“If you want to see the real Moss Side, it’s all here”

A remarkable photography, creative writing, and art exhibition titled "Powerhouse Portraits" is set to take centre stage at The Powerhouse in Moss Side, Manchester, from 29 July until 31 October 2023.
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A remarkable photography, creative writing, and art exhibition titled “Powerhouse Portraits” is set to take centre stage at The Powerhouse in Moss Side, Manchester, from 29 July until 31 October 2023.

Powerhouse Portaits: A Snapshot of Moss Side

Moss Side, an inner-city area of Manchester, has long been a melting pot of cultures and identities, celebrating its diversity while experiencing ongoing transformations.

Life in Moss Side

“Powerhouse Portraits” serves as a visual and narrative documentation of the lives and stories of Moss Side’s residents, both young and old, capturing the essence of the neighbourhood’s intergenerational dynamics.

The project, led by artist Leo Macdonald Oulds, photographer Ian Johns, and local poet Nasima Bee, handed out 99 disposable cameras, sketchbooks, and notebooks to 40 participants from different age groups, ranging from 8 to 87 years old.

Over six weeks, these enthusiastic participants attended a series of eighteen workshops, pouring their hearts into capturing the essence of Moss Side from their unique perspectives.

Deanne Heron

We spoke to Deanne Heron, who is a writer, poet and radio presenter about her involvement in the project.

“I saw the advert in a community group made by Ian Johns, one of the photographers and I just thought what a great idea it is.

“So I went along.

“I was really surprised at the number of people who were there.

“And the lovely mix, you know, different ages, young and old, different ethnicities. It’s very representative of the place.

“Ian taught us how to use disposable cameras and we had to take 27 photos per week. Then, we had to put the photos together in an album and write a little bit about each photograph. It was a great experience.”

“We used to come down to Moss Side all the time, me and my mum, to do shopping.

“It used to be the only place you could get amazing Carribean Food, so we were all over it!

“Manchester is just so beautiful.

“I’ve had many opportunities to go to other cities, London, Nottingham, Birmingham.

“But every time I go anywhere and I come back to Manchester, I just feel like I’m home.

“You know, I just feel like I’m, I’m Manchester is my place. I think it’s so beautiful on so many different levels.”

I asked Deanne what changes she had seen in Moss Side since she arrived in England in 1967.

She said: I mean, when I knew Moss Side as a little girl, it was mainly, maybe African Caribbean, there were a lot of Asian people, white people as well.

“But I would say there was a nice mix.

I asked Deanne about people’s preconceived notions about Moss Side and some of the stereotypes associated with the area.

“Don’t believe what you’ve heard about the place, it’s wonderful.

“We’re world citizens. We should be able to travel wherever we want to and live happily with friendly neighbours. Moss Side reflects that diversity, and it’s a beautiful place.

“But everybody outside of Moss Side, I think, assumed that it was all black people, but it wasn’t, and isn’t.

“It is a very diverse community, with a lot of Irish people, too.

“There is still a good sense of community, but there have been a lot of changes.

“A lot of people living there now are from other African countries. Not so many African Caribbean, most of them seem to have moved away. Recently, a lot of the houses that have gone up for sale, they’ve been bought by people from the South.”

Kooj Chuhan

Kooj Chuhan is a Digital artist, filmmaker, researcher and creative producer

One of Kooj’s photos

Kooj interweaves racial justice with climate resistance using a range of interactive, visual, media and performance approaches combined with critical cultural democracy.

Co-founder of Black Arts Alliance and artist collective Virtual Migrants, he won an award for digital arts connecting refugees with climate change, curated the ‘Footprint Modulation’ climate migration exhibition, co-authored Revealing Histories on transatlantic slavery and Manchester, and numerous projects for 40 years.

He also chaired the campaign committee demanding justice for the Manchester racist murders in 1992 among other activism roles.

Currently director of Crossing Footprints CIC which connects creativity with issues of human rights, environment, inequality and wellbeing.

Snaps from the street

In late 2022 Kooj co-founded Segment Arts with fellow artist Leo Macdonald Oulds, facilitating debut photography and writing project with local communities in Moss Side.

He is now taking a role in the new Exhibition and we spoke to him about his love for Moss Side.

Kooj said: “I used to work in Moss Side as a teacher back in the 80s, and I think it’s fair to say it was a lively place.

“It’s also full of incredible people and has a vibrant culture possibly like nowhere else in the city.

“I think the riots in the 80s, and activism needed to happen because it drew attention to some of the awful things that were happening in the area, and in many respects, are still happening.

“More recently, BLM (Black Lives Matter) have formed part of a very real curve of defiance in Moss Side.

“This is a place that is so rich in knowledge and culture and community spirit, being given a chance to document that was a truly wonderful thing.

“I didn’t realise the diversity of the place.

“The range of different communities involved in the project is huge.

“I didn’t realise there was such a strong Irish community in Moss Side. They all said to me, it’s really important for us to be visible, because we’re invisible in a lot of places, you know.

“I think the place has dropped a lot of stereotypes that have previously been associated with the place.

“At the end of the day, we’re all just people with the same aspirations and the same problems.”

I asked Kooj how he got involved in the exhibition, and he said: “I’ve known Leo, who helped set up the project for a long time.

“He did a project with Skateboarders in Morocco, giving them all disposable cameras and what came out was incredible. They were so interesting and he produced a publication based on that.

“He did suggest he was thinking of doing something similar in Manchester and lo and behold, here we are.

“His Moroccan project was so cool, I just had to get involved.”

Kooj said his favourite aspect of the exhibition was that there was nothing prescribed, people can just take photos of what they want. It’s open for people to decide on what they take photos of, and that’s what makes the installation so intriguing.

“It’s driven by all the communities in the area.

“It’s just small stories of people’s lives. There’s no big edge to it.

“But you realise that it’s the small things, meeting the family, hanging out, they are the big things. It honestly makes for fascinating viewing.

“There’s a quote by John Lennon, which says “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.” It’s so true in this exhibit.

“The installation and magazine look amazing, so you should check it out.

Nasima Bee and Professor Erinma Bell MBE DL JP

The exhibition launch on 29 July promises to be a momentous event, featuring poetry readings by Nasima Bee (Young Identity) and esteemed local peace activist Professor Erinma Bell MBE DL JP.

Additional speakers from the Moss Side community, including writer Deanne Heron and photographer Dorothy Ennis Hand, will also be present, underscoring the significance of community-driven creative projects like “Powerhouse Portraits.”

Ian Johns, one of the featured photographers, brings a unique perspective to the exhibition with his 30-year retrospective.

His photographs challenge negative stereotypes of Moss Side’s African Caribbean community and showcase the tenderness and empathy of shared experiences, particularly in his “Fatherhood Projects.”

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