Above the Noise: 15 stories from Bradford

A new exhibition opening this week showcases grassroots stories from this proud Yorkshire city. Associate Professor Dr Helen Graham explains how the collaborative project unfolded with input from University of Leeds colleagues from a broad range of disciplines.

Radical Sista DJing at a Bhangra daytimer event in Bradford in the late 1980s. Credit: Tim Smith

Above the Noise: 15 Stories From Bradford was collaboratively developed from the beginning between researchers at the University of Leeds, the National Science and Media Museum (NSMM) and other partners in Bradford — Alchemy, an arts organisation, Bradford Community Broadcasting (BCB), Kahani, an educational project, and photographer, Tim Smith — each with their own established community development practice and flourishing networks.

Part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded Bradford’s National Museum Project, it draws on strands of research from the first phase of the project — including open conversations with lots of different people in Bradford.

We decided that the exhibition could explore how different communities in Bradford have made their own worlds, and in so doing by-passed and confronted national power structures and mainstream media.

In particular, Above the Noise explores how people from the city have recorded their own histories, created their own cultural spheres and made political and social change.

It showcases the ways they have done this using local-to-local and alternative distribution networks and by adapting or re-purposing available technologies.

The project has caught the attention of the BBC — in a big way

We’re telling 15 such stories, the majority of which are being developed in collaboration with Bradfordians who have a stake in telling the story.

What’s more, a chance conversation with BBC Arts & Entertainment Correspondent David Sillito, guest speaker at the University’s Cultural Institute anniversary event last October, the link between Above the Noise and the BBC’s We Are Bradford week was established.

We’ve written elsewhere in more detail about the exhibition content. This article explores the particular contributions of University of Leeds researchers to the rich mix of skills, knowledge and collaborative practices of the wider team.

Islamic Sounds

Seán McLoughlin is Professor of the Anthropology of Islam in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science and co-investigator on the Bradford’s National Museum project.

He led the AHRC Diasporas project, Writing British Asian Cities, which influenced aspects of the development of the Bradford’s National Museum project, as well as the Above the Noise exhibition.

Seán’s new co-produced research has contributed to two stories. Working collaboratively with community-based research consultant Wahida Shaffi, five local Muslim women volunteer researchers — Sonia Fayyaz, Nabeelah Hafeez, Aysha Sadiqa, Sonia Sarah and Farah Yasin — were supported to investigate the mediation and transmission of Islamic Sounds in Bradford.

A WhatsApp group was established to share and discuss more than 20 interview recordings the researchers made on their smartphones during December 2018 and January 2019.

Bradford Grand Mosque — how are technologies creating Islamic soundscapes? Credit: Tim Smith

This collaborative work, and a relationship established with Bradford Grand Mosque, has informed the Islamic Sounds in Bradford story, which includes an immersive soundscape — developed by sound artist and composer, Alex de Little and Annie Jamison, Curator of Sound Technology at the NSMM (both University of Leeds alumni) — as well as interpretation exploring how sounds travel and technologies make connections between people in the home, in the mosque, “on the move”, and the wider Muslim world.

Beyond the Satanic Verses controversy

A second story in Above the Noise recalls the establishing of Fast FM, the first UK Muslim radio station to hold a restricted service licence (RSL) during Ramadhan, the holy Islamic month of fasting.

Back in 1992, representations of Bradford’s Muslims were still overshadowed by the controversy surrounding Salman Rushdie’s novel, Satanic Verses.

But a short, radio-style documentary produced in collaboration with Fast FM pioneers Masood Sadiq, Yaqoob Ali, Nazir Hussain, Mohammed Shabbir Mughal and Irna Qureshi, shows that the station encouraged the idea of a local Muslim “public” by encouraging listeners to phone to debate key issues and donate to charity.

Connecting old family memories to new

William Gould, Professor of Indian History in the School of History and another co-investigator on the Bradford’s National Museum project, has been collaborating with teachers and students at the Belle Vue Girls Academy and Bradford-based photographer, Nabeelah Hafeez.

Sajidah and Mariyah, from Belle View Girls Academy, try on family heirlooms after interviewing their parents and grandparents about journeys from Pakistan to Bradford. Credit: Nabeelah Hafeez

The young women have been interviewing their relatives about their life experiences. By connecting old memories to new via recording media and learning how older family members communicated in the past, the young women have been exploring how they can use technology to build a new sense of family, place and belonging.

The students discovered previously unearthed family experiences of India and Pakistan’s Partition of 1947, which shaped a sense of home in the UK and Bradford. The process of filming those memories revealed how resourceful families needed to be to keep in contact with each other, and the many ways they shared personal news, love, and humour.

History ‘from below’

Lynn Wray, a Project Researcher in School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies (FAHACS) has been taking a curatorial lead on the exhibition. She worked with the wider team to develop the exhibition concept, draw out and refine the key interpretative messages and pull together a series of stories which work to both illuminate these messages and realise the exhibitions objectives. She has also been doing the crucial liaison work with the NSMM collections services and the exhibition team.

Lynn has also been particularly involved in three story teams, actively researching and developing new content. She worked with curators from Bradford Museums and Galleries and photographer and historian Tim Smith to produce two stories.

The first, Making History, explored the different ways in which the pioneering Bradford Heritage Recording Unit and the East Bowling History Workshop used sound and vision technologies to create a “history from below”.

Lynn also worked with Tim Smith and members of Bradford’s Polish and Ukrainian communities on a story called Voices in Exile. This explored how Polish and Ukrainian residents of the city used print, video and radio technologies to consolidate their community in Bradford and communicate with people back home, beyond the Iron Curtain.

Julia Ankenbrand is a PhD researcher and also a Project Researcher in FAHACS, has been directly involved in two story teams.

Pupils from Tyersal Primary School mark its centenary in 1986 with an oral history session with Olive Howarth, from Bradford Libraries & Museums’ heritage recording unit. Credit: Tim Smith

Family Albums saw her work with local artist Jean McEwan, from Wur Bradford, and Sandra Rowe, Maureen Rowe and Joan Russel to develop installations to explore the role of family photography in maintaining connections across space and time.

As part of this, Julia also worked with Arran Rees, a fellow PhD researcher from the School, to develop a WhatsApp social media invitation for people to share their own family photographs.

Julia also worked with Bradford-based artist Andy Abbott, another University of Leeds alumnus, and NSMM Creative Producer Alice Parsons, to develop Common Space, which explores the ecology of spaces to meet up in Bradford as a means of asking what role the museum might play as a public space.

Free The Bradford 12

As the Bradford’s National Museum project principal investigator, I have been involved in the facilitation of the process as well as working with Anandi Ramamurthy from Sheffield Hallam University (author of Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements), Jayesh Amin, Idris Bashir, Taj Butt, Aamir Darr, Jeevan DeSouza, Mohan DeSilva, Mary Dowson, Dave Harrison, Tariq Mehmood, Jani Rashid, Noorzaman Rashid, Jawed Siddiqi and Bovy Singh on an Above the Noise story exploring the Asian Youth Movement and United Black Youth League (UBYL), founded in 1981 in response to rising racism.

In particular, we explored the Free The Bradford 12 campaign. In the summer of 1981, the threat of racist and fascist violence had grown across the country and rumours emerged that fascists were coming to Manningham. Members of the UBYL made petrol bombs.

The Free the Bradford 12 campaign built support by creating posters, t-shirts and news bulletins. http://www.tandana.org/

And while the fascists never came and the petrol bombs were never used, a dozen young men who were arrested and charged with conspiracy.

As part of this story, we explored how both the AYM and the Free the Bradford 12 campaign produced their own news, leaflets and posters to build networks of support across the globe and how dozens of organisations were involved in the Free the Bradford 12 campaign, nationally and internationally.

In court, the Bradford 12 argued that they were forced to defend their community due to the scale of racist attacks in Bradford and insufficient police protection.

The legal defence claimed that “self-defence is no offence”, and the men were ultimately acquitted.

This just gives a flavour of the stories through the lens of the contributions of University of Leeds staff — many other people have been involved and many other stories feature.