What does it mean to be from The North? New Leeds exhibition seeks answers

Oli Bentley.
Oli Bentley.
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A new exhibition in Farsley aims to find out what makes a northerner northern. Neil Hudson speaks to Oli Bentley about accents, chips and gravy

What does it mean to be ‘from the north’ in a globalised world? Do Yorkshire-folk tolerate less rubbish than others? Has the St George’s Cross become a symbol of racism? Has the philosophy of ‘make to and mend’ been consigned to the history books? And do you prefer gravy or curry sauce on your chips?

These are just some of the questions posed by a new exhibition which aims to get under the skin of what makes ‘a northerner’.

Described as a “thought-provoking and ambitious” collection of typography, art, music, poetry and literature exploring contemporary northern identity, These Northern Types is now on display at Sunny Bank Mills, Farsley.

It is the culmination of a year-long project from Oli Bentley, creative director of Leeds-based design studio, Split, who set out to uncover what it actually means to be from the north of England, or anywhere, in today’s globalised world, and find out whether where you live affects your identity.

“I became fascinated with this huge, vague, community owned identity of ‘northernness’,” says Oli. “Everyone knows exactly what it means to be northern, until you start to ask questions beyond the clichés and then it all gets a bit slippery and the clichés start to look quite shaky. From the origin of our famous Yorkshire grit, making do and mending and what we put on our chips; to the potential a strong sense of regional identity has in creating cultural divisions, and if – in an age of ever-easier access to global travel, communication and information – where we live even matters all that much anymore.”

Developed alongside a team of writers, makers, printers, metal workers and engineers, sociologists, poets, and musicians, These Northern Types comprises 15 typographic artworks which focus on a number of social and cultural issues around being in the north of England. Among other themes, it examines social division, class, racism, the north versus south divide and the perception of others to the culture of the region. The result, says Oli, simultaneously celebrates Northern identity, whilst asking probing, and sometimes awkward, questions about our relationship to place.

Supported by Leeds 2023, as part of its bid for European Capital of Culture, and Arts Council England, the year-long process saw Oli and his team work with a cross-section of the city’s multi-cultural community to shape the works.

“We have brought together type design, experimental production methods, public engagement, and written word by local writers, poets, academics and musicians to ask some big questions about who we are as Northerners. I’m delighted to be able to unveil the entire project and for the conversations I hope it will start.”

Sharon Watson, chair of Leeds 2023 Independent Steering Group, is equally praiseworthy: “This is a project which is all about exploring and celebrating what makes us unique and what we have to offer each other and the rest of the world. Leeds is multi-faceted, multi-cultural, and multi-lingual city, with more than 170 languages creating a cacophony of sound. These Northern Types really gets under the skin of the city and of the north as a whole, examining our culture, our rituals, our myths and our truths.

“In developing our bid for European Capital of Culture we sought to examine our place in the world and it is something we’re continuing to focus on as move towards our own cultural programme in 2023. This fantastic project does just that, inviting us all to question what a northern identity really means. We encourage everyone to visit.”

Oli Bentley studied design in Carlisle at Cumbria Institute of the Arts. He set up Split from his student bedroom whilst studying a second course at Leeds College of Music. Split now work from their studio on Quarry Hill, specialising in work for creative, cultural and music industries. Recent work includes a giant laser sculpture, created in The Hepworth’s Calder space for the band Vessels’ latest release The Great Distraction, voted in the top three international vinyl covers at the 2017 Best Art Vinyl Awards. There are also The Creative Family Tree, a large scale project to map all the creative/cultural organisations in the city (and nominated for Roses Design Awards) and the identity and design work for Phoenix Dance Theatre’s popular Windrush: Movement of the People.

Key themes explored by the exhibition include race and class, the legacy of ‘deindustrialisation’ and how that affects our sense of identity and the impact of perceptions of our dialects and culture by others.

Reflecting the history of industry and making in the north, the project also celebrates traditional and experimental production techniques.

They include a giant ‘people powered’ printing press, built by local engineering firm JKN Oil Tools with accompanying steel typeface designed by Split, which will be used to print giant posters with poetry by local writers and community groups around the ideas of making, industry and deindustrialisation. The posters will be distributed locally – on poster sites, in empty retail units, on abandoned buildings and in community spaces. The press and typeface will then be made available to groups that want to use it to explore local themes of their own – a printing press and typeface for the north.

The exhibition will also look at a new corporate identity for The North, including an application to trademark ‘The North’. An display piece called ‘The Cross’ explores the fact that 25 per cent of the UK population see the England flag as a symbol of racism and asks wWhat as a society do we do about this?

These Northern Types will be at Sunny Bank Mills in Farsley until 22 July.