The purpose of art is to be thought provoking. And so social history has to be tackled head on.
That’s recent social history and recent Manchester social history. A history which is more than likely not within the life time of most readers of Manchester’s Finest, but certainly not long before and thankfully might even be unrecognisable – to a large degree – in today’s society.
Linda Brogan, organiser of The Reno project and therefore, de facto, curator of The Reno exhibition at The Whitworth sums up the history of society (in Manchester and around the world) with some words: “It was seen as a terrible thing in the 50s and 60s for a white woman and a black man to be together. My mum told me that a half-caste baby could be spat on in their pram.
“Although today we have to say mixed race, not half-caste. The first time I went with my friends to The Reno in Moss Side we couldn’t believe it. It was wall-to-wall half-castes. We’d never seen that before.
“I wanted to bring The Reno back to life, for us to be artists because we couldn’t be that then. Because we weren’t white, middle class and blonde. With The Reno project I have my voice and my army.”
The Reno, in Moss Side, opened in the 60s as a music and drinking club primarily for the West Indian community, playing a big part in the development of black culture in Manchester. During the subsequent two decades the club closed when it wanted – often as the next day started. It is legend that even Bob Marley visited.
From 1971 to 1981 The Reno was packed every night, although Linda recognises that Moss Side was a ‘no go’ area, with violence, crime and gang wars common. Unemployment in 1981 was at an all time high, but much higher in Moss Side than the national average.
Ultimately this led to the infamous Moss Side riots in 1981 when a crowd of more than a thousand disenfranchised youths besieged the local police station. It is shocking to learn that Greater Manchester Police were the only UK force to be equipped with riot helmets and shields.
The then Chief Constable, James Anderton, was praised for his actions, quoted as saying, “When troubles arise you hit fast and hard. We crushed the riots in 24 hours.”
Yes, Manchester just one generation ago.
Things changed in subsequent years and in 1986 The Reno was closed, the building demolished, with the site laying fallow for three decades until Linda Brogan’s army were awarded an Arts Council grant to excavate the site in 2017 and, along with recapturing untold memories, every piece of buried ephemera collected as buried treasure.
Much of that ephemera is now on display at The Whitworth, along with collected and fading photographs, notes and photographs of the excavation itself. But are battered and rotted coke cans, pieces of brick, rusted hinges art?
My opinion, not in themselves. But then the whole project is a living work and has brought together a collaboration of many, many people with thousands of memories. Which is just the start.
When I visited, the space was being used by a discussion group. Not directly a discussion about The Reno, but using the space as a platform for discussing other social issues.
There are also plans for collaborations with the Royal Northern College of Music, Windrush commemorations and the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo massacre. Social history goes on.
It may seem a little anomalistic therefore, to have old photographs and rusty objects in a space as the grand Whitworth. But I guess that’s the beauty of it. Linda’s army will forge on through the year, reuniting old friends, sparking new ideas. Past that, on the site of The Reno, a time capsule is buried with a film of the 2017 excavation.
There’s a timeline on the wall at The Whitworth, not just The Reno years, but the history of a hundred years or more. The last line says: ‘We are all pages in the book of our time on earth.’
The Reno at the Whitworth
Venue: Whitworth Art Gallery
Date: Friday 15th March 2019 – March 2020