Profile | 'There’s something in Bradford’s DNA that is activist and radical' - Museums Association

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Profile | ‘There’s something in Bradford’s DNA that is activist and radical’

Rebecca Atkinson talks to Shanaz Gulzar, the creative director of Bradford 2025, about her plans to surprise visitors with the rich heritage and contemporary vibrancy of this youthful city
City Of Culture
Shanaz Gulzar is the creative director of Bradford 2025
Shanaz Gulzar is the creative director of Bradford 2025 Portrait by Gary Calton

In 12 months’ time, the city of Bradford in West Yorkshire will be on the cusp of entering its year as the UK City of Culture. There’s a huge amount to prepare and Shanaz Gulzar is the person tasked with creating and delivering the programme.

In 2022 she was appointed as creative director of Bradford 2025, the organisation responsible for the year-long cultural festival, having been a key member of the City of Culture bid.

You can hardly imagine a person more perfect for the role than Gulzar, having been born and raised in Keighley (one of many small market towns that make up the Bradford district) and she’s an artist with a fine art degree under her belt whose practice includes theatre production and site-specific work in outdoor locations.

“I’ve had a love of arts and culture for as long as I can remember – everything, from literature to drawing and painting,” she says.

“But I was never drawn to life as a studio artist. I always wanted to work with people and I’ve always been attracted to spaces where things are challenging or where you don’t see many other people like me – a working class South Asian woman. But if you don’t put yourself in those spaces you don't get the chance to help shape them.”

Like Gulzar, Bradford is a city that’s comfortable being a changemaker. Its fortunes were built on the back of industrial inventiveness and it has a rich history of social innovation, from manufacturer Titus Salt’s vision for a “supermill” in the 1850s to the council being the first to offer free school meals 60 or so years later.

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“There’s something in Bradford’s DNA that is activist and radical – we seek to push the boundaries, because if you don’t you’ll never move forward,” says Gulzar.

“Even though it hasn’t seen a lot of investment in the past 25 years, Bradford’s still got a desire to create change. Our bid [for City of Culture 2025] was about accepting the challenges we face and recognising the opportunities that come with them.”

Like many post-industrial cities, Bradford faces plenty of challenges. Once the wool capital of the world, a lack of investment in recent decades has left it facing some of the highest levels of economic deprivation in the country.

Make Your Mela Day, an outdoor festival of arts and culture with an Asian flavour held around City Hall in Bradford, featured local, national and international artists Photo by Tim Smith

For 10 years from 2004 to 2014, the city centre was most famous for having a huge hole in the ground due to a delay in building the now-established Broadway shopping centre. Its football team, nicknamed the Bantams, are facing their fifth consecutive season in the fourth tier.

But the opportunities are almost impossible to miss – a rich architectural landscape; the Unesco World Heritage Site of Saltaire; a host of famous artists, musicians and writers (from the Brontë sisters to David Hockney); a trendy craft beer scene; and, perhaps most importantly, a young population that is bubbling with potential. 

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In fact, Bradford is the youngest city in the UK with 25% of the district's population under the age of 18.

It’s also home to Born in Bradford, an internationally recognised research programme that aims to find out what keeps families healthy and happy – in fact, in 2025, the first cohort of children who took part in the project will turn 18.

Saltaire, a stone’s throw from Bradford, was designated a World Heritage Site by Unesco in 2001
Staying young at heart

Born in Bradford is one of many partners Bradford 2025 is working with, and Gulzar is keen to emphasise the role young people played in winning the City of Culture bid, and the need to keep them at the heart of plans for 2025.

“We’ll have a strong youth voice from a programming perspective – we want to think about how to get more young people working with us and how we can help them develop new skills and confidence. One of the first things I thought when I got this role was how to keep the door open for people behind me – actually, I want to take the door off its hinges.”

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At the time of this interview in September 2023, Gulzar was unable to say too much about what the programme for 2025 would look like. But she did reveal that a “big bang” launch is being planned for the end of 2024, which will “make the people of Bradford visible and show who we are”.

And one element that has been announced is a travelling performance space called Beacon, which will enable performances, installations and live events to travel to people across the district.

“Environmental sustainability will be at the forefront of Beacon, as will young people,” Gulzar says. “We’re thinking about how our communities express themselves and the different art forms that might take. And we want to support Bradford’s cultural organisations and partnerships.”

Bradford 2025 will be the biggest City of Culture yet – the metropolitan district covers 141 square miles across Airedale, Wharfedale and the Worth Valley as well as Bradford city and the towns of Keighley, Bingley, Ilkley, Haworth, Saltaire and Shipley. Despite its industrial history, 67% of this area is rural.

“There is no part of this city where you can’t walk from urban to rural within half an hour,” Gulzar says. “We want to create heritage walks as part of 2025 to map the district and encourage people to get out and explore it in all weathers.”

UK City of Culture

The UK City of Culture was launched following Liverpool’s year as the European Capital of Culture in 2008. The designation is awarded to cities every four years through a nationwide competition, with Derry-Londonderry bagging the inaugural title in 2013.

As a city and district, Bradford is the largest winner so far. It won from a shortlist that included County Durham, Southampton and Wrexham County Borough.

It is believed that by winning City of Culture 2025, the city could create 3,000 more jobs, attract 1.1 million visitors, and boost Bradford’s economy by an impressive £700m gross value added from 2025 to 2030.

 Source: Bradford Council

The landscape of Bradford – from its valley hills and upland moors to fields surrounded by dry-stone walls – is close to Gulzar’s heart.

“I love walking and being in the landscape,” she says. “My parents are from Kashmir, and my dad used to say that the hills and the people are what drew him to Bradford. When I’m out in nature, I just exhale – it helps with my process of thinking and imagining, as it’s a place where horizons are wide. That’s what drew me to audition for Yorkshire Walks.”

In 2019, Gulzar starred in the BBC Four series Yorkshire Walks, where she used a 360-degree selfie-stick to record local landscapes and capture herself within them. “I loved how the drone footage also showed me walking – a micro-detail in the landscape. It’s a particular way of seeing, and it’s how I approached this job [at Bradford 2025], too.”

Her vision for Bradford 2025 is to take big ideas and make them accessible to everyone by zoning in on human-centred stories.

“The world has shifted hugely since the pandemic. In 2021, Manchester International Festival produced an entire festival where only one artist made it to England,” Gulzar says.

“We’re so much more globally connected now, so what’s happening here matters elsewhere. But big ideas – like climate change – are hard to understand on an everyday level.

“Our vision is to take issues like that and rather than address them from a place of darkness and doom, to think about what positive impacts we as people can have on the planet. We want to approach change through joy and hope.”

Stick figure sculptures glow white against the night sky in Bradford city centre
Bradford has a vibrant cultural scene. Pictured: Shine Fest 2014 Visit Bradford
A cultural milestone

This is the first time a UK City of Culture is being led by someone who is from the city where it is being held. Likewise, the 42-strong Bradford 2025 team is diverse in terms of age, ethnicity and background, with plenty of local talent involved.

“People will expect certain things from Bradford 2025, but we want to surprise them, too,” Gulzar says. “Winning the bid really has changed the perception of this city – and Bradford is falling back in love with itself.”

It has to be said that the city is something of an underdog – a role it sometimes seems to relish. But that’s because it’s often a strength. And for Gulzar, it paves the way for its year as City of Culture to be playful and experimental, especially when it comes to where people encounter interventions.

“Every City of Culture has got to be delivered with the nature, energy and context of that place,” she says. “That is a strength and should never be missed as we must celebrate the diversity of our cities. Bradford is young, vibrant and energetic.

“It pushes even when it doesn’t need to, but most of the time it does need to. I’m excited to see the rest of the country wake up to what we have to offer. I want to give people fear of missing out in 2025 and beyond.”

That’s the thing about being a UK City of Culture – it isn’t just about 12 months. It’s also about the hard work and creativity put in during the years leading up to the festivities and the long-term impact of that work. For Gulzar, the legacy of 2025 is all about people.

“I’m talking about critical skills, imagination and confidence,” she says.

“The stuff that we might create for Bradford is fantastic, but we also need to have the right ideas and people to make this place thrive. We have to create a fertile space – we’re a place that has loads of weeds but guess what, weeds are pollinators. Well, that’s Bradford.”

Born in Bradford
  • Zayn Malik, a singer from the pop group One Direction
  • David Hockney (left), icon of the pop art movement and one of the most influential British artists of the 20th century
  • Gareth Gates, a singer-songwriter and runner-up in the first series of ITV talent show Pop Idol in 2002
  • Kimberley Walsh, a singer with Girls Aloud
  • Steven Frayne, a magician better known by his stage name Dynamo
  • Anne, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, the 19th-century novelists and poets
  • JB Priestley (1894-1984), the playwright, novelist and broadcaster who wrote the play An Inspector Calls
  • Andrea Dunbar (1961-90), a playwright best known for the comedy-drama Rita, Sue and Bob Too

 

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