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Annapurna Mellor Photography

“I didn’t just want to tell a DJ’s story”

7 September 2018 | Emily May

Manchester music legend and former Haçienda DJ, DJ Paulette has switched the turntables for an art gallery, to create a new installation “Homebird” at the Lowry Galleries which explores her multifaceted memories, influences and experiences, whilst addressing universal issues such as race, politics and gender. We caught up with Paulette to discuss what inspired her to create the exhibition, why it’s important to her to show it in her hometown of Manchester, and about how women are not given enough props for their contributions to the music (and every!) industry.

Culture Calling: What made you switch from nightclubs to an art gallery for your upcoming exhibition Homebird?
DJ Paulette: The exhibition came about because Michael Simpson, the Director of the Lowry, had seen a poem I had written and put on my WordPress and website. I’d written it for an assessment for a public speaking job, but I didn’t use it in the end, so I put it online instead. The Lowry called me in for a meeting to talk about what I would do if I were to take over an exhibition. I talked about all my interests, the influences on my life (including standout books I studied for my degree such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and Clarissa Pinkola Estés Women Who Run with the Wolves) and also the fact that I’m a Mancunian born and bred. I was born in North Manchester General Hospital, I was educated in some of the best schools in the city, and I got my degree at the Metropolitan University. So they built up this profile of me of being into lots of other things other than just DJing, and this exhibition is about highlight all those different facets of my life. I’ve always wanted to tell my story, I’ve always written and kept a diary. But in the form of straight writing it always seemed to evade me. There are just so many levels of things that I wanted to talk about that just writing about it didn’t seem to scratch the surface.

Image Credit: Lee Baxter, Baxter Photography
CC: So this art installation has given you the opportunity to tell it in a more non-linear, abstract way?
DJP: Absolutely. In the exhibition there are 15 different walls which enabled me to look at my life from 15 different perspectives, and not be tied to creating linear progression or a storyline. I could just pick bits out and focus on them as a theme for a wall and tackle it that way. If you did that in fiction or narrative storytelling you’d leave people hanging, whereas when you do it in an exhibition you can allow people to figure things out, and put themselves into the story as well. That was something that has really driven me, is that it’s not just my story. It’s the story of my family, and how we were first generation Black-British Catholics (my parents came over post Windrush), brought up in white Irish/white Jewish areas. It’s also the story of Manchester. Me and my family have seen the changes in the city, and we remember what it was like back in 1973 when we were the only black family on the street for 20 odd years, and of course in the school. So again, in talking about my family the exhibition becomes about every black family’s experience, and how it was for people of colour growing up in a Northern town from the 50s to the early 90s, when things actually started to get a bit more balanced. So, it became apparent I didn’t want to just tell a DJ’s story, because I thought that would only be a very small part of what my life has actually been.
CC: You mentioned before that artistic influences on you are an important part of the installation. Can you talk a bit more about what these are?
DJP: When we were first discussing the exhibition I talked about Yoko Ono, Bridget Riley, Louise Bourgeois…. In the same breath as I’d talk about people like Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali, Antony Gormley, Richard Serra and Roy Lichtenstein who I absolutely love. On an art front, it’s quite interesting. How has a kid from Manchester got that kind of taste? And what things would I like to create influenced by that kind of art? I’m also influenced by the literature I’ve read and the politics I have (my family have always been very political, my mum worked with various unions and was the Equal Opportunities Office for Women at the City Council in the 70s).
CC: There’s a lot going on! How is this all organised or threaded together in the installation.
DJP: The exhibition is based on a maze, which is what it is like in my head! There are so many different alleyways and rooms that reflect different aspects of my personality. But at the centre of it all is music. It’s the thread that binds it all together.
CC: So the middle of the exhibition maze is dedicated to music. Is that your own creations, or again, other musicians who have inspired you?
DJP: Some is music that I have written along with my partner Chris Massey, and some of it is music that has influenced me through the whole of my life. There are people that I’ve worked with that have inspired me, female DJs and producers etc. So there will be montages on the walls, videos and all sorts of different things.

Image Credit: The Haçienda Building pictured in 1998 via Manchester Evening News
CC: You’ve referred to these people before as your “sheroes”. How important do you think it is to have female role models?
DJP: It’s massively important. When I started DJing I was employed as a resident at The Haçienda by Paul Conns and Lucy Scher. Sadly Lucy died last week, and it has been a real knock for me. Lucy, myself and Kath McDermott were all a part of creating the Flesh Party at the Haçienda, but whenever anyone has written any stories about it, they’ve never mentioned us. Peter Hook’s book even goes as far as to mention all the parties and which DJs played, but my name was on every flyer for 4 and a half years, and I don’t get one mention in that book. And neither does Lucy or Kath.
CC: Have you tried to do anything about this?
When I moved back to Manchester in 2015 I set myself the task to correct this. Which has made a lot of people uncomfortable. I’ve made a point of mentioning in every interview I’ve done that their history is wrong! I was working on two articles with Lucy Scher before she passed away, one that is about to come out in the Independent, and the other one for Dazed and Confused. It’s so sad. Posthumous recognition doesn’t feel like it’s enough. I’ve also created a track with my friend Chris Massey, that matches Daft Punk’s Teachers from the 90s which name checks every DJ or Producer that has influenced them. But out of 50 people they don’t mention one woman. So, I decided to write my track all about females. I was going to include mentions of people like Daft Punk, but we decided to take them all out, call it Sheroes, and see if people notice there’s no men in the lineup! We did include transgender people as well, because we wanted to mention as many people as we could who has been overlooked.

CC: Does this feature in the exhibition?
DJP: We’re going to be playing the track, and the videos will be playing as well.  We also have a “Sheroes” wall in the installation dedicated to women in the music industry, and any industry that I’ve worked in. I want to recognize as many of them as possible, it’s like a love letter to them really. I also come from a family of women, I’ve got six sisters and one brother, so the Sheroes wall is like a love letter to them as well.  

CC: Can you describe a little more about how the installation is immersive?
DJP: There are lots of things for people to do. As I’ve said it’s really not just about me. It does focus on my experiences, but they are experiences everyone has to a certain degree. So there are things, questions and tasks at certain points in the exhibition. You will be asked to stop and think, and asked for your opinion. And also there’ll be music playing, so there’s many things going on around the audience.
CC: You’ve had an international music career spanning 3 countries, how important is it to you to be showing this exhibition in your hometown of Manchester? Would you consider taking it anywhere else?
DJP: It’s incredibly important. This is who I am and where I’ve come from. I would love to take this to London, Paris and Ibiza, which are the 3 other places I’ve lived and been very successful. But, at its essence, I’m a Northern girl, so it’s very important for me to do this here. I’m proud of my roots, which is what I wanted to show.

Image Credit: Annapurna Mellor Photography
CC: What do you want people to take away from the experience?
DJP: I hope it will be very uplifting. When I’ve been talking to people about the exhibition so far they’ve been very excited to see it and experience it. There are so many different levels of our lives that we don’t talk about, so it opens doorways to discussion. Mental health awareness is still taboo; people don’t like talking about depression. That’s one part of the exhibition. I’ve had various run ins with mental health issues in my lifetime, I think that’s something that is really important to discuss, and I’d like people to feel like that can talk about things a bit easier by the end of this installation. Also I hope people will feel like they can do anything they put their minds to, with a little bit of help. I’m certainly not an artist, I don’t think in any way that I’m a Tracy Emin! But, by working with the Lowry I’ve been able to realise my concept. There are also a lot of Manchester based artists who are showing their work as part of it, such as Stanley Chow and Helen Sadler. So the message is – these kind of things can be achieved when you work together!
Homebird runs from 22 September – 14 October at The Lowry Galleries, Pier 8, The Quays, Salford, M50 3AZ

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