A life in artistic activism: a tribute to my friend Ratna Lachman

Jack Tan (2012) The Green Women and The Defenders of England, still image from video, 13'21".

Sometimes, very rarely, you meet someone who you are friends with immediately. Of course, it wasn’t an across-a-crowded-room immediately when I met Ratna Lachman in about 2000. My first glimpse was of a petite and serious South Asian woman arriving at the head office of our civil rights organisation. But her face soon broke into a cheeky smile when we were introduced, and after a short walk to the meeting room it felt as if I had known Ratna for ages. However, I also knew instantly that our ease was not simply because of our similar past: we were both from Singapore with similar upbringings and left for similar reasons. Our connection had a forwards quality to it: a futurity. And for me Friendship + Futurity = Ally. People make friends all the time. But it is not often that you meet an ally and Ratna was an ally in abundance.

One of my favourite works of video art is Francis Alys’ Tornado where the artist hunts down small tornados in the Mexican countryside and runs into them filming as he goes along. Determined, breathless and bewildered, the artist runs us into the centre of each of these storms giving us a view of the vortex from the inside. This was what Ratna Lachman did. She had no fear of foul weather. She often cut through the hot air going straight into the heart of the storm unmasking power and prejudice, and giving us a view from the inside. I don’t think she was foolhardy or unafraid. Her politics was founded on deep empathy for the underdog, the marginalised, and the oppressed. And it was this empathy that moved her to act in spite of many the risks she navigated of physical threats, of offending politicians, of making funders uncomfortable.

In fact, a funder once quite fondly said to me that Ratna was a uniquely stroppy voice in UK civil liberties and that we needed more of such stroppy voices in society. That ‘stroppiness’ was actually righteous anger at the clear stupidity of some policies and structures she encountered in her long career, and the devastating effect these had on communities. Ratna’s gift was her ability to see through things so clearly and to speak so urgently for those who were unseen and unvoiced. She understood the direct connection between government policy and personal hardship, and she was always there in the hard times alongside colleagues and friends personally as well as professionally for whole sections of society.

A journalist at heart, the word and the lens were her friends and she had an unshakeable faith in them. In 2010, Ratna had invited me to film a large fascist protest in Bradford. While I was safely tucked away alongside BBC and ITV news crews filming from the first floor balcony of a nearby hotel, Ratna grabbed a microphone and a cameraman and walked straight into the fascist mosh pit (below). I feared for her life. An hour later, she emerged covered in spit and said that although the only thing protecting her was the camera, she had got in there and confronted them with direct questions. The fact she thought that these thugs had anything worthwhile to say, much less to record it, is a testament to Ratna’s humility, her determination to see the humanity in people, her respect for others’ opinions (even her opponents’), and her strong belief in the idea that freedom of speech enables justice.

Jack Tan (2012) The Green Women and The Defenders of England, still image from video, 13'21"

But in spite of her public life as a civil rights leader and political commentator, Ratna’s first love was the arts. Both her undergraduate and Masters degrees were in literature. She collected painting and sculpture and enjoyed works that combined vibrant colour with the human body. We spoke often about the arts, and how in art one could sometimes address social injustice in more powerful and enduring ways than campaigning ever could. I regret that we will never do the art projects we had dreamed about over the last couple of years. But I believe that Ratna’s particular insight into politics and the effectiveness of her activism was due to an ‘art thinking’ approach in her work.

She understood the importance of narrative and voice in her campaigns, particularly the victim’s voice. She had an impeccable sense of political timing. Under her directorship, Just Yorkshire’s outreach projects were innovative and creative. She was always keen to collaborate knowing that the sum is often greater than the parts. She had a sculptor’s or architect’s understanding of how State and social structures are built and when they didn’t look right. And she always trusted her own instincts even if that meant taking the harder route. She was an artist in all but name.

On 23 July 2017, we lost a giant in British civil rights and, I, my friend and ally. Ratna had a superbly analytical brain, an eagle eye and a surgical pen which she used to unmask power in defense of fundamental civil liberties. She was not motivated by careerism or any desire to make a mark for herself, eschewing any suggestion of an MBE or any other royal honour. She worked tirelessly because she was moved to through compassion, integrity and her love of the precious liberty this country afforded and which she strived to protect.

Here are her best bits:

  • Ratna killing it on BBC Any Questions debating with a Tory MP, a Telegraph journalist and David Blunkett: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04mhd5v
  • An example of her writing style from her last Guardian article: “So while Warsi’s critics are busy hurling on her the opprobrium of being a minister for Muslims who resigned over Gaza, they fail to recognise that she speaks for many of us in the north — Muslims and non-Muslims alike — who are horrified by the pusillanimity of her party in this asymmetric war that has taken over 400 innocent young lives and condemned Palestinians to a living prison.” http://bit.ly/2v84v3u
  • From 03:35 mins, Ratna leading a women’s protest song in Bradford: https://vimeo.com/51567173
  • Ratna in her 20s presenting a prime time current affairs show in Singapore in the 1980s: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mB_DDE-eqFk

Well done and thank you dear Ratna Lachman for everything you have achieved in life. Rest in peace.

Ratna Lachman speaking at the Royal College of Art 2013 degree show at The Yardhouse, Sculpture Building.
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