Spotlight on our Alumni community: Meet Ndidi Nkwopara

Meet Ndidi Nkwopara, Alumna of the Global Atelier For Young Festival Managers New York 2024. 

Ndidi is an emerging creative croducer and writer of Nigerian heritage based in Leeds She has written two non-fiction books focusing on empowerment and survival, including "Retreat to Rebirth - My Story" and "Poverty is a Woman, Her Daughters Look Like Her." She has been involved in several notable projects, including leading co-creation projects for LEEDS 2023 Year of Culture and producing the Leeds International African Arts Festival LIAAF.

The Festival Academy: Hello Ndidi. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us during LIAAF. I think my 1st question is: Who are you? Could you please tell me a bit about the beginnings of your professional journey like, where does your passion for writing, but also for festivals and the arts come from?

Ndidi: My journey has been led by my passion and the love of whatever I'm doing!

Writing comes from my love for reading - I would say I'm a voracious reader. Even as a child I had a corner, and if anybody was looking for me they knew where to find me - in my corner reading. And it could be a medical book, it could be a story, it could be a cartoon book, or whatever, I just loved reading.

I was born in Nigeria. Growing up there has also helped. Where I am coming from, has helped to shape who I am today. My father was a military officer. We travelled and lived across Nigeria. This has helped me to experience different cultures, different people, different religions. I have friends from all around Nigeria. I am well connected, not just with my culture or my tribe.

Then I started to study English language and did some creative writing courses. Perhaps it was at that age that I knew I wanted to write. I've been influenced by authors like Maya Angelou, Paulo Coelho, by many great authors. It is hard to say. If you asked me who's my favourite author, I can't tell you to be fair, because I love too many of them.

And I was very happy with my studies, but I had this dream of being able to write which wasn't fulfilled. I wanted to write a novel. The novel was going to be about some of my story told through the perspective of a main character. So, I tried it. I went for creative writing courses and all of that. But I couldn't pull it off the ground until I decided to write it as me. To write my memoir, and that's how Retreat to Rebirth was created. I struggled for over 3 years until I was ready to share my personal story and said ‘Okay, I want to write now!’. And when I had taken the decision to write it as me, I finished the book in like 3, 4 months.

The Festival Academy: Besides of the writing, you have had experience in a couple of other sectors before becoming a festival director. Could you please share some important steps with us?

Ndidi: I finished from school, from university, and then got married, became a stay-at-home mom, mother of 4 daughters. When the kids grew up, I started running a business, a natural skin care business. This is how I became an entrepreneur.

Then, when we came over to the UK, I first worked as a community educator for the Yorkshire Cancer Research because - my book also speaks about this - I survived cancer, thyroid cancer (which is also something that helped to shape who I am because it changed the way I think and what I prioritize). As a community educator I was doing outreach, teaching people about the early symptoms of cancer and what they can do to prevent it from getting worse. And that also helped on my journey, because I did this job all around the city of Leeds and I worked with different communities of people.

The Festival Academy: How did you decide to embark on the journey of managing a cultural project?

Ndidi: I think my book opened a different path, a different world for me. After you've written and produced a book, the major work is taking your message out there, to the world, reaching out to people. I realized that I found it much easier as an author than as a skincare business owner and at some point, I had to take a decision. Which one am I going to focus on?

And the need for that decision came in 2021 when Leeds decided to organise LEEDS 2023, to celebrate a year of culture in 2023 and when they put out a call for 23 artists.

Each artist would work with a community they were familiar with. I responded to that call and chose to work with the African communities. Leeds 2023 was very big on co-production, on involving and having the communities decide what they want to do. And remember, I had been working city-wide. Yes, maybe in a different field. However, I was quite active within the Nigerian community and also within a new organization that had been set up, called the Leeds African Communities Trust. So, I chose to work with African communities. I think it was a natural thing for me to work with the community I'm already embedded in. And I believed that the community would feel safe working with me. And then I was selected and like this commissioned to do a co-creation project for 6 months. We were all really, really excited for this opportunity to be visible in Leeds.

If it hadn't been a co-creation project, I think I would have turned into a literature project, because that's my passion. But because it was a co-creation, I had to step back and work collaboratively with the different African communities in Leeds. I worked with over 20 of them. I let them tell me what they would like to see during the year of culture and like this, project ideas around music, dance, food, fashion emerged. The project went on for 6 months and I finally had to tell my producer from Leeds 2023 that it looked like I am going to submit more than one project idea. And luckily, he encouraged me to go ahead. I think I was the only selected curator out of the 23 that submitted 5 project ideas.

The Festival Academy: How did this project develop into LIAAF, a festival for the African communities in Leeds?

Ndidi: When the co-creation project ended, the Leeds 2023 team suggested to me: ‘How about you pull these ideas together into a festival? And you are going to run this festival.’ And they looked at me and I looked at them. And I said, ‘Okay!’ What then happened was an automatic transfer of my entrepreneurial skills into managing - making contracts, engaging artists, managing a team (because the 20 or more people who were active in the co-creation project automatically became steering group members for the festival). This is how the Leeds International African Arts Festival was born.

The Festival Academy: Could you please describe the communities that you were working with? How does the African community in Leeds look like?

Ndidi: Research will help us answer that question. Off the top of my head, I would say that you can find people from all African countries in Leeds. However, this is only the second year for us delivering LIAAF, and I can tell you that there are communities I haven't even spoken with or interacted with, for example, the francophone communities - but I hope to feature them more next year. On the other hand, I was very privileged to work with the lusophone African communities and the West. In Leeds, the West African communities are strong and more visible, the Gambian, the Senegalese, the Nigerian, Ghanaian. And also South Africans and Zimbabweans are the people I am already working with. The North African communities are not very big or as well established as the West African ones in terms of cohesion.

In Leeds the African community is the second largest ethnic group, and I tell you, 2023 was the 1st time that we were visible, that we were able to showcase our culture, to be represented in terms of culture. It was a good time for us. It made us feel like we're part of the city, part of Leeds.

The Festival Academy: Could you please describe one important partnership in the city that you have built up?

Ndidi: One of the strongest partnerships for LIAAF was the partnership with the Hyde Park Picture House. It's a local cinema in Leeds, they're over a hundred years old. 2023 was the 1st time they screened African films as part of a project that we've launched. But it's not that they screened African themes just because they partnered with LIAAF. We are very happy that they made it a permanent strand, that they will continue to programme and screen African themes. We're so happy to come and watch movies there. I mean, you see these (our) themes on TV, but it's not the same as coming to the cinema watching it on the big screen together.

The Festival Academy: How do you curate the festival? Whose voices do you think are important to hear? Do you focus on one region, or do you want to cover the richness of artistic expression and present as many voices as possible?

Ndidi: Remember that we're very new. For the moment, it is very important for us to be inclusive and as representative as possible. And that is also the main challenge. We are moving on organically from the co-creation project. As I said, we started to work with those who were present. And from there on, we are trying to include region by region.

Another good thing about LIAFF which helps us to manage the issue of representation is that it is a multi-art event. When you look at the program of the festival this year, you will find a North African theatre play next to poetry from West Africa or a spoken word production from another region. So that's how we manage that representation. We want to make sure that we've represented the 6 regions of Africa even if we can't cover all the countries. 

The Festival Academy: If you would need to describe this year's edition which is taking place this week, how does it look like?

Ndidi: It is really exciting, and I'm amazed how we've been able to pull together such a rich program, despite the challenges we face this year. The festival we have 2024 is running from the 6th to the 12th of July across several venues.

For example: We've carried on our partnership with the Hyde Park Picture House, so there'll be cinema Africa for 3 days. We're also doing more for children this year. We're screening Disney themes from Africa as one of our opening events. For other children’s events, we've carried on our partnership with the Leeds Trinity University that hosted us last year and for this edition they're hosting a children storytelling event on the 7th of July. Last year, even though we're called the Leeds International African Arts Festival, we did more of a local showcase of artists. But this year there's really an international element which we hope will lead to strong cultural exchanges. We're happy to announce a partnership with the Lagos Fringe festival, they're showing an award-winning play, ‘Esther's Revenge’. It's our opening event in the evening. Other partners are the Leeds City Museum as our festival hub with a 4 days showcase of a Digital Arts exhibition. The programme is an exciting package. But there are not only shows and exhibitions, we also have workshops. A literature workshop on the 11th of July which is sponsored by our local printing press. And book readings by Leeds-based authors and visitors from the Netherlands.

The Festival Academy: You are naming all these incredibly strong partnerships with all kinds of cultural institutions and entities. Especially not coming from the cultural sector, how did you build up this network?

One of the key visions of Leeds 2023 was also artist development. I benefited from one or two of their programs. There is a program called Union Arts, which I was part of. I believe it was through that program that I knew about more art centres and got to meet the curator of World Cultures, Adam Jaffa, at the Museum. I told him about our work, and he was interested. And another key thing is, that a lot of organizations are keen to welcome new audiences, diverse audiences. They opened opportunities to collaborate. And I'm also very big on collaboration, because you know how they say, ‘when you work together you go further’.

The Festival Academy: You were also mentioning the focus on young audiences and children in this year’s edition. Could you please explain your intention behind that decision?

Ndidi: African history education is important. When we present productions for young audiences, it is an invitation to learn, to get to know stories and to preserve some of these (African) stories. Stories give us hope. Stories even heal. Stories can work like local remedies. Stories help us to learn about global heritage as well as local recipes. And there is so much to learn, really. A lot of children are disconnected. So, they are interested in learning and knowing.

We have 2 brilliant people leading the children's team. And what we encounter is that the children are really happy to see their culture. They're like, ‘we only hear about black culture and black history during Black History Month. It's nice to be able to learn more. It's nice to see a positive representation of our culture, of us.’ I think I'd say that, even though there are many schools here with a lot of young and diverse people, you still don't see much diversity represented in the classes. This is why it's good for them to become part of the festival. I think a lot of young people could be reached with the festival.

The Festival Academy: Talking about learning and sharing stories. Knowledge exchange is also one of the core principles of The Festival Academy. You participated in the Atelier For Young Festival Managers in New York – please tell us how this experience has been for you?  

Ndidi: I love learning! The Atelier was definitely a learning opportunity. And it was about festival managers. It was a chance to network with other festival managers from around the world. Wow!

I was impressed by that. So, I applied. This was also part of the learning for me, because I'm new to this sector, as an artist who has become an artist through the non-traditional path. But I am very open to learning. I saw the Atelier as an opportunity to learn and meet other people. I also saw it as an opportunity to foster collaboration. Because beyond the partnership with Lagos, I'm looking at extending my partnerships to Egypt and North Africa.

The Festival Academy: And then you also decided to do a placement in the same year. At Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Ndidi: Yes, it happened in May at DanceAfrica, which is BAM’s festival for African and African-American arts. It's a 50-year-old festival. Wow! And even though it's called DanceAfrica, it also incorporates not only dance but many other disciplines.

2 formats there impressed me a lot and inspired me to take them back to Leeds and see how we can do something like this. The first one is their educational strand, their involvement of children. I am thinking how to adapt what they're doing for the children, here in Leeds. I was really impressed. The theatre, their biggest theatre, was packed full of children from different schools. That really strengthened my determination to build long-term engagement with schools in Leeds. Beyond what we've done so far, like, “oh, we have a festival coming up and we're inviting you!” No! I want a strategy, to build a longer-term engagement so that the festival becomes a learning platform for them. It is also a way of building audiences over the years. If we're reaching the children, we also reach their parents. And as they grow up, they can identify with the festival.

The second concept I got to know at BAM was the Council of Elders, and more especially a format that they create, what they call the ‘Memorial Room’.  In that memorial room is time to stop and to reflect. In there, you will see pictures, photos. You’ll find the founder of DanceAfrica, or memories of the hugest festival that was ever held in Africa. It was called FESTAC and took place in 1977 - a world festival in Nigeria. In that sense this reflection room is also a room of history. When you come in, you're expected to just sit down. It's a quiet space. You just sit down, reflect, don't take pictures, or such.

The room is curated by the Council of Elders. I cannot tell you much about them, but the little I did see while I was there is that it is run by elderly people who are freshly retired or retiring now. I suppose that the Memorial Room is a way for them to pass on some of their knowledge. Also, I noticed they also had an Education Day, during which many elderly people participated. These are the aspects of my experience during my placement that I would like to incorporate in Leeds.

The Festival Academy: Is there anything else you would like to incorporate in your festival following the experience at DanceAfrica?  

Ndidi: Yes, after my placement I was inspired to do something for elders, and this engagement with schools for the young people. But how do we know if this is relevant for Leeds? Of course, you're not going to bring what you saw in New York and think that it would work in Leeds. This is where the research comes in. I came back home thinking, research, research, research…

Who are the Africans in Leeds? Who are the elderly ones? What do they want to see? How can we engage them? And when we say ‘engage’ them, engage them how? What do we do with those who can't move, who are not mobile, who are disabled? How can we involve them? Is it going to be through digital inclusion? This is what research will help us with...

There is a lot to do. Even though we're disappointed that we didn't get the funding for next year, we can now re-strategize. We can sit down and make a proper plan. Who are we really serving? What is really needed? And for this, we've made more inroads into the academia, so we can bring them on board to work with us on an in-depth research.

We are at a good place to start again.