Crossing Culture in Manchester’s Centre for Contemporary Chinese Art

Wu Chi-Tsung at the CFCAA

Despite being one of the largest and most prolific galleries in Manchester, the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Art isn’t always at the top of people’s lists of identifiable artistic venues in the area. Rather, that accolade often goes to places such as the Whitworth, the Lowry and Manchester Art Gallery, which all admittedly offer something outstanding in their own right. However, the CFCCA should not merely be a beacon for the ‘clued up’ culture vulture. The CFCCA should garner all the attention it deserves as a champion of trans-cultural discussion and a platform for exhibitions, which engage visitors across the ages. True, it would be reductive to say the CFCCA is without a presence, it certainly is noted and celebrated, in fact at an accelerating rate. However, the CFCCA is often overlooked as a setting that is unanimously enriching and offers a perfect solution for those looking for something free to do, or somewhere to entertain their children, friends or partner in Manchester. Furthermore, as a non-profit organisation, it is with a voracious appetite for culture and a sense of supporting a good cause, one can visit the CFCCA. Simply, the CFCCA is an evocation of the beauty that is Manchester’s cultural diversity with artworks that so reflect that.

From Chinatown to the Northern Quarter, the CFCCA has a rich history

The Centre for Contemporary Chinese Art was previously known as the ‘Chinese Arts Centre’ before 2013, and was established in 1986 by a group of British-Chinese artists in Manchester. Frustrated with the lack of a platform for their art, which was considered too atypical for mainstream exhibitions of the time, the group of artists, with the support of Manchester City Council and the Arts Council England, established the Centre in Manchester’s Chinatown. The Centre began as a gallery, education room and a teahouse, providing a holistic approach for which Chinese culture could be interacted with in the area.

However, it is since 1997 the CFCCA has really developed momentum. Ignited by the recent surge of interest in Chinese culture that derived by the ‘Hong Kong handover’, an investigation to all things Chinese became fashionable and decidedly relevant. It was with this impetus that the CFCCA was able to expand from just being a mode in which to exhibit work and could support and sponsor the careers of upcoming artists of Chinese decent. Thus the CFCCA laid the foundation for its position as a vanguard for emerging cross-cultural artistic work.

The history of CFCCA is truly a history of firsts, and in 1999 it was the first gallery to display artists from Mainland China in the UK, as part of it’s touring and aptly named ‘Representing the People’ exhibition.

The most recent incarnation of the CFCCA is based on Thomas Street, a stones-throw from the Arndale Centre and Printworks centre in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. A £2.5 million Lottery Grant, made evident by the building’s impressive architecture funded the newest setting for the CFCCA. Designed by OMI Architects, the centre has won the RIBA prize for architecture which is most illustrated by its interior layout. The CFCCA of today contains a gallery, teahouse, shop, function room, offices, resource area, artist’s residency and studio. The latter of these features is in place as part of a scheme called ‘Breathe’ and helps foster the careers of artists of Chinese descent by giving them a live-in workshop environment for three-month stints. ‘Breathe’ artists include the now eminent ‘Gordon Cheung’ whom has since exhibited on a global scale and is widely praised for his contemporary works.

Gordon Cheung at the CFCCA.

Exhibitions May Be Ephemeral but Leave a Lasting Impression

The CFCCA contains several rooms, each with its own micro-exhibition, often incorporating the aforementioned ‘Breathe’ resident artist. Given that the temporary exhibitions at the CFCCA rarely last for more than two months, and that a reader could encounter this article across many more, it is difficult to recommend a particular exhibition. I therefore suggest visiting the CFCCA’s website to see what is being held at the time of your visit. However, I can attest that whether the CFCCA is promoting video art, sculptural work or even the more traditional figurative painting, contemporary Chinese Art, despite its varying medium is often highly philosophical and reflective in tone, making for undeniably thought-provoking visits. The CFFCA tastefully curates its elegant and sleek spaces with a nuanced insight to how to move a visitor. Given the rich political history of China, it is with no surprise its contemporary art is powerful and resonant. Examples of artists featured throughout recent years include Wu Chi-Tsung, Wu Jung, Sarah Tse and a personal favourite, the surrealist painter Zhang Xiogang.

Sarah Tse at the CFCCA

Sit Back with Excellently Appointed Authentic Chinese Tea

The CFCCA also has a wonderful teahouse for when a break or post-exhibition conversation is in need. Unsurprisingly, the CFCCA teahouse specialises in delicious and refreshing Chinese leaves and in itself is akin to an emporium of sorts. The teahouse artfully presents a range of delicate and satisfying varieties, which reach far beyond the typical selection of ‘Earl Grey’ and ‘English Breakfast’ found in many an establishment. A particular favourite during my visit was the exquisite ‘Rose Bud’ tea that was almost a crime to consume, the medley of subtle and aromatic notes provided a delicious flavour which would be perfectly suitable for the end of a couples visit to the Centre. The CFCCA also contains a stunning gift shop that excels in bespoke creations, ranging from accessories to apparel, to affordable art works.

Entertaining Across the Ages with a Host of Events

Manchester's John Rylands Library hosting a CFCAA public event

The events at the CFCCA are many and given the frequency in which different events are held, it is difficult to give examples of particular ones to expect. However, what to consistent is an enjoyable platform in which to engage on an educational level. For instance, one of the CFCCA’s regular sessions is its ‘Mandarin Corner’. The ‘Mandarin Corner’ is held every first Saturday of the Month and is an informal workshop ideal for those interested in embracing Chinese language and culture. The elements discussed are often themed in accordance to the current exhibitions and are what I fully recommend for both the culturally curious and in particular families who are looking for a fun and informal group activity that would undoubtedly be enriching for their children. Furthermore, the sessions are free and inclusive; facilitating any level of competency in Mandarin.

There are also events that I would recommend for an exclusively adult audience but perhaps would be a particularly appealing for couples looking for ideas for City dates. These events are wide-ranging, including film screenings to talks to performance art and have often taken to the street of Manchester. For instance, to celebrate Chinese New Year in 2015, the CFCCA hosted a public screening of the films of Sun Xun in Manchester’s St. Ann’s Square, projected on the side of St. Ann’s Church. In Short, the stream of upcoming events at the CFCCA is ever evolving and undoubtedly will continue to provide interesting yet informed things to do.

St Ann's Square decorated for the Chinese New Year

The CFCCA makes a great day out for a range of visitors and one most certainly need not to be a paragon of Far East erudition. The CFCCA contributes to Manchester’s vibrant contemporary arts scene and is multi-faceted in its appeal. I recommend the CFCCA for all the urbane and interested, and the regular events would particularly cater for children and couples. At the very least, the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Art provides an invaluable manner in which to spend a couple of hours if lost for something to do when in Manchester.

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