Esea contemporary: Manchester venue showcasing East and South East Asian artists reopening with exhibition

Esea contemporary is reopening in the Northern Quarter with a new name, an expanded focus and a major new exhibition after an audit prompted an overhaul.

A Manchester art venue is preparing to reopen its doors to the public with a new name, an expanded focus, a new team in charge and a major exhibition including issues related to migration and diasporas.

Esea contemporary is located in the Northern Quarter and celebrates artists of East and South East Asian backgrounds and their work. It will reopen its doors following a major behind-the-scenes overhaul in February with the exhibition Practise Till We Meet, which runs for several months.

The organisation was previously known as the Centre For Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) but it has been rebranded and made a number of changes after an internal audit in 2021 found serious problems including allegations of racism, a lack of representation of people of Chinese heritage and problems with pay.

Under its new identity and team esea contemporary is hoping to put all that behind it and showcase the cultural work of wider regions of Asia, starting with a show which explores the challenges of building a life in a new place and what has to be done to achieve that.

Why has esea contemporary been rebranded and how is it reopening to the public?

The former CFCCA has been transformed into esea contemporary following an internal audit which was carried out in 2021 and which identified a number of serious concerns and problems at the organisation.

The audit found there were major issues with a lack of people of Chinese heritage working at the organisation and there had been allegations of racism from artists it had worked with. There were also problems with low pay, poor staff morale and a culture of “mistrust and inequalities” leading to the conclusion that more than three decades after it had been set up the organisation’s reputation was more negative than positive.

The result of all this has been a major overhaul that has included giving the organisation a new name and identity and expanding its work to showcase art and culture from across the East and South East Asia regions as well as artists of ESEA backgrounds now living all over the world.

Director Xiaowen Zhu was appointed in July 2022 to take esea contemporary into its new era, after Thanh Sinden had overseen the restructuring process as interim executive direxc.

Now the organisation is finally ready to once again open the doors and invite the public back in. To relaunch the building it is putting on Practise Till We Meet, a multimedia exhibition curated by Hanlu Zhang with five artists and two collectives from a wide variety of backgrounds providing work.

What is Practise Till We Meet?

Practise Till We Meet explores issues related to diasporas and migration and includes moving images, installations, wall works, videos, paintings and a newly-commissioned sculpture. As well as the main exhibition the participating artists and collectives will take part in events at the centre’s new communal space creating displays which will grow and change throughout the show.

The two groups of artists taking part are Asia-Art-Activism and the Asian Feminist Studio for Art and Research (AFSAR), which between them tackle issues and subjects including the lives of experiences of the Asian diaspora, feminism, migration, care and activism.

Manchester-based Audrey Albert, who is originally from Mauritius and of Chagos Islands heritage, will present her photo series Matter Out of Place and participatory workshop Chagossians of Manchester which explores the stories and experiences of the people who were expelled from their Indian Ocean home atolls so the USA could build a military base there.

A still image from Vulnerable Histories (A Road Movie) by Koki Tanaka, which is part of the reopening exhibition at esea contemporary. Photo credit: Koki Tanaka

Isaac Chong Wai explores protests and the relationship between the UK, Hong Kong and China, while Koki Tanaka’s Vulnerable Histories (A Road Movie) involves taking two groups of young people on a study trip to learn about the discrimination Korean people face in Japan. Liu Weiwei’s contribution is about his brother’s decision to leave China for Australia, while Mimian Hsu explores living in Central America while being from a Taiwanese background.

The exhibition runs from Saturday 18 February to Sunday 28 May.

What has been said about esea contemporary’s reopening and exhibition?

Esea contemporary director Xiaowen Zhu said: “It’s a great pleasure to be relaunching esea contemporary 36 years after its birth as an artist-initiated, community-oriented arts festival in Manchester.

“The centre’s new name indicates our profound trust in the ESEA community and this significant transformation has grown from a collective will to redefine and re-envision the organisation’s purpose and mission.

“Working with Hanlu Zhang to present this inaugural exhibition represents our responsibility to show, archive and convey contemporary ESEA community stories and memories. The board and team are excited to welcome visitors into the relaunched gallery in February.”

Yung Ma, trustee for esea contemporary and curator at the Hayward Gallery, said: “The re-envisioning of esea contemporary is an important step towards building a space for ESEA practitioners in the visual arts.

“With Manchester’s growing international ESEA community, the relaunch of the centre is also an incredible opportunity to present, support and engage the public in discussions around international artists and their practice.

“It has been a delight to support our new director Xiaowen, and I am excited for Xiaowen and her excellent new team to share their vision with audiences in Manchester and beyond.”

Jennifer Cleary, director for the North at Arts Council England, said: “I’m looking forward to visiting esea contemporary in February and experiencing its new vision under the directorship of Xiaowen Zhu. I’m sure that the exciting and thought-provoking programme for 2023 will attract both local people and visitors alike, and I look forward to seeing how the organisation develops into the future.”