We’re continuing (and finishing) the Black History month fun with my first guest post!! It’s by my very good friend Kelechi, a Nigerian New Zealander (I know, they exist!) who also has a blog about sports, philosophy and music. In this post he shares his experience at the first private African art gallery in the North-west of England, Chuck Gallery. Make sure to check out the other black history month posts: Black women travelling solo and 6 books you should pick up this month! Enjoy x
Coming to Peckham
When I landed in the UK the first place I went to was Peckham Rye. I didn’t know a lot about Peckham other than John Boyega grew up there. As far as I was concerned, if Peckham raised that beautiful Nigerian boy, then it was good enough for me.
I went to Peckham because I wanted to see us. To be around, to feel, smell and touch us. It wasn’t a case of never having been around us, you’re hard pressed to not find Nigerians anywhere in the world. As much as it was about being around us, it was also about being away from that gaze.
In Peckham I was back in Old Papatoetoe and Otahuhu – those familiar working class and diverse streets of New Zealand. There I saw the same hair stores as Aunty Grace’s and sister Joy’s, however, they were on every corner!
The streets were littered with Ankara and Kente cloths, with Yoruba and Twi being the most valuable currency. There was an ease and familiarity about Peckham that a Nigerian growing up in New Zealand would seldom experience. A perfect blend of the beautiful struggle but with us as the subject and the predicate. Us as the writer, director and producer.
While in the UK I had sought out blackness (aside from living in Chorley) in events, museums, plays and even barbershops, but nowhere brought that same ease and revolutionary joie de vivre as Peckham.
As far as I was concerned, if Peckham raised that beautiful Nigerian boy then it was good enough for me.Kelechi
Until I found Mecca…
Mecca, tucked in-between Rusholme and Longsight, in the middle of a quiet and unassuming street, away from the chicken joints, barbershops and markets. Steps away from where anti-slavery protesters had gathered, is a modest gallery that could easily be missed if one was absent minded.
Mecca has four rooms, named after dynamic contributors in Black art and isn’t hidden in the basement of the Museum of London, where it’s diminished by poor lighting and the fingerprints of the colonisers. It isn’t misquoted, brushed over or simply omitted like the true cost of cotton at the Museum of Science and Industry. Mecca boasts contemporary African art and the artists as the jollof and soya, not the veggies.
Mecca, a symphony of joy, pride, reverence, sorrow, pain and excellence. You know how the Last Poets describe “the corner” on Common’s song of the same name? As “OUR rock of Gibraltar, OUR Stonehenge.” They might have well have been talking about Mecca.
I heard about Mecca but I didn’t believe it existed and needed more clarification than the website provided me. I sent an email simply asking if Mecca would be open on Saturday. What I got in response was a phone call by the curator (the founder and owner). Two minutes into that phone call and I was convinced that a pilgrimage was on the cards.
He told me that the gallery was built for people like me – he wasn’t wrongKelechi
“Hi Kelechi? This is Chukwudi Onwudiwe from the Chuck gallery.”
– N’nam ke kwanu? Thank you so much for giving me a call.
“I got your email and thought it would be better to call and tell you about the gallery.”
What proceeds was a conversation that left me energised for the pilgrimage. We spoke about the importance of the space, I told him at my disappointment with certain museums and galleries and how a concept like the Chuck Gallery was even rarer for myself not just because I was part of the diaspora but because I was of the antipodes. He told me that the gallery was built for people like me – he wasn’t wrong.
The colours, the smell, the serenity…
The colours, the smell, the serenity, the knowledge, my gawd! The feeling that Mecca was uniquely ours while simultaneously universal… it all left me feeling like Andy Dufrense at the top of the roof!
As touching as it is to notice the universal nature of blackness and the Black experience, there is also something to be said about seeing yourself in works of artKelechi
The art work was a joy to behold and fully expressive of what it meant to be us – unique and common. Simple and complex. African and Western. The picture of the bustling market place screamed Lagos, Accra, Mogadishu or even Oxford Street. “The Chase” was the Melbourne Cup as much as Egyptian riders jostling for position. The girl with the glasses and the afro could be found in Bradford, Auckland, Cape Town or hell even Minnesota!
As touching as it is to notice the universal nature of blackness and the Black experience, there is also something to be said about seeing yourself in works of art. The Mona Lisa for example, just doesn’t resonate with me, and in all honesty I don’t understand why shes’s a big deal (…yeah I said it…fight me!) While Mona fails to conjure up a heartbeat in the soul or mind, examining the “Joyous Celebration” leaves you heart fluttering at the sight of Nkechi or Bisola dancing at a wedding.
What really set Mecca apart was Chukwudi Onwudiwe. As fantastic as the hospitality was (and it was fantastic) it was topped by the knowledge, the questions and the conversations that took place as Chukwudi became the pied piper lulling you from one painting, thought, question and feeling to another. He did this skilfully, like an art teacher providing you with more than enough paint and canvas to convey your thoughts on what the artist intended, what you saw, how you felt and gently nudging you into abstract introspection.
From the abstract there is nothing special about Mecca. That is to say it is nothing “unique.” Be it el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazza’s Mecca, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Howard or the Chuck Gallery, Manchester. When stripped down Mecca is a place where ordinary things happen. Muslims pay homage, Black people go to college and Black artist share their work.
For the first time in my life, and I know how narcissistic this might sound, I felt connected to almost every piece on the wall; looking up the elongated necks of a Jessica Omitola piece, I see a grandmother I never met, and it is ordinary. Examining the strokes of Bolaji Ogunwo as he combines vivid reds, blues, and yellows to show the complexity of the Black skin tone becomes ordinary, the conversation I had with the curator about Black spaces, the diaspora, economics and Igbo language becomes the most normal and natural thing in the world.
I suppose this is why I say I’ve been to Mecca.
By Kelechi O
You can find details of the Chuck Gallery, Manchester right here.
And that’s all folks for Black History Month! I hope you guys have enjoyed the posts for this month celebrating different aspects of the black experience, travel, arts and culture.
Until Next Time xx