The Big Blue Building in the Aldi Car Park by Mohammed Ali

Good evening everybody, and welcome to this evening’s decibel talk here at the Contact. As you probably know by now, the format is for the speaker to take eighteen minutes to speak on an original and personal perspective on diversity and put us across a big idea. And so without further ado I’d like you to welcome street artist and producer Mohammed Ali, who’s going to talk on the big blue building in the Aldi car park. [applause] Okay. The big blue building in the Aldi car park. I won’t share with you exactly what that is yet, you’ll, you’ll see at the end what I’m talking about. To begin with, for me beauty is something which is not inherently, something which is inherently beautiful, but rather something which is, something which is ugly which is transformed into something of beauty. That, that’s real beauty. So the concrete jungles that we live in, that surround us, these walls that divide us, that tower above us, the ugly breeze-block walls that almost imprison us really in the cities that we live in, why does it have to be this way, I ask you? And who owns the public space? The people in these places in the spaces, the cities that we live in. Do they actually have any say on how their city looks, and how their city kind of works around them? As city authorities and governments struggle to find the answers to social problems, especially in the kind of post-riot situation here in England, we see them kind of battling the find the answers to, to the problems. Why. These questions about what happened and why this happened in this country. So we need to start looking at different ways of engaging and expressing. Why is that environment often so grey? Sometimes, sometimes I’m driving around and I kind of wonder why does it have to be that way? You know, kind of ugly, grey, concrete slabbed, blocks everywhere. Why not a bit of colour, and how can we inject a bit of colour into our spaces? Bringing life to the cities, revitalising the places that we live in. How do we change our landscape and bring some colour into the lives of the people? I believe that the power lies in our hands. And I, I believe ours, as in us collectively, we are those agents of change that we have heard, heard previously about. And we have the ability to bring that change to the people around us in the cities, and we are those people, right. I think we’re all decision-makers and people in certain authorities here that can provide those spaces, that can make that change in the societies, in the cities, from wherever we’ve come from, to go back and make the change for those people, because we’re living in a world now where perhaps we were waiting around for the Martin Luther Kings or the Malcolm Xs to come about, we’re waiting, right, for someone to come and save us. Well why can we not be those people, why can’t we be the Malcolm Xs and the Martin Luther Kings, and as Ghandi said be the change that you wish to see in the world? I’m sharing with you some images of the Favela camps in South America here. You can see the colour that’s brought about to these buildings, these structures. Amazing right? You almost want to live in that place, right. You can see here clearly the side of a shanty town in South America. You can probably see some of the images pasted, the photographs of people pasted into some, into the sides of the buildings. I’m just pointing here, you can see. Literally bringing life to the cities. Here’s one of my own Moorish, Islamic, geometric patterns with, in front of it, I think that’s a doner kebab packet on the, on the ground in front just there. [laughter] Not mine, no! Many migrant communities, like my parents, came to the UK in the sixties, and we didn’t frequent the galleries and the theatres and the arts spaces because my family were against art, far from it, it was simply an issue of, of finances really. And time. My father worked in the factories and then in the restaurant trade, and he just didn’t didn’t have the time. He worked hard so that he could provide for his family so that, that’s really what it was. And he wanted to see us as his kids to kind of benefit from his hard work, if you like, and he didn’t want us to struggle, so he often would discourage me from going into the arts simply because he wanted us to, to have that kind of stable income and salary, etc. And that’s all it was, they weren’t anti-art. Far from it. In fact, pre-migration the arts was something that those generations of people like my father, my parents, actually enjoyed. Being migrants from Bangladesh, the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore and Kabir [inaudible] was much loved and appreciated, but it was when they settled in the UK the arts, that the arts just simply took a back seat. So there was no room really for, for the art for, for many people, there was just no time. And the spaces where you see many ethnic communities, you may see the grocery stores, places of worship, butchers, job centres, people needed to just live and, and get on with their lives and improve the condition of their lives. Much of these communities had woven into their culture rich artistic heritages, but somehow this got lost, as I said, living in the society we live in today. My parents tell me of travelling distances to see performances from back home, but we as kids born and raised in this country, we knew nothing of, of back home. You know home, where was home for us? So what we knew of their back home was what we’d inherited from them, and combining that with what we picked up from outside of the home. So here we see a hybrid of cultures, people like myself, which I always describe as taking the, the best of both worlds. Struggling at first at which to choose from, but then coming to the realisation that you don’t actually have to choose, that you can meld them together in an exciting way to create something very, very, very exciting. So growing up, the only exposure to the arts was really learning about the great masters of art, and be discouraged to leave this, and leave this graffiti nonsense behind. And this book, it was really something that changed my life. Subway art – a show of hands who knows subway art, by the way. Anybody? Absolutely amazing. Did you know it was the most stolen book ever, by the way? [Various] No. I paid for mine, by the way. [laughter] So it was discovering this book that really gave kids, youth, a breath of fresh air. Changing our lives. This was art of the people. Graffiti spread around the world like wildfire. The place where you learnt your skills was in the streets, and you learnt from the masters of the spray can from around the block. So you didn’t acquire your skills from a certain institution but rather there was kids that were known around the block for being those kind of kids that could kind of school you and guide you. This was art bursting outside of its boundaries. Outside of the shiny white spaces. Spilling out onto the concrete around us, bringing that necessary colour into our lives. The spirit of taking art, art outside of its boundaries was really, truly born here in my view with hip hop and graffiti, where the streets became the canvas and the streets became the performance space. But not only was the colour of this art something which was, brought relevance to the people, but the location, the positioning of such art, was crucial on where it is experienced. I used to, when my father passed away about three years ago, I used to drive to see my father at the hospital every day, and on the journey I used to wonder, there’s a few walls that used to, I used to see on the journey to the hospital. And I used to wonder how art could enrich our daily lives in a kind of practical way. I’d see walls on the way to the hospital that would stare at me almost, with their blankness almost shouting at me. With their silence, just these blank walls. This was a wall in New York, in the Bronx. How we can use art to heal the wounds within society. This mother who was helping me paint, you’ll see in the bottom right hand corner, she had only two months prior to this lost nine of her children in an apartment block fire, okay. So every day she would travel and walk past this wall and this wall would be speaking to her as a, as a memorial, as a reminder, but also as a reminder to others as well. So just that location kind of positioning of, of, of some art and where it takes place is something that is something is important to, to kind of think about. This very mural here was something which was a reminder for myself and my father as well. It was only a few months after he had passed away that I painted this wall. So for me, as I said, who would ever imagined that such art could even have such emotion within it. A bit of spray can and a wall, engaging with street kids, these mindless youth with hoodies. I’ve seen these mural created with tears being shed, spray can being sprayed and tears shedding at the same time. Would you have ever imagined that this is, this is the power of art? Can we look at some of the places where we spend the most amount of time? Public transport and the car in traffic for hours and hours on end. The places of worship and shopping malls, right. Shopping malls, these hideous places where many of us spend hours and hours in these damp places. Well, actually I try not to but my wife does. [laughter] These soul-destroying places really, you know. I see how these shopping malls in fact, because we see shopping malls, maybe not in this country but in the Emirates as an example, how shopping malls are actually have huge budgets for kind of commissioning of art, but these shopping malls, they’re calling out for the arts because they know it works. They know that art can change the world. They’ve seen the fruits of it, they’ve seen what the power of art can do to change a people. And of course they want a piece of that, remember, you know. This is shopping malls we’re talking about. Big shiny, horrible places. I mean take a look around you really, just in the Middle East, and we’ll see many, many examples where we see the kind of, the beginning of revolution. We only heard earlier today from Freedom Theatre about how revolutions begin and how ideas spark off from, from the arts, and we can see the street art of places like in Cairo, and how it has exploded, and other places around the Middle East, how there’s books being published right now as we speak, as we see emergence of street art, of murals of people speaking, people shouting out, and communicating by leaving their message or their stories in public spaces. I was once commissioned by a major UK shopping centre who asked me to paint something that raised people’s spirits. They wanted people to stop sitting at home and not spend and complain about the economy. I wanted to raise people’s aspirations and give them hope about their future. So we kind of met halfway. So I chose to paint one of my favourite quotes from Malcolm X, which was “the future belongs to those who prepare for it today.” But funnily they asked me, can you use Martin Luther King instead, just Malcolm X, you know, just leave him. [laughter] I didn’t listen to them by the way, I used Malcolm X. Can we look at connecting with the giant retail establishments and see how we can tap into the lives of many of these people who wander aimlessly from store to store. And think about all the places that people spend their lives. Places of worship, as another example. In post-riot, the England we, we know about something very remarkable, you know, really this is something I feel very, very passionate about. That this funeral you can see here, where twenty-five thousand people gathered in a public park in the city of Birmingham, my home city, right. Twenty-five thousand people, probably I’m somewhere in that crowd there, you’ll see. Now, a religious service performed in the open air in a park where people of different background came together. Now, just before the prayer started for the, for the three young lads, the three young guys who died, who were killed during the England riots who were defending their community, this was a funeral for them, I heard a, a poem performed on stage. This was the biggest gathering I’ve ever attended in the city and the poetry just seemed to connect with, with the people who stood there ready to kind of supplicate and, and go into prayer. But a poem was performed by one of the cousins of one of the young lads that died. It made me really think about how art can even enter the sacred spaces, in a kind of, a different kind of way. How can art be used in gatherings which already perhaps, every Friday thousands of people gather in every city in the country, in different, on Sundays and Fridays and different religious kind of ceremonies. We see crowds gather, and how can we kind of engage on that level? Only last week I created a, a mural at a mosque in Edinburgh, and it was on the side of a mosque, you know. The Imam of the mosque, he was very wary of me. In fact even I was wary. I mean, this was a mosque for god’s sake, you know. It was something really I was quite nervous about. But I think he quickly realised the power of the arts when he’d seen the completed product. You might say there’s great kind of celebratory kind o religious festivals that we see around kind of Eid Melas and religious festivals in outdoor spaces, but let me ask you, how many times have you been to such gathering and seen real awful art, right. You know what I’m talking about, right? But how can I, let me ask you a question, how many of you engage with those people or the people who are programming such content? How much have you had an influence on the kind of art that they programme and engaged on their levels? I hope you have actually. I’m, I shouldn’t really think you have negative a view, but… Let me give you a good example in Chicago, when I was over in Chicago. Taking it to the streets, a tough neighbourhood in this city. Okay. A tough neighbourhood in this city where ten thousand people gathered in the city park. Gosh. In Chicago, where ten thousand people gathered, people of all faith, to celebrate the Islamic festival. The city authorities offered the organisation, the IMAN, they’re known as, a big shiny new park called the Millennium Park, but IMAN, they refused and said we’re staying put in this part of the town, because this is where, this is, we need to do the work here, stay rooted in their community, which was their choice. But yet, something to think about, yet they were sponsored by Pepsi, right. [laughter] Something just very interesting going on there. But taking art to the people and places where it matters, not to the shiny new venues built in the city. So this brings me onto the big blue building. Born within the community, funded by people connected to the community, this is where the change needs to happen. Taking, taking ownership of our spaces, our environment, and delivering what the people want, what they’re crying out for. Shiny new galleries pay consultants big money that tell them they need to programme certain things, but speak to the people on the ground and you see a different picture. Their feelings, their ideas, their visions. The big blue building, the hub, who set it up? Not the Arts Council. Or it wasn’t funded by the Arts Council. It was set up through efforts from just normal regular people, just like myself. And connecting with respected charity relief organisations that work towards relieving poverty around the world, that’s all it was, just a local grassroots charity that actually came, stepped forward and we connected and we built this space. Why does the hub work? Because people saw how we transformed an ugly space where men used to get high and drunk in this place. And how it was transformed by not big budgets but by just committed people from within the community. It’s located in an area called Sparkbrook. It could be anywhere, but I chose to launch it in the neighbourhood where I was born and raised, that I knew and I, and loved. I wanted to kind of create art and make the artist’s space and the gallery that we had accessible, and I truly feel that making art accessible is a responsibility on every single one of us. Partnerships and relationships need to be built. But I don’t propose that we take over such places by force. We can achieve things by building important alliances, by working with town planners and regeneration departments to change our landscape. I worked with Edinburgh council, as I mentioned earlier, who lifted out parking meters and street signs literally to make way for, of locations for me to create my art. And this is I think the important alliances that we need to make. I know people who work with city authorities and don’t deal with the arts department – far from it – they’re actually despised by the art department of certain cities. But rather working with regeneration and town planners actually to realise their, their visions and their projects. Taking art into a non-arts environment, you have to work with non-arts people really. I mean, the funding is drying up so we have to find those, those alternatives. And if serving our city by weaving art within the fabric of the society, by decorating the breeze blocks of the city or using odd places to gather audiences in the name of regeneration, I see no, no crime in that. I have kids as far as the Bronx to Sydney Australia ready to jump on anyone who would vandalise any of the projects that I’ve kind of worked on. This is pride. Pride in the environment that really no city council or anybody can give to the people. Really it’s by building trust with those people, by engaging with them and letting them take ownership of the spaces, their places, their cities. Our cities. Thank you very much. [applause]

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