I have just returned from Taking It To The Streets 2010, an ‘urban international festival’ in Chicago, organised by Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN). This is my second visit to Chicago, my first trip was back in 2006, where i was invited by ICNA to paint a large mural. Sadly i was unable to complete that mural due to local politics. I was banned from completing it due to so-called lack of a permit to paint the mural, however it became known that there were more sinister reasons why I was blocked from painting, which i won’t go into at this stage (click here to read more about that in my write up from back in 2006)
I remember during that trip meeting a brother called Asad Jafri from IMAN who had heard i was in town. He came to see me while i was in a restaurant called Italian Express on Devon Street. He had heard about me not being able to complete the mural in Chicago, and asked if i would be interested in taking part in their ‘Streets’ festival. I had heard of the great work IMAN were doing, and instantly I knew that i had to work with these guys.
Four years later, it becomes a reality, as part of their biggest ever Streets festival, I fly over from the UK to take part in a huge celebration of performances from mainstream artists like Mos Def to my favourite poet, Amir Sulaiman. Of course, being an ‘urban’ festival, the other elements of Hip Hop culture were not forgotten, and breakdancing and graffiti played a major part of their program. I was to paint alongside other graffiti artists of different styles, so that was interesting in itself. Local graffiti artist Revise, helped me paint the piece, i always insist on connecting with local artists, as its important to me that I connect with the people and the artists in the places i visit.
As soon as i arrived at the reception, it was quite surreal seeing so many familiar faces, people i have the utmost respect for. Activists, scholars, artists, photographers, film-makers, poets.. all in one place, from all over the globe had come together for this powerful gathering. Creative energy was overflowing, and this was the ULTIMATE gathering of muslim creativeness in the globe, and thats no exaggeration. I had collaborated and engaged with some of these artists present already, Amir Sulaiman, Mustafa Davis to name but a few, so it really was like a big old reunion.
It was very obvious that there was a great element of hype surrounding this event in Chicago via the press. During one of the launch events, hearing from executive director of IMAN, Rami Nashishibi about how this year was the biggest Streets festival ever – it was great to be a part of it. Being the only artist from the UK, it was quite an honour to have been invited to such a gathering.
I arrived a week before the event, and decided that unlike my many other projects i do around the globe, this one would be ideal to take my family along to. We met some great people, who were really friendly and showed great hospitality. It made us realise how dull it can be in England, how people just seem to smile a lot more! Already back in the UK we have been smiling to people in the street, but receiving blank expressions from people!
It was a great time to absorb the city, the people, and take on board some of the issues that exist in Chicago. Switching on the television at the hotel and hearing about how 30 shootings had taken place over the weekend, all of which were building a picture for me of what i could be painting. I often visit cities around the globe, and i always like to immerse myself into a place, which helps me paint something relevant and meaningful to the people i visit.
This was a video that was shot the day before the event, by an amazing film-maker Sean Fahey who was commissioned to video document the Streets event. We used this video to add to the hype of the event, via my own networks.
I was inspired by the concept of the the ‘Streets’, and the branding of the festival itself ( i take my hat off to Ali CoolGuy for that) What does it mean ‘Taking it To the Streets’ and exploring the symbol of the “streets” in a spiritual context. I began to think about the Straight Path, translated into arabic ‘Siraatul Mustaqeem’. The many paths we are presented with in life, living in the city and the challenges we face everyday, especially for our youth. I often speak about bringing the Sacred to the Street, spiritual messages spilling outside of the conventional gallery spaces and onto the urban grey environment surrounding us. So as a graffiti artist, i could really connect with this idea of ‘Taking It To the Streets’.
I began shooting pictures of traffic lights, street signs, and buildings around Chicago, which i wanted to incorporate into the art itself. I began absorbing the city, preparing for the painting on the big day.
I liked the geometric star symbol that the Streets branding were using, and the visuals reminded me of a street-map, so decided to incorporate that into the artwork, and have different routes overlapping each other like a grid-structure.
Sean Fahey’s team shot a timelapse video of the entire art piece from beginning to end. so look forward to seeing that edited together, as well as the rest of the footage from the day. I have been eagerly scouring facebook, looking for photographs and video of the event, like most people who were present i’m sure!
Overall, all i can say, Chicago really is a great city. The Streets festival is a real inspiration of how things should be done. How the muslim community can be appreciated in the mainstream. How making REAL connections with different communities can be made. No preaching to the converted happening here, and i can only share with people as i go on my travels, the great work that IMAN are doing.
I hope to keep connected with IMAN, and learn something from them that could benefit other communities, including my own in the city of Birmingham. Already I have ideas of how I’d like to make some type of artistic exchange between Chicago and Birmingham – we are twinned cities after all! I have just launched a public art-centre called ‘The Hubb’, just a few months ago, so i extend an invitation to all artists, to connect with us here in England.
I have been excited about Taking Art to the streets, decorating the uglyness that surrounds us often in the cities we live in, and the Streets festival just gave me one huge boost, finding like minded people who are committed to the same goal.