Coming from a low-status background as poor immigrants, creative and artistic careers are often seen as a step backwards, with repercussions for the family's reputation in their community. (Photo: Colourbox)

Artistic ambition, migrant background

Choosing an artistic career is challenging – particularly with immigrant parents who often see this as a step backwards, research shows.

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Artists from migrant backgrounds are still few and far between in the Norwegian arts and creative sector. Although the stated political aim is to ensure a multiethnic presence in the arts and culture scene, ethnic minorities are under-represented compared to Norwegian society as a whole.

While most research in this area has focused on institutional barriers, researchers Anders Vassenden and Nils Arne Bergsgard looked at the experiences of the artists themselves in the minority community, as well as the communities' view of creative and artistic careers.

Barriers from family and community

The researchers, based at the International Research Institute of Stavanger (IRIS), interviewed 20 individuals with a migrant background, including actors, dancers, musicians, painters, authors and directors. The interviewees were either born in Norway or migrated as a child, with parents immigrating from countries such as Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Somalia, Morocco and Iraq.

The article 'One step back?' highlights the significant barriers aspiring artists from a migrant background can face from their own family and community.

A typical story is of a child who might have been indulged in some artistic expression as a hobby while growing up, but with a clear expectation of getting a 'proper' and highly-paid job – usually as a doctor, lawyer or engineer.

“As my father told me: 'You can be what you want – as long as you end up as a lawyer or a doctor.' And he meant it seriously,” says one of the respondents.

Expectations of social mobility

Social mobility is cited as an important factor for the migrant parents.

Coming from a low-status background as poor immigrants, the parents have an expectation that children's education and work – preferably as a high-wage professional – will contribute to the family's full integration into Norwegian society. Within this perception, creative and artistic careers are often seen as a step backwards, with repercussions for the family's reputation in their community.

“They came here to work and earn money, and when you've worked your way up and bought a house for your family, you expect the children to take it to the next level and get an education,” explains one of the interviewees.

“And regardless of how successful you are as a dancer it remains restrictive – you're still making your living as an artist, which is difficult to understand for parents who have worked hard for their money.”

Reputation in the community

As well as aspiring to upward mobility, parents have concerns regarding financial security as well as their standing in the local community. Having children with well-paid and prestigious jobs confers status on the parents, whereas less well-regarded career choices mean that the family's reputation in the community is affected.

Several respondents mention how living outside of Oslo and the larger ethnic communities meant less pressure on parents' reputation when their offspring chose creative careers.

An actress who grew up in a small town in Western Norway argued that if the family had lived in a larger migrant community in Oslo, her parents would have met with disapproval and opinions on child rearing and giving children 'free reign', particularly when it came to daughters.

Another factor is, ironically, the ubiquity of artistic expression such as music and dance in community life, with 'everyone' doing it. Some ethnic communities may not have a tradition of formal cultural institutions or artistic professions.

Arts dominated by majority culture

The research findings indicate several motivations for becoming an artist, from having a particular talent, through a search for transcendence and spiritual experience, to a wish to redress the balance of ethnic minorities in a Norwegian art scene dominated by the majority culture.

Religion hardly features as a factor or potential barrier to ethnic minority artists, and was barely mentioned by the respondents. Instead, financial security, status, family reputation within the community and upward mobility emerged as the main concerns.

Barriers for low-class Norwegians

Many of the mechanisms leading to low ethnic minority participation in arts and culture are the same that affect ethnic majority Norwegians from lower socioeconomic classes, the researchers argue.

“One could envision cultural policy measures aimed at artist participation from specific class backgrounds as well as from ethnic minority backgrounds,” the article concludes.

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