Mohammed Ali will be curating a global arts festival taking place in Malaysia this August. He has been appointed as artistic director of the Ilm Arts Festival. Check more on that here>>>
A few years ago, I was invited to the Muscat Youth Summit, which is an annual gathering that happens in Muscat, Oman. It’s a gathering of creatives, thinkers and doers, ranging from artists to film-makers through to experts on road safety issues. It’s the second time I was invited and this time, road safety was a key theme of the summit. Hundreds of young people had gathered for a weekend at a top costal resort, supported by the government, hungry to learn from the experts that had gathered from around the world.
It was the first time I had met the team at YOURS – Youth For Road Safety – and enjoyed exploring the theme of road safety, something I’ve taken for granted back at home in the UK . I realised that this was a society that doesn’t have much awareness around road safety – very different to growing up in the UK, where I still hear the resounding words of STOP, LOOK and LISTEN!
I wanted to do a short write up of the experience from back then, as recently I began working on a project in Malaysia that centres around road safety so I wanted to share some thoughts around the issue of how art can be used to explore issues around road safety. I find myself returning to the exciting prospect of painting a car and as a visual artist, I think there is no better canvas than painting onto a car itself!
In Muscat i was given an old white car that someone had donated for the cause! The car was parked next to the beach, and the white surface of the car was just begging to be painted. Working with a group of young people I talked to them about the power of the arts and how the arts can deal with complex social issues. The arts has the power to transform a mindset, more so than any P.R campaign, leaflet or website.
Together we explored heavy issues around the concept of Life and Death, as two experiences that were represented on either side of the car. The group developed a collage of stencils that were then sprayed onto the bonnet of the car, so it became a strong participatory project. I had the job of finessing and sharpening it up.
Street-Art is a powerful medium to explore issues that we have in urban spaces. The nature of street-art was such that it was designed to spill out into the cities we live in, taking the message literally to the streets. The car is just an extension of a brick wall, another unconventional place for art to be placed, and by doing so, the message stands out and hits the viewer in an extraordinary way. In an age of information overload, blurry visual landscapes, we need to find alternative ways to get important messages across to the masses.
An article on my work, and that of our organisation Soul City Arts, in the latest Edge Condiiton – a bi-monthly architecture journal.
Click below to launch the PDF
I started painting this exploring the heritage of the city of Birmingham – where i am born and raised. Birmingham was once known as a city of a thousand trades, and we once made 75% of the worlds pens around WW2. During the war, one of the factories in Birmingham was bombed, and it an impact on the industry. Whilst i was painting this piece, halfway through, the Charlie Hebdo attacks took place. Suddenly the painting took a different focus, where the pen as a symbol of pacifism and enlightenment became one associated with provocation and violence. The surveillance cameras were added near the end, when statements were made by the government about how surveillance was now a key priority following the attacks in Paris.
On Thursday 22nd May 2014, I was invited to speak at the new, shiny Library of Birmingham. It was wonderful to be in one of the most exciting new buildings in the city that I was born and raised in — a building really that is like a microcosm of Birmingham itself, with all walks of life passing through its doors.
I was asked to share my work and deliver a talk, so I decided to share some specific thoughts on the theme of ‘Transforming the City’. I deliver a lot of talks at schools, colleges, universities and public venues, where I talk through my work and share stories along the way. This time I wanted to begin a conversation and speak specifically about some important questions I have been exploring. I wanted to explore how we as human beings see ourselves within the cities we live in, how we feel about the power we have to affect change in our city. How the visual landscape of our cities is shaped around us, without any input from the people that exist within that space. Is it really public-space and does it belong to us? Why do we resign ourselves from having an impact in how our cities are physically shaped around us? Architects, town planners and city authorities, as they build the metropolis around us and shape the physical space that we use, do we ever have any input on that, and if not, why not? Do we see collaborative thinking when it comes to some of our social problems? Do we see academics, city councils and policy makers sitting with artists to explore issues we face together?
Many may already know that I paint murals within communities; murals that encourage people to reflect on important issues in society, but also murals that blend with the environment and resonate with the very people that surround them. For the past ten years, I have been travelling to great cities around the globe, painting concrete jungles and connecting with different communities, and learning along the way. Making human connections through art is paramount for me — if your art is not emotionally connecting with the audience, then it should be questioned. After all, the art must serve a purpose. However, I also went beyond just painting murals and launched Soul City Arts, an arts organisation that is dedicated to using art to engage with people from different communities. We then launched an arts centre called ‘The Hubb’ four years ago. That was all part of our initiative to bring art, in a wider sense, to the lives of ordinary people. As a graffiti artist, I have a strong belief in art being accessible for all, not just restricted to certain places and venues. Art must be embedded in our daily lives and our environment, and it can have a huge impact on our social condition. We underestimate the impact of colour on us as human beings. We are surrounded by ugly concrete jungles devoid of any colour. I write this post only to begin the conversations around ‘Transforming the City’ through remarkable ways. I hope this can be the beginning of us exploring these issues together.
I’m not a great writer, I’m a visual artist, but I do feel it’s high time that we begin to explore new and exciting means of connecting us as human beings, exploring how neutral spaces can bring people together physically. How can we engage with current spaces, but really engage with different audiences? Yes, we know there are various diversity tick-box exercises in engaging with diverse “BME” communities, but aside from all of that, on a very real level — let’s start important dialogue and explore creative approaches to connecting us as human beings.
The Hubb is an arts space I ran in the heart of Sparkbrook, Birmingham, where I was based and delivered a lot of programmes from. It has now since been closed down due to council redevelopment. We have a new space on the horizon and recognise the need for a physical space to explore these conversations in. Keep a look out for that and keep connected with us, as we may need your support for that initiative.
We have a hashtag #Transformingthecity’ — those who were present during the Library talk I gave as well as the general public, please do contribute to the continued conversations about how we can use creative expression to transform our city.
Here are some links to continue the momentum, so do Like our Facebook Page to continue to hear about Soul City Arts initiatives, including our new space.
Peace and Blessings,
i was invited by GemArts, an organisation based in the North East of England, to create an instalation where a shipping container was transformed, both the exterior and interor, as part of a live event broadcast on Good Friday on BBC1. The theme reflected the idea of ‘isolation’. I painted all sides of the container, and the inside featured a soundscape i created that was played on loop for the live audience to engage with, along with lighting that was focussed on a lone figure position slumped in the corner. Shipping containers are used to bring material goods to us from distant lads, modern electronics, exotic foods.. probably everything we own is manufactured abroad and brought to us here. But people also make the harrowing journey in such containers across the sea’s searching for a better life and many even die in the process. The theme of isolation was that of the one of the stations of Jesus in the Christian perspective, hence this commision for Good Friday. I wanted to explore what that means today for everyday people. I invited local young people to scrawl onto the inside of the walls, what they would want to say if they were stuck inside of this container. The art on the exterior featured lyrics from a poem written by the local Reverend Tracy Reynolds, whos daughter suffered in a fatal car accident which lead to her losing her legs. She wrote a poem about her feelings around isolation.
I have worked with churchs and places of worship in many different places, but the cube that stood outside Exeter Cathedral was really quite a unique collaboration. The Dean of Exeter Cathedral had given the go ahead for the Cube i had painted that was commissioned by the University of Exeter, to be erected right in front of the Cathedral for a month. The art tells a story about the ‘future’ of Islam, more details with the thinking hehind it can be seen here>>
A collaboration between myself and poet Mark Gonzales. We created a a short film, based on one of his poems..
I have just completed a mural in Birmingham on the Ladypool Road. It has taken 2-3 weeks to complete and sits at the start of the road and acts as a kind of gateway to the area. I was asked to create something that captures the essence of the area and the Ladypool Road business district. Some may know that this area of the city is somewhere that I feel passionate about, it was somewhere where I was born and raised. My recent live-art theatrical show If Walls Could Speak told the story of the area, and now it was time to tell the story through a street corner mural.
The imagery in the mural tells a story of the changing demographics of the area, of how South Asian migrants came and settled in the area, working in local factories. The BSA factory was one of those factories that served many different communities. It was livelihood for people of all ethnicities. During the Second World War it was somewhere that was bombed by the Germans, as it was a major gun manufacturer – Birmingham Small Arms. It was something that served my father and many of my relatives. You ask anyone in the community about BSA and nearly everyone would tell you of a family member that once worked in this giant factory that was known for its gun production and subsequent motorcycle manufacture. Now there stands just only a tiny part of the building on Armoury Road, and it’s story is fading away. During the Birmingham Blitz, many died on the night it was bombed as people took shelter in the basement. The story is captured here in an article on the BBC Website.
My father worked at the factory in the 1960’s onwards, so I was always intrigued as how years went by this factory had served very different communities, as the area changed, and new communities came and settled and how a building, a physical space conjured up different memories for different people.
The story in the mural evolves into imagery of grocery stores, and the ‘Balti Restaurant’. After the manufacturing industry ended and many of these factories closed down, it left migrant labourers looking for new avenues. My father went onto opening his first Fish & Chip Shop in Sparkbrook, when a bag of chips was just 6pence! He then went onto opening his Balti restaurant like many others who saw an opportunity, as new migrants, that they had something exciting to sell to the English – their food. This is what populates much of the area now and is what the area is famous for. If you want a curry, you visit Ladypool Road. Who would imagine that this very food would then become part of the British national cuisine!
However even much of that in the area, has evolved now, to fresh, funky ‘juice and dessert parlours’ and American Steak Houses. As the offspring of these new migrants settled and integrated, they brought a new perspective and Balti Restaurants was not part of their story. Second and Third generations had inherited some of the enterprising nature of their forefathers, but channelled it new ways.
I was one of those second generations and with this mural I wanted to create as a tribute to those who came before us. It may appear to be a glossy promotion of the area, but underneath all of that, it tells a story of a struggling community that battled through racist Britain in the 70’s/80’s and used their initiative coupled with a strong passion to succeed in business and education.
At the end of the mural, a very elderly asian man walked past the mural, stopped and asked me about what the art was about. It turned out that he was an old friend of my late-father. He became emotional as he shared with me stories of how they used to work together back in the day. All of this takes place in front of a street-corner graffiti mural – who would have thought. I have painted in cities across the globe, commissioned by foreign city authorities, but its not often i get to hear such stories so close to home, while i’m painting a mural.
We embraced each other and i promised i would visit his home to hear more stories that he enjoyed sharing with me. I think he approved of the art. It’s not often stories like his are captured like this, especially not in the public on the corner of Ladypool Road.