Foka Wolf’s guerrilla street art is amusing and edgy but a new exhibition opening next month is different, more urgent and definitely not funny
Titled, Why Are We Stuck in Hospital? a new exhibition which runs at Ikon Gallery for two weeks responds to a project carried out by the School of Social Policy at the University of Birmingham in partnership with rights-based organisation, Changing Our Lives. The research raises awareness of the thousands of vulnerable people locked in hospital settings with no planned departure date and no hope of getting one.
On the back of the research, the two organisations put their heads together to choose an artist who could create something impactful and appropriate to highlight the plight of these people buried from view. Cue Foka Wolf. Don’t expect the usual humour as the situation is far from amusing, so it’s a bit of a departure for the artist – who keeps his real name and identity a closely guarded secret.
I wasn’t aware of the scale of the problem and nor was he. We’ve listened to politicians of all flavours proclaiming they’ve a plan to fix social care, but generally that’s in the context of freeing up bed-blocking in NHS hospitals – that’s bad enough, but they’ve not touched on the desperate plight of more than 2,000 vulnerable people trapped in a dehumanising system.
A glance at the Changing Our Lives website shines a light on the people who are capable of independent living but instead are trapped for years, sometimes decades, ‘living’ in locked wards, voiceless and sometimes sedated if they kick up a fuss. And then there are success stories for the people who’ve navigated their way out with help from organisations like Changing Our Lives and go on to enjoy full, contented lives.
It’s touched a nerve with Foka Wolf. He says: “It really opened my eyes. I hadn’t heard of the charity or the cause. This was an opportunity to be the voice for them.” He doesn’t usually work in a gallery setting so he’s in new territory and a bit nervous. “I just want to give a fair representation of what the charity wanted. It’s important. It had to be more serious. The emphasis is on a live installation which runs for two weeks. Part of the exhibition is in the Bank Vaults but it’s mostly centred at IKON.”
It’s the worthlessness of the people in the system that’s most shocking. They’re invisible and it seems nobody is fighting their corner although the artist says the University research has the power to force change. “That’s why it was important to create something impactful. The work is quite literal and needed to be some sort of spectacle.” The exhibition opens on 7 March to coincide with the publication of policy guidelines based on the experiences of people with learning disabilities, their families and frontline staff.
Although he’s embraced this project, Foka Wolf is not ready to move his usual work from the street to gallery space just yet. What began as a hobby 15 years ago to break up the 12-hour days working on building sites, has become a full-time career. He started creating small parody classified ads and sticking them to lamp posts around the city.
Then, an 8ft x 4ft poster lampooning 4×4 drivers suggesting penis enlargements went viral and his notoriety grew. He’s never got into any trouble although he has been caught in the act a couple of times, which is why he chooses to remain anonymous.
“I like it that way. I deal with stuff on social media and that’s fine, but I don’t want that in my real life. I like a peaceful life.”