‘Street art is a leveller’: Northern Quarter project champions social justice

The Cities of Hope street art gallery has given social justice organisations in Manchester a voice, both in the UK and across the world, says the event’s co-founder.

The gallery, which was assembled in late May this year and champions social issues, brought some of the world’s leading street artists to the city with the objective of forcing witness to key social justice issues.

The artists chose a social topic that resonated with them on a personal level and were then matched up with the work carried out by local grassroots organisations.

“The work of ordinary people is making a difference to Manchester and beyond and we wanted to reflect that the city bears witness to this and that they are not forgotten,” co-founder Raja Miah told MM.

“Cities of Hope has drawn people from all walks of life to engage in the arts.  It has connected charities that ordinarily would not work together, and both the art and the charities have been profiled across the world.”

The artists’ murals, which reflect social concerns such as globalisation, disability and conflict, remain on the walls of buildings in the Northern Quarter, and function as a street gallery for the public’s viewing, independent of the city’s conventional art scene.

CITIES OF HOPE: The Guardian of Ancoats by Mateus Bailon

“Street art is a leveller, ensuring everyone has access to art and that everyone’s opinion is valid.  Something that is not always achieved in a conventional gallery,” said Raja.

“I think the event has shown that ordinary people are interested in art and that the city’s conventional galleries need to do more to better engage with a wider range of the citizens of our city and neighbouring towns and cities.”

It is hoped that the project will raise £10,000, which will then be given to Manchester’s social justice partners.

This fundraising is underpinned by the sale of original art which has been donated, and it is envisaged that sales will begin in September.

The gallery was inspired by the sighting of a couple, who were having their wedding pictures taken beside the Guardian of Ancoats, a mural of a giant exotic bird painted on a wall along Great Ancoats Street by Brazilian artist Mateus Bailon.

The mural clearly meant something to the couple, and Raja, along with fellow founder of Cities of Hope, Ben Barsky, observed the power that street art could transmit.

“Art is a powerful tool to champion social issues. Street art has found itself in the limelight and artists naturally connect with these issues.  It was a joining of dots,” said Raja.

GLOBALISATION:  A mural by local artist Dale Grimshaw

Ben and Raja deliberately reached out to artists with strong social convictions who believed in the cause, and who also understood the significance of street art.

One of the contributors to the street art gallery, Axel Void, described as “the modern equivalent of Michelangelo”, felt that street art had become diluted by conventional society.

“I think street art has always voiced the word of the people without the elitist filter of the contemporary art scene. But somehow it blended in with propaganda and the fashion industry,” said Axel.

Such sentiments fed into the artists’ unwavering commitment to the project, and have given Raja and Ben the results that they were looking for.

“They created beautiful pieces of art – art with a social conscience.  They created an outdoor street gallery that speaks in different ways, at different times of the day and at different times of the week.”

MOVING: Back on Track by street artist Case

The event has not been without its challenges.

A bigger team will be required for future projects, as all of those involved were volunteers working around day jobs and families. There was also difficulty in securing walls on which the murals could be produced.

Nevertheless, Raja remains confident in the face of such hurdles, and plans for future projects, both locally and beyond, are already in place.

“People in our city supported us and connected with our purpose. Next we go to nine outlying neighbourhoods in Manchester, in a bid to connect them with each other and with the centre of the city.

“Cities of Hope 2017 is planned for another city next year.”

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