Andrea Sandor speaks with ‘Urban Poet’ Ged Austin about an unusual exhibition at NQ café Nexus
I’ve spent two hours listening to Ged Austin talk to me about art and homelessness. As we ascend the stairs from the cosy, subterranean Nexus cafe and are released into the Northern Quarter’s busy Saturday night, I briefly wonder whether I’ve just met a modern day prophet.
Ged’s hard to miss. He wears a brown hoodie embossed with a green wolf and the words ‘Urban Poet,’ his alias. Apart from being a poet - appearing in 23 publications - Ged is so self-stylised so as to be recognisable to Manchester’s homeless population.
“That’s how I’m known. They won’t remember my name, but they’ll remember the green wolf or they’ll remember Urban Poet, and they’ll know it’s me and I’m here to help."
Ged’s said to be the first person to stop and ask homeless people in Manchester what they need, recognising that the answer will be different for different people. For years now he’s been a champion for the homeless, working with charities and befriending those who make the streets their ‘home.’
“I don’t judge,” he tells me. “Each person you see sleeping on the streets was born a beautiful baby who didn’t come into the world with that story.” What happened to them happened later, their current situation is a result of circumstances. Trauma that led to drug addiction, abandonment, a car crash...
Ged’s passion radiates. His smile lights up his face, his eyes sparkle, he gesticulates as he speaks, he laughs, and he listens intently. He’s a storyteller and when we part I’m energised and inspired. No wonder I’m seeing prophets in Ged’s shiny, bald head; another characteristic that makes him stand out, Ged tells me with a chuckle.
Each November since 2015, Ged has run art exhibitions featuring the work of homeless people. Ged’s invited me to visit this year’s exhibition and learn more about it. Previously, the art was exhibited at three venues in Altrincham, as well as Nexus, while this year all the work has been brought under one roof as part of the International One Voice Homelessness Summit & Festival that ran 12-18th November.
The purpose of the summit was to explore the important role art can play in tackling homelessness: reducing social isolation, building social networks, improving public attitudes towards the homeless, and enabling homeless people to express themselves.
As part of the festival, Ged was involved in a ten-day-long exhibition of poems and stories by homeless people that was displayed at the Whitworth Gallery. There was even a display case about Ged, which included his hoodie with the green wolf. Sadly the exhibition has finished, and Ged is looking for a new home for writing.
According to One Voice’s website, Greater Manchester was chosen to host the summit and festival in part because of the ‘exceptional arts/homelessness projects in the area’ and ‘the way the region is integrating the arts into homelessness support.’
This exhibition gives you a glimpse into this work and is a must-see, especially if you missed the Whitworth exhibition. It features artwork by homeless people currently connected with a number of charities in the city, including: Lifeshare, Men’s Room, Victoria House, and H3 - Stockport’s Helping the Homeless into Housing.
The choice of what art to exhibit was made based not on technical merit but on more down-to-earth criteria. When asked by H3 which art he wanted to exhibit, Ged told them this: “Choose those who need it right now.” Ged wanted to exhibit the homeless artists who were, at that moment, in the darkest places and for whom exhibition would be most meaningful.
“It’s their soul, their heart. To me, that’s just as good as Michelangelo.”
Ged’s approach to art raises interesting questions about the very nature of art. He tells me he came up with the idea for the homeless art exhibition after attending a ritzy exhibition opening, replete with wine and cheese. “There was a black thing with a white line through it, and I thought ‘The homeless art I’ve seen is better than this!’”
Ged’s art isn’t fine art. It’s therapy, distraction, self-expression. His project is a humanising one. Art can help people cope with their problems, distract them from their problems, and communicate in a way that may be easier for them. The aim of the exhibition is simple: let them speak.
A particularly striking artwork in the exhibition is of a young girl whose face is divided. On the left side of her face, her eye is wide open, her hair is pulled behind her ear, and the background is red. In contrast, her right eye is closed, her ear hidden behind her hair, the background dark aqua green created with stormy brushstrokes. Her mouth is a white gape with a black ‘x’ through it.
Ged tells me the artist’s story. After suffering a deeply traumatic event, she lost the ability to speak and became mute. With Lifeshare’s help, she slowly started opening up with the volunteers and began to paint. After six months she started to speak again. Her picture is a representation of the state she was in, mute with one eye shut down but the other open to hope.
Alongside the visual art, the exhibition includes poetry as well. Jamie Smith tells the reader of his poem that he feels human when someone gives him food and smiles at him. And he warns us that “It only takes one thing to go wrong and everything is gone.”
After Ged and I part, I return downstairs to take in the artwork on my own. I linger over one piece in particular. A head with a waterfall issuing from pink lips disembodied in a swirl of bright colours. Manic, unsettling, and honest.
The Nexus exhibition runs through the end of November and is well worth a visit for anyone open to a different kind of art exhibition.
4 great ways to help the vulnerable this Christmas
HUMAN ADVENT CALENDAR | 1-24 December
Walk past The Oast House courtyard in Spinningfields and you’ll notice a human-sized ‘advent calendar’. Open the door and, not only will it trigger the donation of a meal to Mustard Tree - a charity helping people facing poverty and homelessness in Manchester - via Foodinate, you can also grab a free gift, as it’s stocked daily with everything from UEFA Champions League tickets to The Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Win win all round.
LEAVE A PRESENT UNDER THE GREAT NORTHERN TREE | 5 December
Artists from Sand In Your Eye - those behind summer’s giant sandcastle - will be carving a 3.5 metre tall Ice Christmas Tree on Wednesday 5 December. From 1-7pm, the public can bring gifts to wrap under the gazebo and leave under the tree: all presents will then be distributed amongst homeless causes by charity Penny Appeal, which is supporting the event alongside Shelter and the Booth Centre. For more info, visit sandinyoureye.co.uk.
IT’S BEHIND YOU | 13-15 December
As panto season gets into full swing across the country, Chorlton’s award-winning The Edge Theatre has partnered with The Booth Centre to stage a pantomime with a difference - performed by fifteen adults who are all either currently homeless or at risk of homelessness. An annual staple, it promises an entertaining night out that’s transforming lives through the opportunity to participate in high quality art. Tickets from £6 at edgetheatre.co.uk.
DONATE TO MISSION CHRISTMAS | Until 18 December
With almost one in three children in Greater Manchester living in poverty this December (described by Save the Children as living in a house with no central heating and going to bed at night without a hot meal), Christmas is simply a luxury many families can’t afford. As the UK’s largest Christmas toy appeal, Cash for Kids’ annual campaign last year raised over £17m - and they aim to smash that for 2018. To help, simply leave a gift at a drop-off point near you.