FESTIVALS Getting to the heart of Hull
Patrick Kelly looks at the impact of Hull’s City of Culture year on local communities
It’s just possible that you will know that Hull is this year’s UK City of Culture. The maritime city, perched on the edge of Britain’s east coast, has received a generous amount of publicity for its emerging renaissance. But what is less well known is that this same city has been host to a major inter- national arts festival for the past ten years.
Hull Freedom Festival was born out of the major celebrations greeting the anniversary of the abolition of slave trade in which local man William Wilberforce played a significant role. Organisers of those commemorations felt that Hull de- served an annual event highlighting the city’s proud association with that movement. Since then the Freedom Festival has grown to become a major highlight of the city’s arts calendar. It won NPO status from Arts Council England and helped convince the judges that Hull would be a worthy winner of the UK City of Culture title.
Paradoxically, there were some fears that the Freedom Festival would be overshadowed by the main City of Culture programme and that the Festival, which Hull people have taken to their hearts, would al- most feel like an afterthought.
“There were definitely some fear our brand would suffer,” admits Mikey Martin, who has been artistic director of the festival since 2015 “especially as the City of Culture included a Freedom season. But in the end it’s been a great boost. In fact, it has allowed me to take more risks with the programme.”
Those risks have included a post- modernist promenade performance, a strand devoted to panel discussions on freedom and slavery and a slew of street performers and outdoor artists from Catalonia.
“They are just very good at out- door arts,” says Mikey of groups like Los Monekos, and the Lali Aygaurde company, “but also there is a very raw, very simple quality about their work.” He cites the hugely popular La Dinamo, whose “music on bicy- cles” attracted a strong following – in all senses of the word.
The international flavour of the Freedom Festival is no accident. It’s now part of an 18 city European net- work of festivals, exchanging acts and ideas across borders. “People are now looking at Hull as partners, particularly since that theme of freedom is so important now” says Mikey.
The Freedom part of the Festival is as important as the fun part, he adds. “It’s about exploring what freedom means in 2017 and how we can be brave, responsible and connected enough to make change happen”.
That’s why the visit of Ko Annan, former director general of the United Nations, to Hull during the festival, has been so important as it allowed him to build a series of discussions around the theme of modern slavery.
“Audiences have been terrific. There is an appetite in Hull for this sort of very political work,” says Mikey. “Hull has a strong working class independent streak. The audiences are there. It’s about giving them the opportunity.
All this and three days of performances, exhibitions, concerts, circuses, dancing in car parks, and opera in the shopping centre, is managed on a budget of just under a million pounds.
Though ACE and city council support is vital, “all this would be impossible without our partners and volunteers,” he says.
There are over 300 of them backing the Freedom Festival and the impact of the city of culture designation has been transformative. “It’s inspired local artists and created a huge amount of pride in the city” says Mikey. “If you stop in the street and look at your phone for a minute, someone comes up and says ‘Can I help you? That didn’t happen before!”
Land of Green Ginger
Hull’s City of Culture team has taken one of the most exotically named streets in the UK and spun from it an anthology of tall tales, a melange of myths and urban legends which has enthused some of the city’s most deprived neighbourhoods.
The programme of events called the Land of Green Ginger (after the city centre street) was developed over the last 18 months between artists and community groups, often using local stories as the bedrock, explains producer Katy Fuller. By organizing pilot projects in each of the communities last year, this allowed artists to make long-lasting connections with local people to build trust and ensure that the artistic and community collaboration was a genuine one. “The idea was that each event would almost inhabit the local space so fully that people can’t really avoid what you are doing.”
The result has been seven acts of “wanton wonder” which will take place throughout the 2017 year of culture. Three have already happened and include a major performance based on local tales of a mysterious alleyway which only appeared at certain times of the year, a “golden nose of green ginger”, allegedly discovered in a packing case in an underground vault.Local resident Christina Reading, whose childhood memory of the mysterious alley, told to her by grandparents sparked one of the original concepts, says the 18 months of preparations helped local people feel involved and to get over initial preconceptions that “this sort of thing wasn’t for us”. Invitations to take part were distributed by horse and carriage, creating a magical swirl of rumours and social media exchanges, which piqued people’s interest. When the actual performance took place in May, more than 11,000 people packed into a local park over four tremendous nights. They watched seven professional actors and 25 volunteers put on a show, based on their own ideas and memories.
“From little tearaways to old boys who sit in the pub, they all loved it” says Christina. “People are still talking about it and I can’t stop smiling when I think about it.”
She added: “This year has managed to connect people in ways that all the regeneration schemes never managed to do.”
She and Katy agree that the success of the programme so far shows that there is a need for some sort of permanent outdoor arts space in Hull.