Manchester Art Gallery

We Make the City

Conversations about Manchester – Lahore – Karachi

Why do people live in cities?

What does it mean to live in a city now?

What is our relationship with people who live in cities across the world?

What purpose does art have in a city?

These are some of the questions that surfaced to our minds when we first started thinking the New North South partnership programme. As Learning Managers at Manchester Art Gallery we have both been interested in how conversation can function in the gallery learning programme. The gathering together of people in front of an art work to spend time sharing views, exchanging ideas, challenging each other and exploring the world together have been central to many of the adult learning events for the past few years. This partnership opened up the possibility of those conversations having a global reach.

Inspiration from international partners

Over several months we got to know, through Skype conversations, the education programmers at Karachi Biennale and Lahore Biennale. Finding out what they were interested in, how they were connecting with audiences in their cities and their views on learning programmes. Both cities have their distinct characters. Karachi – a megacity with nearly 25 million people living in it with a dynamic art scene, but very few public art spaces. Lahore – an historic city with a rich and long tradition of artists and art schools.

The education programmers were also thinking in quite different ways. Varda Nisar in Karachi was focussing on an extensive schools outreach programme encouraging teachers to bring their students to see art during the Biennale. Her focus was also on family art days encouraging families to express themselves and connect in with some of the elements of Karachi connected to the spice trade and the city as a port. In Lahore the engagement team had been working on a series of conversations in public spaces and physical interventions in the city such as bus stops designed by artists. These conversations and interventions were with the overall aim of raising into people’s minds the impact of art in our cities leading up to the biennial. We were very inspired by Lahore Biennale’s conversation programme ‘Stories we Tell’ which engaged with people on the streets of Lahore.

Manchester and Pakistan

In Manchester we are always excited by the rich and diverse audiences from around the world that make up our city. 2017 was a difficult year for Manchester and it felt as if we needed to be pro-active about making connections across communities.  13% of the people who live in Manchester have a connection to South Asia and 9% of them with a connection to Pakistan. At Manchester Art Gallery we have shown the work of 4 artists from Pakistan : Adeela Suleman, Risham Syed, Waqas Khan and Mehreen Murtaza. These demographics and the work of these artists gave us an impetus to focus this work on Pakistan and to draw out the connections between Manchester, Lahore and Karachi.


We ran a series of conversations two in community settings – Cheetham Hill and Rusholme, and one at the gallery. These conversations aimed to bring together people who had never met each other, some who had connections to Pakistan and some who didn’t to talk about the relationship or perception of three cities : Manchester, Lahore and Karachi. Through each conversation we drew out ideas of belonging, living in cities, and what people’s perceptions were of how art and artists create connections in cities. Our first conversation took place in Cheetham Hill and it was soon clear that people love to talk about Manchester and their love for this city. This was a common theme across all the conversations, cities hold people, especially a city like Manchester which, for most, represents a tolerant and welcoming place. It also became clear that art and creative industries help that sense of connection – people gather around art and in that find shared connections. One participant expressed their thought that it showed a maturity to a city – having an artistic output. Adeela Sulemen, exhibiting her work art Manchester Art Gallery talked about Karachi giving her a need to make art, to cope with the challenges of her city. Each conversation was a moment in time and took it’s own direction and character according to who was there and what people wanted to talk about.

This film captures the spirit of these conversations.


Linking schools – Manchester – Karachi

We also ran a project with St. James’ CofE Primary School in Rusholme and their link school in Pakistan : Karachi High School. We spent time asking Year 5 to think about what a city is like across the other side of the world, imagining what it might feel like to be there. Some of the children had experienced Karachi, as they had family connections. For others it was about imagination. Students from Karachi High School did a similar exercise thinking about Manchester. Both classes created square images that were imagined representations of the other city. These art works were than swapped, some images made by school children in Manchester were taken to Karachi and some images of Manchester made by school children in Karachi were brought back. Both groups of students explored how each other’s city’s were perceived. It also created a sense of belonging and pride in the ‘home’ city.

St. James interpretations of ‘Karachi’

Karachi High School interpretations of Manchester

Professional exchange

The project also gave the opportunity for professional exchange, Varda Nisar from Karachi Biennale spent time in Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool talking with learning teams here. We, were also able to visit Karachi and Lahore, seeing for ourselves the context in which the Biennale staff were working. This visit, made at the end of October 2017 to the opening of the Karachi Biennale enabled us to witness first hand the start of an exciting time for contemporary art in Pakistan. 180 artists were exhibiting in 12 venues across the city and the Karachi audiences were delighted that art was being shown on such a scale across their city. We were able to observe school, college and family sessions in the Biennale venues. It was great to talk with young Pakistanis about how they view art and what it might say to them about their city. It really felt as though discussions were just warming up and teachers, students and parents were starting to embrace in a public way the creative side of their city.

For us, it helped us to understand a bit more, Pakistan, as a country and, as a consequence, our audiences here in the UK. We were able to reflect on the rich and diverse cultures within Pakistan and the long histories of art and craft making, but also the lack of public spaces to share this culture.

Things happen in bubbles…we weave through them and the bubbles can remain. There is a communication that can happen and communities set up. Community building, visual arts and the interconnecting of these bubbles and various energies that exist are imperative. And I think they must be woven. Because otherwise, you’re living in a big city and isolation is a very natural component of it. But through these connections they make you feel like a community.

Comment from a participant in one of the conversations

Continuing the conversation

We will be continuing the conversations throughout 2018 and beyond. If you would like to get involved, please get in touch

Meg Parnell and Ruth Edson : Learning Managers, Manchester Art Gallery.

0161 235 8855

0161 235 8877

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