexia became progressively more pervasive, and eventually I had to leave.

At the time, I saw the attacks on me focusing on race when in fact they were centred on my dyslexia. As my middle-class mask slipped I moved back towards my creative practice and gravitated to organisations specialising in Black and Asian art. I found a subsphere of the art world in which I presumed I could fit better because people looked a bit more like me but, in actuality left me even more displaced. The problem was a silo mentality to diversity in which BAME-led organisations focus on issues around race and ethnicity, with little understanding of disability, gender or other forms of marginalisation.

Everyone seemed to have their own little patch of diversity (you could say exotic cocoons) to look after but there was no room for empathy or overlap and worst of all these ‘diversity-led’ organisations all tried to emulate the ‘mainstream’ arts sector including their affectations and prejudices. The crazy thing about many (though maybe not all) diversity-led organisations is this need to conform with the mainstream arts sector.

There is seeded, a need by groups that represent marginalised sections of society, to be professional and bizarrely, the measure for this professionality comes from the very sections of society that oppress them. The need to look professional preys on our insecurities and leads different marginalised groups to not see the commonality in their oppression.

For many funders and organisations who’s initiatives I have engaged in, you are forced to make a choice to focus on one or other protected characteristic and I have often found myself being asked to identify as BAME rather than disabled or working class because it is seen as a ‘better fit’. The problem with this approach is that it does not take into account issues of intersectionality. Also, it feels as though I’m being assessed as half or a third of a person rather than a whole individual.

Invisible impairments are seen as subordinate to any physical impairments, and more work needs to be done by all arts organisations (diversity-led or mainstream) to understand neuroatypical people within the context of the social model of disability. It is not okay to discard someone because they are thought to be weird, and neither is it okay for people to ignore intersecting protected characteristics.

So, where has this three-thousand-ish-word ramble got us?

Diversity is not a binary state of being that asks us to choose one or other teams to fight for. It would be great if more people would consider how their neurology informs their practice and not see being disabled as a defect. We need much more understanding and less judgemental competitiveness in the arts to allow a plurality of neurologies to work together rather than against each other.

Problems for me have always started when other people assumed that I fit within a particular section of the arts community (to normalise me within an understandable grouping), only later to find me to be a misfit. Most people with invisible impairments can’t quantify what makes them different so they start to believe that they are ‘weird’ and are forced into finding strategies to fit in.

Crucially, when you can’t see other people like you (because the traits of your difference are not obviously visible), it is difficult to find like-minded people to coalesce with and create a new form of normality. Apart from behaviour, there are no physical manifestations of difference that the world can see. It’s a little like not being able to see how you look until you find a mirror to view your reflection.

Moreover, the behavioural manifestations of invisible impairments remain misunderstood as ‘problems’ until we are able to discuss them with other people that are the same as us. Using the mirror analogy again – as if a mirror has suddenly been held up to us, suddenly we find someone who shares how we see the world and we can better understand ourselves.

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