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LEEDS 2023 – CEO Kully Thiarai: ‘The Awakening’ show will light a torch of creativity for the year ahead

LEEDS 2023 – CEO Kully Thiarai: ‘The Awakening’ show will light a torch of creativity for the year ahead

All geared up to bid for European Capital of Culture in 2023, some years ago, the town rethought the possibilities…

IT’S ONE of the largest and most ambitious projects of its kind and Kully Thiarai, creative director and CEO of Leeds 2023, told she believes it will leave a legacy of inspiration, especially for the young people of the town.

Leeds 2023 starts with a grand variety show at Headingly Stadium on Saturday January 7.

Titled ‘The Awakening’ it will headline with singer-songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae, poet Simon Armitage and band LYR.

Also in the line-up will be The Orchestra and chorus of Opera North UK, rapper Ntantu, tabla maestro Inder Goldfinger and another rap artist, Graft.

Kully Thiarai CEO and creative director LEEDS 2023

The whole year of cultural events will start with this 90 minute show, ‘The Awakening’ – with Thiarai and Alan Lane, artistic director of local theatre outfit, Slung Low, directing the show and responsible for the content.

It will be hosted by Gabby Logan, the BBC presenter, who is also chair of Leeds 2023 and former footballer now presenter, Sanchez Payne.

Among those also lending their presence and talent to the event – and announced just last month – are Olympic sensation Kadeena Cox OBE, music acts Hope & Social, and Solar Jets and CBeebies presenter George Webster. LEEDS 2023 is then split into three distinct seasons or acts, as described in the 100-day launch back at the end of September.

The Awakening’ kicks off Season One – January to April, focusing on Awakening, while season two, May to August, will focus on Playing; while the final portion, September to December, will coalesce around the theme of Dreaming.

Gabby Logan Chair LEEDS 2023 and presenter

ThIarai explained the thinking behind the three seasons structure: “I suppose at heart, I am a theatre director and you want to tell a good story.

“The Year of Culture is an act of storytelling for the city, it’s about placing the city and its people right at the heart of it.

“The idea of ‘The Awakening’ came out of talking to people and a number of things people said to me – about awakening the spirit of the city, about realising its potential and showing what it is capable of – that all opened a door for me.”

A long-time resident of the city, she went to university in Bradford and was first introduced to the arts by the Theatre in the Mill there. She initially trained to be a social worker but started working with Red Ladder Theatre Company after graduating and worked on an outreach programme for young people.

“That experience has helped me to shape Leeds 2023 – I didn’t have very much access to the arts, and the value to participate and be part of something is important to Leeds 2023. I want people to participate and connect with Leeds 2023 in all sorts of different ways and I want it to speak to the diversity of this city.

“It has a very rich heritage and it’s a very exciting place to be. It’s not just about the arts (in the traditional sense) – it can be about being a brilliant sportsperson or about just writing lyrics in your bedroom.”

Kully Thiarai, Keith Khan and B Baker
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She is especially looking forward to the new sculpture. ‘Hibiscus Rising’ being created by artist Yinka Shonibare CBE, who has been commissioned by Leeds 2023 in partnership with the David Oluwale Memorial Association. David Oluwale died after being chased by two policemen and drowning in the River Aire, near Leeds Bridge, in 1969.

“It will be Yinka Shonibare’s first permanent artwork in the UK and it happens to be a response to a very dark episode in the history of the city, but it is about thinking into the future and recognising some of the trauma of the past and entering into a new landscape.”

Thiarai is also hugely excited but what is going on at a very local level – in each of the 33 ward boroughs of the city, local producers are being trained and supported to facilitate work on a neighbourhood scale.

Artist Keith Khan is among those supporting this initiative known as My Leeds 2023 – which will see young people and others, called Neighbourhood hosts, become local producers and organisers of small scale art and community events.

“They are producers and facilitators in each neighbourhood.

Inder Goldfinger (©) Barnaby Fairley

“There could be little galas, or melas – these co-ordinators are learning new skills and it will be something they can build on,” enthused Thiarai.

The Awakening’ is a free event – but to get a ticket you had to submit a piece of art (it could have been any type of creative work), just something that reflected your creativity and your connection to Leeds. Tickets in batches of four and 50 have been made available to families and schools or organisations which wanted to be among the audience for ‘The Awakening’. Those successful in the ballot have been emailed and have until December 11 to claim their tickets. An audience of around 15,000 is expected for the January 7 event.

The city had planned to bid for European Capital of Culture 2023, starting the process in 2015 but after the UK voted to leave the EU, the idea was re-thought and had cross-party backing and support from many local businesses and organisations. Thiarai was appointed in 2020 just before the pandemic. There was a launch event at the British Library in London last year and an event to mark 100 days to go in late September, which acv attended. (See below).


Gabby Logan (acv); Kully Thiarai (acv); Ntanu (©Ben Peacock); Corinne Bailey Rae (©Ulrike Rindermann) See caption above; Simon Armitage (©Peter James Millson); George Webster; Inder Goldfinger (see above)


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Written by Asian Culture Vulture