Although I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Manchester lately, I can’t say I really understand it. Oasis? OK, a great band, but I have their music on a CD in a cupboard somewhere, not on my iPod. The Hacienda? Pretty much before my time, except for vague memories of our 18-year-old babysitter playing rave music as she dropped us off at school. Football? Despite the attempts of former boyfriends to enthuse me, I can’t watch it without drifting off.
And although I really love the famous northern humour, sometimes I’m laughing via my imagination, not from instant recognition. I know the North West has just as many successful people as the south, and arguably a stronger cultural tradition and nicer countryside. Yet that’s not what the humour focuses on, it’s John Bishop talking about the council knocking his house down, or Lee Mack talking about not being able to afford the milk for angel delight. They are brilliant, but my comfortable background has been more Ab Fab/Vicar of Dibley.
So how could I get cosy with Manchester? I grew up down south, and I hadn’t been to university there, so there were no old friends to connect with, no nostalgic memories to evoke. In fact, despite a grandfather living in Preston, I felt like I had very little connection to the North West.
My ex boyfriend and I rented a flat in lovely West Didsbury, and that in itself was an act of defence. West Didsbury is a leafy enclave, safe and protected from the rest of the city, with lovely little shops selling cupcakes, espresso and expensive baby clothes. There I stayed, writing, making occasional trips into the city centre (getting horribly lost most of the time), and ignoring the rest of the city, which felt a little threatening to me.
One way or another, I had lost the spirit of exploration that came so naturally at 21, or 23. Somehow, I’d forgotten that I was often happier in culturally diverse, bustling neighbourhoods, even if that meant sacrificing picture-perfect aesthetics.
There were other pressures on my personal and working life which go some way to explaining why this happened. But things just never quite seemed to come together. Sometimes, just like with people, a relationship with a place is just not meant to be. Yet, just like relationships with people, you get out what you put in, and I did myself no favours by failing to engage with this city.
This was until this Thursday, when the work on display at the Manchester Art Gallery reminded me that in any city, at any given time, everyone is on a scale of familiarity, and there are some people living near us for whom EVERYTHING is alien.
The first reminder of this came before I even set foot in the exhibition. Two Chinese mums, shepherding four toddlers, stopped me on the street and thrust a piece of paper with an address on it into my hand. They spoke no English save for ‘Passport Office’. I took them to the address on the piece of paper, which turned out to be the Justice Courts. The Passport Office turned out to be on a completely different street, two blocks away, in a 1960′s block with an unsigned entrance around the back. I lead the mums and cute, Hello Kitty adorned babies, Pied Piper style, across zebra crossings and through crowded pavements. How else would they have got there?
Back at the gallery, I visited a new exhibition, We Face Forward: Art From West Africa Today, curated by Natasha Howes. The first photographs I saw were by Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo. They focused on the Aglobloshie Market in Ghana, which is basically a 10km rubbish tip full of old computers from the West. Children and teenagers work there, exposing themselves to toxic chemicals as they try to remove copper from the computer hardware, which is then sold on. The photographs showed an alien world: vented computer terminals photographed from ground level appear like towering fascist office buildings. Teenagers carry coils of wires on their heads.
Then the photographs of George Osodi, zillions of them, playing in a never-ending slideshow on an HD screen. They documented the lives of people living in the Niger Delta, which is rich in oil. There were pictures of people using buckets to scoop up rich oil, which seeped out if they dug just a few inches into the forest floor.
In a film by Séraphin Zounyekpe, a father talks about why he lives under a bridge near Dantokpa Market in Benin. There really seems to be no way out for him: he’s a trained upholsterer but he can’t find work, his wife makes peanuts sweeping the streets, and he has lots of little children to care for. At night, he curls himself up in a tiny space under a corrugated roof, lies his head on a wooden block and sleeps. When I went to India I saw big families living under railway bridges, but, however many BBC documentaries I’ve seen where ‘Andrew Marr visits the slums’, I’ve never seen one of the world’s poorest people given a voice in quite the same way as this.*
The exhibition also looked at migration, both at the place you leave behind (in a series of self portraits by Hélène Amouzou, she stands in her childhood home, slowly vanishing, whispy as a ghost) and at the place you find (a group of Chinese women who have emigrated to Cumbria grin as they hold up the Victoria Sponge cakes they have made).
I can’t list every artist here for fear of boring you with my zeal, but, cheesy as it might sound, this truly incredible exhibition reminded me that art can build bridges. It also showed me that just because you live somewhere, it doesn’t mean you can’t act like a tourist. Otherwise all you will see is the inside of Tesco, an office, or Ikea. A fresh view is worth a lot.
*I’d like to add that although I’ve described artworks here which show poverty in Africa (as this was a striking part of the exhibition), I am against the media bias which shows only poverty in Africa. It’s not realistic or helpful. My friend Max Bilbow has set up A Dam Relief to counter this, take a look here.