As The Ting Tings, shorts and tights and opulent displays of clubbing boomerang back into fashion, a deep dive into the history and #memz of Manchester’s Antwerp Mansion seems only right. Unlike the Indie Sleaze trend, Antwerp isn’t rehashing a previous identity: it’s creating a new one. CONCRETE meets West Art Collective for one night, and one night only. Some images are NSFW.

A lawless wasteland left undisturbed by the police. No, not Fallowfield – 1930s Victoria Park. On a side street of Manchester’s Curry Mile sits a large Victorian Gothic manor house. This is Antwerp Mansion. Current owner Evie (referred to always as “Evie Mansion”) suggests that Antwerp House was built by the bankrupt Victoria Park Company. A ‘quirk of law’ meant that police powers were limited until 1937. Risking sensationalism, supposedly you could ‘commit any crime short of murder withing Victoria Park’.

In 1922 the building was bought by the local Conservative Club and extended with a ballroom and a snooker hall. The house took on a new purpose: a private members club for the cream of the local crop. Supposedly Winston Churchill paid a visit. But all good things come to pass, and as the Conservative’s favour waned in the 1970s so did the club’s wealth. The mansion clung on to life the honourable way by selling off assets and operating unofficially as a club after 11:00 pm.

Like any Victorian manor house worth its salt, the grandest side of the house faces the entrance – which its esteemed visitors would see first – and leads to the mansion’s tennis courts, formal garden and grand porch. The illusion of a bygone era of refinement and taste is somewhat shattered by the cheap building work and well trodden path littered with laughing gas canisters.

Antwerp Mansion’s ballroom.

Bankruptcy, Churchill, a 1970s Seven Oaks – what a tall story. Antwerp House was renamed Antwerp Mansion in 2009. The previous Nasty Party hang out was converted into a rave venue by Andy and Evie Mansion. This is the more familiar part of the building’s history, but that isn’t to say it’s predictable. Manor house turned rave venue is hardly a cliche. It’s also hardly British; this type of adaptive reuse is much more Berlin than Rusholme. Repurposing buildings for a different use while retaining their historic features without the magnate mindset of property development which uses ‘regeneration’ as a gambit for overpriced flats is pretty rare. “I drank here as a student in the 80s. Most night clubs 15 years ago were stagnant, stale and dull, and I remembered this place fondly. I was looking for a venue to turn into a nightclub, so it seemed perfect,” Andy Mansion states.

The venue gave a platform to new musical talent for almost ten years. Situated between the universities and their accommodation, Antwerp Mansion was one of the most treasured clubs. The venue appeared to occupy a specifically affectionate yet disapproving place in its visitors’ hearts. A night at the club provided a particular sensation that not every club can match. Fondly and deprecatingly known as “Antwerp”, the club’s site (both Manchester and the boggy patch of Victoria Park it sits on) shaped its visitors’ looks. Party goers had to balance two contentious requirements – the need to look the part for the de rigueur club of the moment and brace for the impact of sweat dripping from the walls, the mire of a smoking area and the mansion’s alcohol varnished floor. For Manchester ravers in the 2010s “Antwerp shoes” is a phrase that needs little explanation.

Nightclubbers at Antwerp Mansion in 2018

The club shut in 2018 after it was issued a closure notice by Manchester City Council’s Planning Department. There are multiple theories as to which specific straw broke the camel’s back. One Reddit user postulated at the time of the closure that Antwerp Mansion was forced to shut because it had been operating as a nightclub, when really it only had permission for a private members club. Contemporaneous Reddit User Nonsense_factory disagreed, citing failure to deal with Council drug, litter and noise pollution complaints as the nails in the club’s coffin. There probably isn’t one definitive answer.

That was it for a little while. At a similar time, art student Lucy was leaving for Boomtown. Her flatmate accidentally left one of her paintings in her window which faced out onto the street. Double Anal Penetration was deemed too risque for public consumption. “My neighbours were very offended and demanded I take it down. Things got even stranger when my flatmate sold the story to The Sun, which I wasn’t very happy about,” she laughs.

Lucy Indelicate is an artist who works in acrylic. Indelicate’s own artistic practice goes beyond erotic art and into the arena of pornography. It’s graphic to say the least; close up acrylic paintings of penetration, greedy hands on breasts, and pierced genitals. “My university thought my work was a bit too much. But I was just painting my desires and it kind of sprung from there,” she shrugs.

Indelicate was, and remains, in an uncomfortable position of unacceptance within the more established sect of Manchester’s art scene. “My work has been rejected from other galleries so many times. They’ve got guidelines which say ‘no homophobia, no racism, no peadophilia, and no pornography’! How can you say that about porn? It’s people’s livelihoods!” Lucy Indelicate says. Beth A. Eck’s research into the diverging opinions of nude images within Western culture – off the back of the uproar at the first nudie Calvin Klein adverts of the 80s – found that there are certain “kinds” of people who celebrate the free expression of the nude body and there are other “kinds” of people who do not. Within these two groups come more labels connoting more attitudes, like “progressive” and “amoral” or “repressed” and “up tight”. Eck suggested that it is the framing of the image within a culture which either damns or exonerates it. In this case, Indelicate’s images are framed as art, and CONCRETE upholds them as such.

Not all the galleries in Manchester are in agreement with Indelicate. She puts it down to a lot of them having a “very 1970s feminist, anti-porn, way of approaching my work”. Indelicate had been to Antwerp Mansion a couple of times clubbing, and also responded to Evie’s exhibition open call with Double Anal Penetration. In the transition from club to art venue, the owners had elected to change the opening times of the mansion so it was a bar not a club and they wanted to show art. Double Anal Penetration was hung above the stairs on the way to the toilets and raised many eyebrows.

Double Anal Penetration, 2018, Lucy Indelicate.

Showing such a graphic work is in keeping with Antwerp Mansion’s idiosyncratic methods. The house is its own kind of institution; as it was on the club scene so it is in the arts scene – an underground haven unlike any other in Manchester. Neither Indelicate nor the house’s owners are seeking controversy, but found that many artists had dissatisfactory exchanges similar to Indelicate’s with more established galleries. The club shut by the Council, revitalised by a boisterous new owner with a history of club and property management, it seems fitting this highly distinctive space was commandeered by artists in the margins.

Enter Indelicate in a more official fashion, as the Director and Founder of West Art Collective. West Art Collective is a Mancunian art collective that currently occupies Antwerp Mansion as its headquarters. Indelicate met the mansion’s owners, Andy and Evie Mansion, and told them she wanted to do something different. “We [the future collective members] all met in the park at Salford. I said – we’ve got this opportunity, how can we say no?” Indelicate smiles, “It went from there, really. Our first show as a collective was Endurance, which showed work you couldn’t pull yourself away from. We were so young – we were still uni students.”

West Art Collective hold art events at the mansion and stand for ‘an imperfect approach to contemporary art, embodying this through our curatorial process’. Each member of the collective directs their own show and Halloween is always a group show. The group receives no funding and is highly self-contained. This is how Indelicate wants it. Within the collective are the skills required for every step in the process leading to an exhibition and dismantling it. “We don’t get any funding for our shows and we want to stay away from it for as long as we can. We don’t want it to constrict us and the way we work. We are self-sustaining through charging for tickets,” Indelicate explains. This is interesting in itself. For many young creatives, funding and grants feel like the holy grail; they come with a sense of having ‘made it’, whatever that means. To see a fledgling arts organisation reject the comfort that funding from the Arts Council represents feels bold. It also feels fitting. Antwerp Mansion is unpolished and self sustained in its decay. The DIY methods of Indelicate and West Art Collective are in line with the history of the building.

This departure from the expected gives the house a lot of its charm. West Art Collective are self-aware and show no signs of slowing down. As Tom Kinloch, Head Technician and member of West Art Collective puts it, “it’s not by the book – but who said anyone had to go by the book, anyway? That’s what’s good about Antwerp Mansion. There are no rules here. If it was a fancy white wall gallery it wouldn’t be the same.”

The collective’s latest show, Indelicate, took place at Antwerp Mansion earlier this month. This show was led by Indelicate and took kink – non-conventional sexual practices, for the non initiated – as its theme. The show ran for one night, like all West Art Antwerp Mansion occurrings. Not only did it show art, but also a workshop by Manchester’s LGBT Foundation and small business were positioned in the upstairs hall, ready to flog their whips and sticks. Seemingly the show was a synthesis of the art submitted to the open call to celebrate sex workers, fetishes, women and the LGBT community. The show corresponded with Indelicate’s own artistic approach to the naked body, treating it with respect, frankness and appreciation. While not as conceptual as Hans Ulrich Obrist’s work, or as business savvy as Damien Hirst’s, the show sold out, suggesting not only a community in which art and kink overlap, but also a market for kinky art in Manchester and a desire to engage with it.

Indelicate at Antwerp Mansion

Art and sex are pretty inextricable – that’s a given. But where Meret Oppenheim’s teacup gestured to genitals and Manet’s luncheon on the grass broached the subject of outdoor sex in the day time, Indelicate brings nudity and sex out of the shadows and under studio flash lights. There was a lot of photography. Of course, the abundance of flash photography, and its suggestions of furtiveness and dirty glamour, suits the DIY ethos of West Art Collective and the mansion’s distressed look. However it is important to note the distinction between more shocking or subtle content in terms of quality. The work which gestures to kink instead of explicitly showing it is the most visually interesting. One such example is Pink Slippers (2020) by Megan Sparkes. The painting alludes to scopophilia: the love of looking. A woman crosses and uncrosses legs in dulled baby pink slippers against an off colour green background to a salacious effect without the reference to leather and latex which a lot of the more literal works rest on. It is work like Sparkes’, which considers the composition and palette to inform the viewer’s reaction, that gets you off. Much more so than the more predictable images of pretty girls tied up in knots.

Throughout, Indelicate’s curation is commendable and the work is suitably contrasted through the building. It is also critical to mention that the show is genuinely immersive. Each room in the mansion is thematically matched and there is a dynamism to it, as the mood of the show changes with each given room. The main room is a party space, complete with the usual club fodder of flashing lights and a long haired DJ, and the ballroom directly above it showed a film by Florian Mae and Moth Slut. In the red room, a small room with a dark wood floor and red walls, was one of the stand out exhibits. Carolina Sepulveda, the Portuguese photographer who has been shooting for over 10 years, exhibited work in Indelicate. Sepulveda responded to the ‘immersive’ criteria fittingly; her exhibit of polaroids was suspended around a naked female model. What’s strange though, is that – despite being a kink show – visitors couldn’t seem to bring themselves to look at her.

Work by @joellslater at Indelicate.

As the evening continued, quiet contemplation faded and was replaced with merrymaking. Girls and boys in latex dance as their less aesthetic friends film it for Instagram stories. While not quite as uninhibited as Leeds’ RAT PARTY, the ambition is there, and it is a good party. More importantly, Indelicate and West Art Collective have accomplished what they set out to do: to create an immersive and ephemeral happening.

Have West Art Collective achieved the unachievable? Created a show in which every work is equally captivating, transgressive, and challenging? Probably not – but god loves a trier and that isn’t to their discredit. The exhibition of art rests on the collective’s assessment of the visual strength of the work and nothing else, which is heartening. Indelicate recalls the collective’s first show at Antwerp Mansion in 2019; “That’s what we did with our first ever exhibition, Endurance. The theme was work you can’t pull yourself away from,” says Indelicate. Kinloch elucidates, “the West Art Collective vision for art is not about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ for us. Having said that, if it’s something the viewer is going to glance at and walk past it properly won’t fit the show.” Pressing for more, Indelicate and Kinloch merely exchange a glance and make it clear – “it’s about work you can’t look away from”.

Film by @oovy__ at Indelicate, 2022.

A vital consideration is that no one in the group is even twenty five yet. If the current incarnation of Antwerp Mansion is taken as the blueprint for prospective art use, it’s worth paying attention now because the future looks bright. West Art Collective show no signs of slowing down. That the collective has been able to mould a run down manor house into an arts centre which hosts genuinely immersive events is a testament to the team’s curatorial skills. Indelicate 2.0 is scheduled for the April 22nd, and in the meantime there will be Psyche (directed by the group) on May 27th. If they continue at this rate and uphold their refusal to give into intellectual or financial snobbery, Antwerp Mansion stands to become something very exciting.

A testament to West Art Collective’s success is interest from other self-made art groups. On the Rag, the curatorial collective from South Manchester, have opened their first show today. Under Indelicate’s supervision, Closer will run this evening for one night and one night only. “Antwerp Mansion gave us a lot of creative freedom. The space has its own history which forced us to be more creative with the hanging of work,” explains Christina Purvis, an artist within the collective. “It’s a layered visual space with interactive elements and staggered performances which give the exhibition a progression,” Jasmine Skellern, a member of the group, adds. Much like Indelicate and Kinloch – and many other curators working in Manchester – struggled with the sanitised white cube environment which is the norm in art exhibition, On the Rag have worked to create a space which is personal, welcoming and discursive. Purvis and Skellern are also quick to praise West Art Collective’s Zero Cost Exhibition Programme. The programme is a non-profit project which supports artists by letting them show work at Antwerp Mansion without having to pay to do so. “I think some people have looked at us and thought it’s not that hard and started doing stuff themselves,” Kinloch says. West Art Collective play an active part in this encouragement of other projects through the Zero Cost programme, and give over the creative reins to collaborating partners for their Tuesday night events.

Antwerp Mansion has a myriad of identities. As well as its rich history and its current role as an arts venue, the building also hosts video shoots and ghost tours. If that sounds like a non-sequitur, it’s worth paying a visit just to find out. “This place is like Marmite,” Andy Mansion laughs, “it has a way of making you feel uncomfortable if it doesn’t want you here”.

That it even succeeded after it was forced to close is a minor miracle, but the proof is in the pudding. “We bring together a whole range of people through the music, the parties and the art. To see people connect with the work is great,” Indelicate says. In the care of West Art Collective, and with their dedication to the cause in mind, Antwerp Mansion stands to evolve further as a fascinating indicator of Manchester’s artistic interests – tucked behind shisha bars and cake shops on Curry Mile.

All images are property of the artists. You can buy tickets to Psyche and Indelicate 2.0 on West Art Collective’s website. Megan Sparkes’ work can be seen here and Carolina Sepulveda’s Instagram is here.