Now, more than ever, small local charities need our help. This series looks at organisations whose work might otherwise be lost amid the current crisis. First up, we speak to Niranjan Kamatkar, artistic director of the Haringey-based Wise Thoughts.
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Sum up Wise Thoughts in two (short) sentences
We're a charity that puts on arts events, with a focus on the LGBTQI+ and BAME communities. We're based in Haringey but our remit and some projects have had reach all over the globe.
Before we get onto your many great arts projects, you also run weekly drop-ins and meetups in Haringey. What can people expect from those?
Our regular drop-in social meet-ups for LGBTQI+ people (16+) offer a safe social meeting space. Come along to chat to other local LGBTQI+ people, watch and discuss short #viralvideos screenings or live performances, or drop into a specialised advice session on subjects such as sexual health, hate crime reporting, and more.
These drop-ins take place in our Wood Green Library base. We also, in partnership with Homes for Haringey, run drop-ins in Tottenham (Sophia House) and Muswell Hill (Hilldene Court). We are currently piloting a new service for young LGBTQI+ people (age 11-19) in Wood Green.
Volunteers who run our sexual health stall offer peer advice on general wellbeing issues to regular visitors every week. Some visitors identify themselves as straight but look forward to the chat and receiving support.
Wise Thoughts is also a key partner at new ‘Reach & Connect’ initiative that offers free initial help and support to isolated older people (50+) in Haringey, to better meet the needs of LGBTQI+ residents.
[Note: drop-ins and meet-ups are currently (March 2020) suspended owing to the coronavirus outbreak. Check website for updates]
GFEST is your biggest arts event. How did that first come about, and what have been the best highlights over the years?
In 2007 London did not have a proper LGBTQI+ cross-art showcase. GFEST was designed to fill that gap. It's always an eclectic programme, with dance, music, drag, film screenings, art exhibitions, debates, readings, comedy and talks.
GFEST launched in November 2007 at City Hall, and grew pretty quickly. The next three events were launched in the UK parliament, and received cross-party support. It has also enjoyed the backing of all three Mayors of London as well as various Cultural Secretaries, ministers, celebrities and MPs. David Cameron also sent a message of support when he was the Prime Minister. 2010 was the biggest year, when audience numbers reached nearly 10,000.
GFEST has its roots in the 'Gaywise' initiative, which ran from 2002 to 2007. For this, we organised bi-annual LGBT+ cross-arts workshops and residencies programme (some residencies lasting up to 10 weeks). At the end of each residency, we organised ‘sharing events’ or showcases. A number of artists approached us for this, and it eventually grew into a fully fledged festival.
We've since held events in venues including Museum of London, Tate Modern, National Gallery, the RSA, V&A, Rich Mix and dozens more.
Does Wise Thoughts operate beyond London?
One of our first projects was sHIVer — a multimedia performance project about HIV and South Asian women. This included video comments and support from Bollywood personalities and eminent Asian women in the UK, and also received support from the Elton John AIDS Foundation. sHIVer led to further new arts programmes and commissions from outside London. Our ‘BollyQueen – Asian drag visual art exhibition toured outside London, including a stint of a few weeks at Northampton Museum & Gallery.
We've also worked on international consultancy projects. These included a street theatre programme in Delhi, and workshops for nurses using ‘non-verbal’ communication to engage with gay/bi men dealing with HIV — projects backed by the Department for International Development and the British Council, respectively.
We also led on a consultancy with the government of Nepal, to develop their media strategy for promoting sexual health. All these projects used arts and cultural interventions to address sexual health and sexualities related issues.
What are you most proud of having achieved with Wise Thoughts?
It's difficult to narrow it down. Obviously, Haringey’s ‘City Growth’ and ‘Community Impact’ awards for the organisation come high on the list. Running GFEST has provided so many proud moments, as have the international projects outlined above.
A lesser known achievement we're proud of was the production of two feature-length films, both dramas focused on diverse LGBTQI+ identities. One was a critically acclaimed, bigger international film project called Yours Emotionally, which was widely distributed across different territories around the world, including the USA.
We also felt proud when Obama was President. His official twitter account followed Wise Thoughts, which is transferred to @WiseThoughts now.
But I must say, the proudest moments materialise after a challenging day’s work at this small charitable arts organisation, when a service user or audience member pays a compliment on the work done.
A genuinely positive piece of feedback gives us the biggest kick to carry on and face many more challenges.
How did Wise Thoughts come about in the first place?
It all started when I met my husband Subodh at 1st South Asian gay conference in India (1994). We both had a track record of working in the arts. By then I had three solo and several group shows, and had run a successful advertising and marketing outfit for over five years in South Mumbai. Subodh was an accomplished performer and had managed Wise Thoughts Dance Company since 1990. He became the 1st attached choreographer to the ICA and performed extensively nationally and internationally, among many other accomplishments. His dance work focused on Indian gay, queer identities, or gay and South Asian people living with HIV/AIDS.
We worked together on multimedia arts projects, exploring culture specific themes and LGBTQI+ identities, while managing a long-distance relationship for the first 2 or 3 years. After exchanging what we see as our “marital vows” in April 1995, we eventually moved to the UK. Once here, a few like-minded friends and colleagues helped us to establish and incorporate a charitable organisation under the name Wise Thoughts in 1999, to address the issues of BAME and LGBTQI+ identities via culture-specific arts.
Working with groups who are often marginalised and even abused, you must have encountered many people who are living in desperate situations. Can you give any specific examples of how Wise Thoughts has helped to turn lives around or empower people who thought there was no hope?
We hear from a number of LGBTQI+-identified BAME people, or queer people of colour, who are either recent arrivals in the city or visit us first time. Everyone receives a warm welcome, they feel immediately at home at our drop-ins and are able to open up about any troubles and always seek peer-group advice. Generally, they make new friends and feel more integrated (reducing their isolation) and feel more empowered to, for example, come out at their work places.
Our multi-media arts projects such as ‘sHIVer’, ‘Livin’ ’ere, and ‘Flames’ explored issues such as sexual health, HIV, domestic violence and forced marriages. Videos of performances have been used as educational tools in many communities. We know that these films have helped many people from BAME and LGBTQI+ communities to access help and further support. In addition, they also helped to engage non LGBTQI+/BAME people with the issues and helped to build a greater understanding and acceptance of minorities. Our current ‘WiseOUT!’ programme for schools uses the medium of arts to explore issues of sexuality and gender identity.
We also know of many individuals who have been helped through our projects. For example, a young trans-identifying artist, who came to us on a work placement scheme, was encouraged to submit their work to the GFEST selection panel. The work was selected. The opening was attended by the artist's father (whom we thought was reluctant to accept their gender identity until then) at the exhibition stated “I am the proud father!”.
And to offer another example, recently a 70+ year old service user, who has no internet access except in the library walked in (since our office is in Wood Green Library) to chat about tackling isolation, and options during the Covid- 19 crisis. We told them we are carrying on as long as the library building is open, and will keep
people updated on our website and via our social media. We are reviewing the situation and will advise via our website, emails and social media if any temporary changes or suspension are expected.
From your perspective, would you say that London has become a more or less inclusive and welcoming place for the LGBTQI+ and BAME communities in recent years?
In the years since we were first established, London opened up and became more inclusive, but over the last 2-3 years it feels like the progress we made is on retreat, at least in pockets of London. I think Brexit is a large part of that. Several reported incidents make us feel somehow less safe than three years ago.
Of course, better legal protection, scope for further creative expression, visibility in media, more social platforms etc have been the biggest improvements. Funding to LGBTQI+ community building, social acceptance (this is why investing in artistic and cultural interventions is the most cost-effective way), and inclusive community building have got worse in some aspects.
Our ethos has always been to promote and present the truly diverse and united face of the LGBTQI+ community. Sometimes, I feel we exist as several communities in the huge city of London rather than a united LGBTQI+ community. The last time I felt this was ‘one community’ in London was at the vigil in Soho, after the Orlando nightclub shooting, nearly 4 years ago.
In so many ways, we at Wise Thoughts feel blessed and fortunate that London has supported us enormously, loved our offerings, and sometimes forgave us for our shortcoming. So, we are unabashedly ‘Londonists’ really; I can’t think we could live anywhere else now.But the other side of reality is that it has been always a tough, ‘survival-of-the-fittest’ situation for minority-led organisations.
How can people help Wise Thoughts?
We have a dedicated pool of regular volunteers but, of course, there is always need for more, so we have a volunteering page encouraging people to get in touch.
The best way people can help though, is to talk about us and our work. Get in touch, ask us questions if you want to know more, and tell other people of your experience. Word-of-mouth publicity of our services is the best help you can provide to us, to yourselves, and to the communities around London. And, of course, if possible, any funding that can be offered to sustain our activities during this particularly challenging time.
Small London-based charity with a story to tell? Contact email@example.com.