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> > > Interview: Jon Pratty talks to Tony Panayiotou about Heart n Soul and Decibel
A man is seen talking to two people who are seen on either side of him from behind. He's looking thoughtful.

Tony Panayiotou, Director of Diversity at Arts Council England, being interviewed on camera at the Heart n Soul celebration at the Albany, Deptford. © Jon Pratty/DAO

South London arts organisation Heart n Soul celebrated MBE awards to director Mark Williams and founder artist Pino Frumiento in the Queen's New Years Honours List on Wednesday 31 March.

Heart n Soul Now celebrated the MBE success at the Albany arts venue in Deptford, where the organisation has been based for 24 years.

Guest speakers on the night included Margaret Hodge MBE MP, Minister of Culture and Tourism; Sir Steve Bullock, Mayor of Lewisham and Tony Panayiotou, Director of Diversity at Arts Council England. Joan Ruddock, MP for Lewisham, Deptford was also present to enjoy the night's celebrations.

Jon Pratty, manager of Disability Arts Online, asked Tony Panayiotou about the success of Heart n Soul and the growing momentum of Decibel, where last year disability arts was successfully included in the rich mix of diversity culture on offer.

Mark and Pino have been awarded MBEs. Does this mean that the disability arts world has come of age?

I’m not so sure about that, but it certainly proves to everyone that disability arts can hold its own against anybody. Given the facilities, the opportunities, the leadership, the courage; as long as the essential ingredients are provided, disabled people can do anything they want in the arts.

They can be high achievers, and they can show their work in the best of places; tonight has been a wonderful, joyous occasion, absolutely. The room was full of love, full of people here celebrating the work of two extraordinary people.

In the wake of this celebration, tonight, what’s next for disability arts?

I think what’s next is to be louder and prouder, and to some extent, get into people’s faces a bit more. Because disabled people, as I said, they can produce, they can deliver.

There’s this myth about excellence and quality. That’s not what it’s about. Excellence is not about hanging paintings in The Louvre. Excellence is about reaching people and providing them with the best quality art. Tonight we’ve been privileged to see so many disabled artists, performers and singers; it’s been wonderful and it shows exactly what Heart n Soul is about.

Earlier on I said that Mark Williams is the heart of soul of Heart n Soul, and I mean it because he’s inspired so many people. Pino’s music has been absolutely wonderful. It tugs at your heart and makes you happy. It does everything; it takes you through a whole range of emotions.

I think disabled people will learn from this and be proud of their achievements. We can push the boundaries even more, we can get better, we can get stronger; we can show the world that if they give us the instruments, give us the music, we can write our own songs, we can perform them anywhere.

It’s about confidence isn’t it?

Absolutely. What Mark and Pino have achieved shows it; I was sitting next to Jenny Sealey, and what she’s achieved, it’s an absolutely brilliant way to show what can be done; especially by younger disabled people.

Having confidence means taking the opportunities; you know that Mark and Pino have been working together for 24 years, as musicians and collaborators. It’s absolutely really important to take the opportunities; demand the right to perform; demand the right to act; demand the right to express yourself freely and to tell everyone your story - because people want to hear.

Do you think British disability culture has a place on the world stage?

As far as I’m concerned it’s part of the artistic world. Whether it needs to be segregated on it’s own as disability art, I’m not sure. I’m here, I’ve had a thoroughly enjoyable evening. I’ve enjoyed arts. The fact that it’s been performed by disabled people for me is a secondary issue, because I’ve had a fantastic time, I’ve seen musicians who I’ve really enjoyed hearing and whom I admire.

It’s about being pretty much the best there is, isn’t it?

It’s about doing the best that one is motivated towards. Whether it’s spoken word, or acting or performing arts of different kinds you always try and be the best and never accept second best, always push yourself, push the boundaries. This is what excellence for me is; it’s about making your statement, getting people to listen to you, to watch you.

Heart N Soul were all over Decibel 09 and were a great success. So what’s the next Decibel going to be like?

The next Decibel is going to be even better than the last! We’re going to diversify even more, we expect more disabled artists performing, more women performing as women, gay and lesbian artists performing as gay and lesbian artists, we really want it to be a fantastic celebration of Britain’s best diverse talent.

Now have a look at Jon Pratty's photos from the Heart n Soul celebration: Flickr slideshow