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Community is at the heart of culture – Zulfiqar Ahmed


Zulfiqar Ahmed is an expert in community-led development and is now progressing, in the midst of coronavirus, the 10-year £3.5m Bradford Creative People and Places project The Leap.

What’s your earliest cultural memory?
I was brought up in a close-knit community in Halifax and in the late 1970s Sunday nights were Bollywood film nights at the local working men’s club, the Yorkshire Rider Club. It was mainly a club for bus drivers and factory workers and I have vivid memories being 9 or 10 years old heading down to this space, which was teaming with this unique gathering of South Asian men on their one day off each week. They were all very smartly dressed and the room was heavy with smoke, it was the main point of connection in the local community and it has left a real cultural memory.

What drives you to live and work in the arts?
My background is not arts and culture and in fact The Leap is my first role in this area. I have mainly focused on economic community development and with The Leap, I felt drawn to make a difference to the city of Bradford, to hopefully bring benefit from what I have learnt in other sectors.

What appeals to me is the driver that the idea of culture is for everyone and everywhere, not just in specific defined places or spaces. I like the idea that anyone can bring their passion and this is the transformational shift we need to have thriving communities.

If you could access only one form of culture, what would it be?
Food and mealtimes are universally understood to be an important and great way to break down barriers and connect people, in ways that other forms of culture just can not.

Culture means different things to different people – what does it mean to you?
I have two very different brains. The one that I have developed growing up in the UK and another that I inherited from my parents who came from Pakistan. I feel that I can get more flavours through an ability to interact with people and places in different ways.

Culture is essentially human connections, a place where the gaps in our lives can be filled and enriched. It’s really not any one thing.

How can culture bind communities?
We have more opportunities to learn and grow when we enjoy things together and so culture is something that we can share, introduce to each other, find common ground and allow the space for connection and deeper meaning.

Despite the current pandemic, it has been uplifting to see people adapt and re-connect at this time, at home and with their families, people have rediscovered the joy of board games and quizzes, and even a Sunday afternoon film!

What’s your vision for culture and what’s on your cultural hit-list?
The vision is that the access to art and culture should be ubiquitous. It’s not something that’s specialised. Whoever you are and wherever you are, it should be in the mainstream of people’s lives with community-led provisions enabling ordinary people to do extraordinary things everywhere.

Personally, I would love to travel a bit and undertake a journey of discovery to see how other communities respond to social challenges using art and culture. This would be a great opportunity to see how culture has the power to change things, to campaign for change, not just to enjoy for ‘the good times.’

Zulfiqar takes part in a discussion on 4 November, What does cultural participation look like with and post Covid-19? Be a part of the conversation on Twitter.

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