We expected to chat to King’s Heath street artist Mohammed Ali about graffiti and his ‘I Can’t Breathe’ artwork, but got so much more than we bargained for…
If, like us, you know Mohammed Ali as @AliAerosol on Twitter and have followed the shambles of Birmingham City Council removing the artwork he created in response to George Floyd’s murder, you might be surprised to learn he’s also engaged in a number of strategic roles in shaping the city’s cultural offering.
“It’s complicated,” he says, “I wear many different hats.” A trustee of BMAG, associate artist at the REP, curator of festivals, global multimedia artist and champion of engaging, enriching art, he’s a creative force to be reckoned with.
Mohammed is focused on making Birmingham world class and is excited about where the city could be heading, but accepts there are many challenges. He’s convinced that the way to boost engagement with the arts is to get out into communities and bring quality arts and culture into people’s lives. The belittling of community art and the negative connotations of ‘it’s more face painting than meaningful art’ is a stumbling block. His dilemma is how to change that perception and big-up the value of art.
NOT ROCKET SCIENCE
He explains: “I’m continuously pushing the social benefit of art. All of society does not value it. We don’t see art in a tangible form that people can engage with. It’s squeezed into the curriculum in schools and certainly when I was at school, art was seen as a subject on the fringes. We need to get out and reach people. It’s not rocket science.”
Mohammed has lived in King’s Heath for more than 30 years and uses the High Street as an example. He says: “There is nothing on the High Street that isn’t a commercial offer. If I want to stay local, what can I do? Where’s the art? Where’s the culture?”
As we come out of lockdown, which, as we know has been catastrophic certainly for theatres, we need the arts like never before. Mohammed says: “People have been through a trauma – there’s less space for congregation, no space to just come and sit together. We need to see art as fundamental. We need to re-engage, be vocal. The world has exploded and museums and theatres are breaking. This should wake us up.”
A CITY DIVIDED
Mohammed used to run an arts centre above a charity shop in Spark Brook before the council took the building away and what was remarkable was that people travelled out of their area to get there. People would thank him for giving them a reason to come to Spark Brook. He explains: “Black Lives Matter has us questioning ourselves and realising that a city like Birmingham that celebrates diversity is actually a city divided. We tend to stick to our own pockets of the city and it’s only when you go to somewhere like the Bullring you see the huge diversity of people rubbing shoulders.”
Mohammed’s I Can’t Breathe artwork was painted over by Birmingham City Council within 24 hours of it being completed despite the rest of King’s Heath’s street art remaining. The council did one of those corporate-style apologies on Twitter along the lines of, it was an honest mistake by an operative. Mohammed says: “The stink that was caused! It’s easy to say sorry when everyone’s looking. I accept the apology, but I don’t accept it was an honest mistake.
“Either someone didn’t like the sentiment and ordered it to be taken down or it was someone ignorant who doesn’t understand the situation. The council said they would investigate, but I’ve heard nothing. They are taking me for a mug that listens to corporate nonsense.” As well as repainting the artwork, Mohammed had it projected onto a building around 20 times its original size and a meeting with the council is on the cards.
Having travelled extensively working all over the world, people say to Mohammed, ‘why the hell are you still in Birmingham?’ He says: “I could be in Chicago, Melbourne, Malaysia, but I was born here, my late father is buried here and I’m really excited for my children. The city has changed in the last 10 to 15 years more than ever and I’m committed to making sure it becomes world class.”