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Making the News: Reading between the lines, from Peterloo to Meskel Square


The Portico Library. Free exhibition. Fri 5 July–Mon 23 Sept 2019. Open daily except Sundays/bank holidays. Free public preview evening: Thur 4 July, 6pm-8pm.

From June to August 2019, Manchester will hold bicentenary commemorations of the Peterloo Massacre, exploring themes of protest, democracy and freedom of speech. The Portico Library is one of the only remaining buildings to have witnessed Peterloo and its members at the time included liberal founder of The Guardian newspaper J.E. Taylor, and Captain Hugh Hornby Birley, who led the fatal cavalry charge. We will use the Library’s history and collection to provide context for an exhibition of related works by Ethiopian artist Robel Temesgen and the newly published graphic novel Peterloo: Witness to a Massacre.

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Robel Temesgen creates hand-written newspapers that confound the reader, slipping between pro and anti-establishment messages and exploring the role of printed information in the shaping of democracy. His Meskel Square issue, depicting memories of one of the largest public spaces in Ethiopia, will be on display. At the public exhibition launch its pages will be ‘performed’ by some of Manchester’s Amharic-speaking residents, who will interpret the texts in their own words for public audiences. Whether the texts are being authentically translated will remain unknowable for non-Amharic-speaking visitors, inviting us to consider where power lies in relation to language, literacy and printed material.

An additional new work, part of Temesgen’s adbar series, will commemorate Peterloo and connect 21st-century audiences to the event through an extended experience of place and collective memory, created in response to text extracts evoking the spirit of Peter’s Field compiled in collaboration with members of the Manchester Centre for Place Writing.

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Literate Manchester campaigners became powerful leaders of both democratic and anti-democratic movements in 1819, and The Portico Library will display books and artefacts containing examples of their texts and speeches alongside the new artworks. It was in response to press misreporting of the Peterloo massacre that Portico member J.E. Taylor founded the Manchester Guardian, with the mission of providing the public with an alternative source of news. Accompanying Robel’s works and the Library’s items will be extracts from the newly published graphic novel Peterloo: Witness to a Massacre. Developed in collaboration with preeminent Peterloo historian Robert Poole, it presents the word-for-word testimony of the event’s witnesses with illustrations by graphic novelists Polyp and Eva Schlunke.

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Supported by Slater Heelis Solicitors