Throughout summer 2019, Manchester is holding 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 have used 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: Witnesses to a Massacre.
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, are on display. At the exhibition launch its pages were ‘performed’ by some of Manchester’s Amharic-speaking residents, who interpreted the texts in their own words for public audiences. Whether the texts were authentically translated remains 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, commemorates Peterloo and connects 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 author, Robert Poole.