We Face Forward in Manchester UK – music and art celebrate the Olympics
“We face neither East nor West, we face forward,” said Kwame Nkrumah, the first President of an independent Ghana in 1960, emphasising his country’s resistance to Cold War superpowers.
Now that evocative phrase We Face Forward is the name of a Manchester-based Summer-long season of contemporary art and music from West Africa, inspired by that same sense of West African cultural dynamism. As the Olympic Games clog up London, Manchester is celebrating the global and the local across three galleries, two museums, four music venues, libraries, community spaces and on an art bus, with no less than 33 artists, plus a host of musicians from 11 West African countries.
The ambitious idea came to Doctor Maria Balshaw one day two years ago as she was enjoying the collection of textiles in the city’s historic Whitworth Art Gallery, created in the late Nineteenth Century in part to inspire Manchester textile designers who were a part of the region’s thriving cotton industry.
“I was looking at a Malian ceremonial robe we have here,” Maria recalls. “At the same time, I was listening to the music of the great Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté, who I love. At that precise moment he was playing a musical phrase inspired by Ennio Morricone, and I knew how Toumani was connected to American music, in part, from being in England. So I started to think about that movement of music and the way Manchester’s connections to West Africa are so much a part of its industrial and trading history. What if we thought about what that looks like now?
“Usually you don’t get much of a chance to follow up those sort of ‘what if?’ moments,” she laughs, “but this thought about music and textiles coincided with me receiving a Breakthrough Award from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation to do some creative research and then to create a project from that research. Roughly at the same time, Ruth Mackenzie from the Cultural Olympics rang up and said ‘So what’s Manchester going to do as the world comes to the UK for the Olympics?’
“So I went off, quite speculatively, to Bamako in Mali and said ‘we have a whole range of West African textiles in our collection in Manchester and I’d like to connect to artists who are making interesting work now.’ I didn’t know from the conversations I’d had whether I would connect with three artists or thirty. Fortunately it was closer to thirty. I came back with a sense that there was a really dynamic arts scene as well as a really dynamic music scene and that we could bring those together.
“I talked here with partners like the Band On The Wall, who knew producers and agents, saying that we wanted to put a visual arts programme together that also had a music programme. Would that be possible? They said ‘Yes it could be’.”
Behind that simple explanation, of course, there was the usual huge amount of work and unexpected complications, as well as some real coups. The bulging programme now includes artists and musicians from Benin, Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, Mali, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Congo, and Gambia, as well as Cuba. Fittingly enough, one of the first stars of the music programme turned out to be AfroCubism, the international supergroup formed by Eliades Ochoa of Buena Vista Social Club and Toumani Diabaté, whose music had, in a sense, inspired the whole adventure.
Other musical highlights have already included Femi Kuti and The Positive Force, Kanda Bongo Man, Jaliba Kuyateh & Kumareh Band, Diabel Cossokho, and Dele Sosimi Orchestra, with Mamane Barka & Etran Finatawa bringing their The Endless Journey project to the RNCM and Seckou Keita Band playing a free Olympic Torch Relay concert. Damon Albarn’s African Express project are supposed to be bringing their high-energy show to town too, after travelling around the country by rail – for all the world like Janis and the Grateful Dead on board the Festival Express!
Meanwhile at the core of the season is a city-wide exhibition of contemporary art from the region. The first major collaboration between Manchester Art Gallery, Whitworth Art Gallery and Gallery of Costume, Platt Hall, features painting, photography, textiles, sculpture, video and sound work from internationally acclaimed artists, including Georges Adéagbo, Meschac Gaba, Romuald Hazoumè and George Osodi. It’s also the first major display in the UK of work by emerging artists such as Lucy Azubuike, Emeka Ogboh, Charles Okereke, Nyani Quarmyne and Victoria Udondian.
New, large-scale installations have been commissioned from Barthélémy Toguo at Manchester Art Gallery, and from Pascale Marthine Tayou at Whitworth Art Gallery.
The Gallery of Costume features studio and social portraits by Malian photographers, Malick Sidibé, Abderramane Sakaly and Soungalo Malé, alongside West African dress from the gallery collection, photographs by Hamidou Maiga and contemporary fashion pieces from British-Nigerian designer Duro Oluwu.
Exhibitions and events also take place at The Manchester Museum and the new National Football Museum, who present African artists for whom football offers a way to explore protest, politics and social engagement.
Meanwhile, an art bus modelled on the highly decorated taxi-buses that ferry people across Dakar, Accra and Bamako are taking creative activities out beyond the participating galleries and parks to other locations across the city.
“Forget everything you think you know about African art,” advises Maria, “and embrace all that you don’t yet know about the art, culture and creativity of West African artists today.”
*We Face Forward runs until September 16 More information on all events and exhibitions can be found at: http://www.wefaceforward.org.