Ethiopian Connections: Community Engagement through Creative Arts

Dr Peter Kellett is an architect and social anthropologist and Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture Planning and Landscape. In 2013 he went to Ethiopia as a VSO volunteer working as Visiting Professor at Addis Ababa University on a capacity building programme. He returned in 2015 to continue work on collaborative research projects with his Ethiopian colleagues.  Whilst in the country he collected numerous objects and images which form the basis of a series of exhibitions. Here he writes about the current exhibition in Bath which is supported by a grant from the Newcastle Institute of Social Renewal.


Fairfield House is a well-proportioned, Italianate mid-nineteenth century house on the outskirts of the genteel and historic city of Bath – and a long way from Africa. However for 5 years (1936-1941) it was the home of the Ethiopian Emperor, King of Kings, Conquering Lion of Judah, His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I.  Ethiopia was the only country in Africa country not to be colonised by the European powers and remained a proudly independent state – until Mussolini’s troops invaded in 1935.  Haile Selassie, his family and his court managed to escape into exile – and ended up in Fairfield House.  On his return to Ethiopia he gifted the house to the city of Bath, and it is now a multi-cultural centre and the base of numerous black and ethnic minority groups, including Ethiopian, African-Caribbean and Rastafari communities in the South West.

 The window of Haile Selassie’s former bedroom is transformed into the Ethiopian flag assembled from hundreds of children’s sandals.

The window of Haile Selassie’s former bedroom is transformed into the Ethiopian flag assembled from hundreds of children’s sandals.

Given its rich history and ongoing links with Africa, Fairfield House is the perfect place for this exhibition which highlights processes of rapid socio-economic change and modernization in Ethiopia. Many aspects of these changes can be observed in the ordinary objects which people use in their everyday lives and which are visible and tangible manifestations of the move from handmade, locally-sourced, natural materials – towards machine-made, high energy, imported materials. These changes are impacting on how people live and work, as well as on the values which underpin the society.

The exhibition examines these changes through a focus on material culture. Objects are good for telling stories and focusing ideas.  Drawing on contemporary art techniques, I created a series of assemblages of objects which present stories of celebration, optimism and creativity alongside development dilemmas and challenges.  The installations are complemented by colourful video images on large monitors which show the objects in context.  The key themes are food security, water, childhood, maternal health, language and religious traditions.

The exhibition commenced in March with a wonderful opening evening which drew people from numerous community, charity and religious groups from the South West. In addition to a few speeches, we enjoyed music played by an Ethiopian cellist and drank cups of traditional Ethiopian coffee poured from elegant ceramic coffee pots and listened to inspirational Rastafarian poetry.

Last weekend I returned to Fairfield as the house and exhibition were included in the Bath Newbridge Arts Trail. Over two days close to 150 people from many walks of life came to see the exhibition – and it was encouraging to see visitors attracted and curious about the vibrant displays which in turn prompted discussions and an interest in learning more about the issues presented.

On Saturday evening the house reverberated with the hypnotic rhythms of Rastafari drumming and chanting. The Rastafari meet regularly in Fairfield to celebrate the Sabbath and this was a special occasion to mark the anniversary of Haile Selassie’s triumphant return to Addis Ababa in May 1941 – to continue ruling as the last monarch of the 3,000 year old Solomonic dynasty which began with the union of King Solomon of Israel and the Queen of Sheba (ancient Ethiopia and Yemen).  The Rastafari take their name from Haile Selassie’s pre-coronation name of Ras (Prince) Tafari, and for them he is much more than a king – he is regarded as God (Jah) and the messiah who came to liberate black people throughout the world.  For them to spend time in his former house is highly significant.

The exhibition provides a focus for related workshops and participatory events to engage wider audiences. Starting with a lively session with the black and ethnic minority senior citizen group which meets regularly in Fairfield, we are now organising activities with the local community as well as visits of local schoolchildren and African refugees.  These events will encourage creative activities around development themes with the aim of fostering understanding and dialogue between different social and ethnic groups and thereby contribute to community cohesion and social renewal.

Dr Peter Kellett

Might Canada be a good model for Scottish cultural policy post-Brexit?


Dr Simon McKerrell, Newcastle University, January 2017

An effective cultural policy should do many things, but one thing that we could do better is policy for the arts. Good arts policy depends upon a range of artists, deep communities of practice, some public support and private success, amongst many other things. But the most important bit which sometimes gets lost, especially in amongst the razzmatazz of Celtic Connections or the Edinburgh Festivals in the summer is aesthetically (or artistically) transformational experiences for the Scottish public. Art has many values from the personal to the public, but changing the way we see, feel and hear the world through artistic experience is one of the most vital. One way in which this actually happens is when cultural policy connects the local to the global, and we might be able to learn a few lessons from other countries post-Brexit about this, particularly Canada.


The decade 2010-2020 in the UK has, and will show a continuous retreat and downsizing of the state in relation to cultural and arts policy and financial support. This is a real, live problem in Scotland and across the UK because Local Authorities are still the largest funders of arts in the UK. In England for instance (where we have figures) we know that since 2010, local authority spending on the arts has declined by 17% (£236m). In Scotland there is a similar picture. Much intellectual energy and scholarly discourse has been devoted to national cultural policy structures for the arts in the UK and elsewhere over the last twenty years. This has involved large and intensive debates about complex transdisciplinary areas such as: the social impact of the arts; the regenerative agency of creative place-making; cultural capital; the equitable distribution of state funding to different genres and regions of the UK, and; the relationship(s) between the intrinsic and instrumental value of the arts. All against a public background and political narrative of austerity. We know from much of the research that has emerged that the arts can have a transformative positive effect on individuals and communities given the right conditions, but this often happens at the personal and/or very local level.

In amongst all the macro debates about UK cultural policy, not much attention has been paid to those smaller, local communities of artistic practice, that carry on their production and consumption of culture beyond the reach of the state or its quangos. The continuing delivery of arts projects in Scotland and elsewhere across the UK mostly happens at the local level, even when it is supported through national or local authority arts funding. Increasingly, studies of globalization and culture have pointed out that the local and global are interdependent upon each other, and that most forms of belonging are inherently local, but increasingly mediatized through global means such as social media, websites, fora, and online news and television. It is the local arena then, where local artistic practice across musical, narrative, dance, visual or even gastronomic traditions are actually practised. Indeed, when one remembers that in Scotland, the most popular cultural attendance context is a visit to the local library (more than cinema or live music) one of the obvious post-Brexit answers for cultural policy is staring us in the face.

Moreover, in Scotland, the Scottish Government now has recently moved into a third successive term of SNP administration, which continues to explicitly develop ‘The Scottish Approach’ to delivering policy and to devolving decision making ‘with’ the community. In a number of non-UK contexts, local government has been, and continues to be, key stakeholders in the development of musical communities. Recent shifts in government policy in both in the UK (instrumentalization of the arts under New Labour) and particularly in Scotland (widening of the wellbeing and health policy agenda to include prevention) now mean that participation is viewed as a contributing factor across a number of domains beyond the artistic. The arts are now present in various social cohesion, health, wellbeing, economic growth and sustainability strategies across the UK and much of this work is being carried out via non-arts and non-cultural policy officers within local authorities.

These reasons amongst others, underscore the importance of understanding how local participation and delivery of arts projects across varied urban and rural landscapes in Scotland relate to cultural policy in a rapidly changing context. Too much has been made of professional ‘high quality’ arts in Scotland. Local, and less glamorous activities across the nation give much more bang for the Scottish buck in terms of transformational artistic experience: The retirees choir rehearsing their ‘Passion’; the rural fiddle group meeting weekly on a Thursday night to exchange tunes and fun; the urban dramatic society bringing together the generations for a performance of Noel Coward’s ‘Blythe Spirit’ for a week in December, or; the central belt pipe band preparing boys and girls for the competition season in the summer.


These local groups are not in direct competition with the professional artists, but in many ways a pound spent there goes further and longer than a pound spent on the next elite performer’s tour, or orchestral production. A lot of this money comes from local authorities, and these local authorities have less to give but they already have a vast network of libraries where much cultural activity takes place. Could we not in a post-Brexit world set aside some money perhaps via ringfenced or Edinburgh distributed cultural funding, so that libraries could extend and reinvent their role in the local community as the arts hub? Public libraries are the natural home for local arts in the globalized Scottish 21st century. They do it elsewhere and we could learn from them in a post-Brexit, or even post-UK context.

Canadians borrow from their public libraries twice as many books as they buy each year and 85% of their local communities have a Community Trust which acts as a focal point for local arts philanthropy and community engagement—local people coordinating and deciding how to pay for local arts from local money. In fact, libraries account for about 40% of provincial cultural spending by government in Canada, and they even have a publicly funded national encyclopaedia available digitally at their libraries (pretty good for tourism their too). At the federal level, the Canadian government is even spending $210 million dollars in 2017 alone on cultural heritage to celebrate their 150th anniversary—a fraction of this spending on our Scottish cultural heritage at the local level would be hugely positive in Scotland. As it happens, neither the UK (including Scotland) or Canada have signed the UNESCO 2003 Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage and are unlikely to do so. They spend ringfenced money from central government on their traditional music, drama and dance; ours go into the general competition on artistic merit up against every other art form. Traditional arts could see a post-Brexit boom if we adopted a more Canadian approach. We spend a lot of money on the arts on national ‘glorious megafauna’. Even if we set aside £500K for each of the 32 Scottish local authorities ringfenced specifically for local arts, that would represent half of the annual budget we spend on the five national performing companies (RSNO, Scottish Ballet, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Scottish Opera and The National Theatre of Scotland). Yes, £16 million for arts in Scottish libraries for a new Scottish communities arts trust in 2017 would be a good place to start (and would represent about seven times as much as the CS Cashback for Creativity initiative has invested back into local arts in the last several years). In Scotland we spent last year a ‘whopping’ £250K via the Public Library Improvement Fund—and guess what—this piddling amount was only accessible through competitive tendering into a central pot.

Internationally, the United Kingdom has a comparatively weak local authority provision for the arts within an EU context, and both cultural growth of ominorousness and the continuing reduction in funding for local authorities makes investigating novel and innovative methods of community funding and sustainability for arts more urgent. Indeed, one of the explicit aims of a newly reframed post-Brexit cultural policy would be to tackle more effectively the question of how local communities of geography and practice can themselves sustainably support their arts activities beyond any whims of local or national government. There could be a test artistic sustainability; at the most basic level we could ask Creative Scotland and/or local authorities to tell us how effective the money they spend is. Similarly, within the arts world, there’s still too much of a banal position that posits capitalism in simple opposition to the flourishing of an idealized, community-based, egalitarian performing arts. When one examines the realities of artists’ lives, one can see that many of the disciplines, and to a certain extent the grey literature of cultural policy itself, have broadly taken a moral position that represents an idealized arts ecosystem that is somewhat adjacent to reality. Beginning by linking the Scottish Household Survey on arts participation to actual cultural policy might be a good place to start in Scotland post-Brexit. Going further than this and learning from elsewhere, we could adopt more innovative funding models: Canada, in addition to having funding for just about everything to do with the arts also has changed the tax laws via The Investment Canada Act which requires that foreign investments result in a net benefit to Canada and are compatible with national cultural policy objectives. We could do that in Scotland. Maybe the new ‘Creative Industries Advisory Group’ announced this month could do something like that. We could also ask artists to take government backed loans instead of grants putting more onus on commercial success—they also do that in Canada. It’s not just a good idea because we believe in libraries and artistic notions of the public good; many many jobs in a post-Brexit Scotland whether independent or not, will depend upon the creative industries. We should get a head start this year with some radical cultural policies that support the local and encourage the commercial.

Dr Simon McKerrell is Head of Music at the International Centre for Music Studies at Newcastle University, in the School of Arts and Cultures. He’s also the Social Renewal Theme Champion for Arts and Culture in Social Renewal. Simon is interested in the social impact of music across three research topics: cultural heritage; sectarianism; and multimodal communication, and how these relate to policy.

What does participation mean?

Alexia Mellor is a practice-led PhD researcher in fine art, investigating participatory art practices and the local-global discourse. In this blog post, she explores the theme of arts and culture in social renewal following her presentation as part of the ‘New Voices in Social Renewal’ public lecture in Newcastle University. She challenges the valuing of art for its economic or even social benefit, and argues that the way forward is a more active citizenship.

Credit and Copyright ©: Colin Davison +44 (0)7850 609 340

Credit and Copyright ©: Colin Davison
+44 (0)7850 609 340

Participation seems to be the new buzzword, but what do we actually mean by it? What does it mean for social renewal? I am particularly interested in this as an artist and researcher whose practice involves working with people to question ideas and to make meaning.

Participatory art, socially-engaged art, dialogical art – they are all names for a broad spectrum of art practices that involve using the social as both the context and medium for the work. With ‘Big Society’ devolving responsibility, continuing austerity measures, and the arts being asked to make an economic as well as cultural case[1], social arts practices have come even more into the spotlight. There has been a visible push across the arts and cultural sector to focus on social inclusion, reaching out to communities that have been identified as disadvantaged or not engaging with cultural activities[2]. Having been commissioned to work on art projects associated with regeneration programmes and other such initiatives, I have become keenly aware of some of the issues with seeing art as a means to dealing with social problems.

This isn’t to say that art can’t help with social issues, but should it or must it? Of primary concern for me are questions around whose notions of ‘social betterment,’ or cultural engagement, are being acknowledged or furthered with the agendas behind these commissioned projects? What does this mean for the perceived role of the arts in society today? What agency does the participant have – does having access to an art or cultural project mean the same thing as participating in it?

My colleague and frequent collaborator, Dr. Anthony Schrag, and I have written frequently about this trend of using socially-engaged arts practices as an instrument towards particular agendas or targets. Whether these agendas are set by supporting organisations, commissioning bodies, or policy, the instrumentalism of socially-engaged art practice carries risks. Above all, instrumentalism risks losing the very thing that makes socially-engaged practices unique and relevant: their ability to involve participants across art and non-art contexts in critical, interdisciplinary dialogue.

Shop talk in Pontypool

Criticality is the core issue here. It is a myth that consensus necessarily leads to social cohesion. Society is complex and made of difference. What Anthony and I as practitioners and researchers both argue is that embracing a participatory approach that allows for, disagreement, difference and dissensus through critical interrogation is crucial. French theorist, Chantal Mouffe, refers to the need for welcoming healthy conflict and difference in her discussion of agonism. Agonism is not antagonism. Quite the opposite. Agonism sees the value in, and necessity of, respectful disagreement as a way of finding common ground, of finding creative solutions, and of revealing questions we did not know needed to be asked. She argues that agonism is key to true democracy, and ultimately to active citizenship.

Participation in active citizenship requires physical and conceptual spaces for critical reflection that embrace difference and allow for multiple perspectives to be heard. I suggest that socially-engaged arts practices might offer a model for this. Beyond ‘bums on seats,’ this type of art practice sees participants as co-creators in developing a critical space and what happens within it. As opposed to advocating any pre-defined objective, the practice is responsive to the direction participants choose to take the project. This, however, requires a shift in how we think of socially-engaged practice and its role. Artists are not social workers, but we do work with the social. As opposed to fixing social ills, perhaps we are best suited to work collaboratively with participants to shed light on issues and open the forum for how to collectively approach them. This also means challenging the idea that art will ‘do good.’ Sometimes the greatest growth comes after going through something quite difficult. It is our job as artists and researchers to provide the safe and productive spaces for disagreement. By making space for discomfort, by allowing criticality to be at the fore, we just might encourage more active citizenship.

[1] Mirza, Munira. (Ed) Culture Vultures: Is UK arts policy damaging the arts? London, Policy Exchange Limited, 2006

[2] See:

Salmon fishing on the Tweed

A north east listening project

On the radio and online we are witnessing renewed concern to record local memories of cherished landscapes before they are lost forever. Examples of how this can be done include the BBC Listening Project and the National Trust Sounds of our Shores – a crowd-funded sound-map of people’s favourite seaside sounds. These examples build on classic Mass Observation recordings of everyday life (1937-1970) – notably Pub Conversations.

Inspired by this approach, Dr Helen Jarvis and postgraduate student Tessa Holland (both from the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology) are collecting impressions of the once-thriving salmon fishing industry in Berwick upon Tweed; both to stimulate public debate on this disappearing livelihood, and to record the wealth of local knowledge involved.

Salmon fishing on the tweed

The project involves a series of ‘pop-up’ citizen-led story-telling events that coincide with the town celebrating 900 years of history, with collaboration from fishing communities and local history experts representing Our Families (a Berwick Record Office, Heritage Lottery funded project for Berwick 900). Participating in a summer of fishing-related feasts and festivals, including the crowning of the Salmon Queen, offers the ideal opportunity to raise awareness of the issues at stake.

The salmon fishing project moves to Berwick Town Hall, with a storytelling booth, from 17th to 19th July.  After this time the exhibition will be held at the Watchtower Gallery until August 16th.

Poster for exhibition

Salmon fishing on the Tweed

Written accounts of net fishing on the Tweed exist from the 1200s, but the skills and knowledge of the river date back to before records began. Net and coble fishing is a traditional way of life which made Berwick-upon-Tweed famous and the industry once provided jobs for around 800 local people. The local significance of the industry is captured in pictures and memories of customs such as ‘blessing the salmon’ at the opening of the Tweed salmon netting season, midnight on 14th February. The vicar of Norham ended the custom in 1987 when the fishery in his parish closed.

Blessing the salmon

Blessing the salmon, 1946, by permission of Berwick Record Office.

Loss of the nets

Chronic disinvestment and loss of the nets began in the 1980s, when many of the fisheries were bought out and closed down. Indeed, this experience – of close-knit community ties and generations of fishing expertise dismantled at a stroke – resonates with text-book accounts of deindustrialisation in heavy industries such as coal and steel. In each case, powerful commercial and political interests claimed economic competitiveness and new technology as motivation for consigning ‘outmoded’ industries to the past.

Since the Tweed Act of 1857 the right to catch and sell wild Tweed salmon is only held by net fisheries; rod-caught salmon cannot be sold commercially, so without the nets, there is no legal source for the wider, non-angling public. The rights to work these dormant fisheries are now held by the Tweed Foundation. Only two net fisheries remain active today – one at Paxton, and one at Gardo (near Berwick Old Bridge). The Paxton fishery now works in partnership with the Tweed Foundation to fish only for educational and scientific purposes. This explains why, despite the undisputed potential for a premium brand of locally caught wild salmon to put Berwick on the map, none is available to buy at the fishmonger or eat in local restaurants. The irony is that Berwick is closely identified with ‘slow food’ and ‘slow living’ civic organisations that promote locally produced, sustainable food and cultural heritage.

Berwick old bridge

Prospects for renewal?

Despite its decline, powerful local attachments to salmon fishing traditions continue to shape the cultural heritage and landscape of this market town. From stories recorded so far, we learn that, in the past ‘thousands of people would go to watch the netting of the salmon – all through the season’ and this made the river a site of spectacle. This hints at some of the non-economic benefits that have been undermined by loss of the nets.

It is too early to report on the impact that public dialogue might have in reviving the last remaining fishing stations – and it is beyond the current scope of the project to make policy recommendations. But it is provocative to consider novel examples of government policy for small towns, like Berwick, which need to attract and retain residents, jobs and tourist income. In France, the government subsidises cafés that provide music and entertainment, justifying this by the combined stimulus to jobs and spending in public spaces – that in turn foster a convivial public life (Banerjee 2001). Is it far-fetched in this context to regard net fishing as a form of entertainment?

Dr Helen Jarvis, School of Geography, Politics and Sociology

The North and Northness

What creates a place? In May 2015, Newcastle University’s Cultural Significance of Place Research Group (CSoP) held an event exploring ideas of Northness in culture. The contributions ranged from reflections on the mythical, literary and musical construction of the North, to analyses of the modern romance of the North of England through the eyes of a Sunderland AFC fan. Across disciplines, the question was asked: who created our region? Whether they call up a lost past, or hint at a new political future, ideas of the North are as important today as ever.

Firth of Forth

Different ways to carve up the map

One of the most striking things to be learned from the various studies presented at this event is that there have been many different ways of conceiving of the geographical entity that is the North, whether that be a selection of four towns in England that aren’t London, or a transpennine dragon whose nose points towards St. Petersburg. When we see the geographical uncertainty involved in identifying this region, it helps us to understand the extent to which art and culture have been the agents in forming this space. In fact, as keynote speaker Professor Penny Fielding reminded us, this has had a long history, from the eighteenth-century conceptions of Northern democracy and social unity to nineteenth-century literature of the Industrial Revolution. As such, the associations of the North with these ideas are the product of centuries of story-telling.

North as opposed to South

The strength of Northern identity has by no means diminished, however, which is significant in an age of globalisation and technological advance. The explanation offered at ‘North and Northness’ was that the North has strengthened because it is increasingly defined against the South. In an analysis of Mackem linguistic purism, it was demonstrated that the North is often set against perceived Southern softness and femininity, in the context of a burgeoning capital city. Most starkly, however, North is conceived of as ‘home’ in the very tonality of North East folk:

‘The North Country Maid’ is bi-tonal, offering a sense of hope and joy in the chorus, which is in a different (major) key to the verse. Visit the North East Folk website for more examples from the Social Renewal funded project by Dr Simon McKerrell.

Where next for the North?

This is a pertinent question, given the debates surrounding devolution and decentralisation in the United Kingdom as a whole. Taking even the #takeuswithyouScotland trend as an example, the conversation is on-going. The political, legal and cultural future of the North is by no means certain, given how disastrous attempts to define it have been in the past. Evidence from the attempted artistic construction of the North in Artranspennine98, and from the current confusion over which cities in the UK deserve more devolved powers, suggests that it’s not so easy to make the North in your own image. The conclusion that must be drawn from  the ‘North and Northness’ discussion is that although we can trace its construction, it’s a complicated task to re-mould it now.

Contributors to the North and Northness event:

Professor Penny Fielding, University of Edinburgh – Curating the North
Dr Simon McKerrell, Newcastle University – Musical Metaphors of the North
Derek James, University of Exeter – Can the concept of ‘northness’ be applied to tea smuggling in the eighteenth century?
Dr Michael Pearce, University of Sunderland – Anyone from the North East who says ‘mum’ should be shot
Dr Peter O’Brien, Newcastle University – Decentralisation and devolution in the UK: where next for the North of England?

For more information about the Cultural Significance of Place Research Group, please see their website or email Chris Whitehead.

By Fiona Simmons, NISR

Hearing History

Preparing for 'Hearing History' workshops

Preparing for ‘Hearing History’ workshops

Dr Paul Fleet @DrPaulFleet #HearingHistory

Dr Paul Fleet FHEA, FRSA is Director of Excellence in Learning and Teaching in the School of Arts and Cultures at Newcastle University and was recently granted an award under NISR’s Past in the Present theme.  Here he writes about the planning of the public facing workshops exploring recording technologies.

What does it mean to record something and commit its content to timelessness and what are the social, political and historical boundaries between public and private recordings?  These questions will be the focus of two workshops delivered by Newcastle University, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM) and the Lathe Revival and explored in hands-on workshops with various recording devices – from phonographs to mobile phones – by members of the public, academic staff and archivists.

The remarkable speed of development of such technologies has forced the public to consciously and subconsciously change their social and environmental listening behaviours.  One need only think of the recent stand by Kate Bush to have every audience member turn off their mobile phone during her concert to better engage with the experience as a community.


On 16 January 2015, John Coburn and Alex Boyd from TWAM, Lorna Fulton from @LatheRevival and I met to discuss the dates and details of these workshops.  So what can I tell you so far…  we will be looking at an original tin-foil phonograph and recording on an Edison wax cylinder phonograph that are currently housed within TWAM; we will be live cutting 78s on a 1930s Presto Lathe; we will be recording on a reel-to-reel that was made by the British Ferrograph Recorder Company of South Shields (North East); and we will be inviting the participants to explore their conscious and subconscious use of mobile phone audio capture.

The dates are to be confirmed but they will be in March 2015 so watch this space and search for #HearingHistory on Twitter for further details.