Soul City Arts | Mohammed Ali | Aerasol Arabic

New Internationalist Magazine

Soul and the city – words from graffiti artist Mohammed Ali

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Dear Supporter,

We wanted to update our supporters with progress at the new Hubb as we have been busy since the start of the new year! Firstly we’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who donated as part of our crowdfunding campaign, raising a fantastic £11,341 exceeding our original target! The money came from a number of individuals, as well as  attendees of the Birmingham Soup event, and local businesses including Latif’s, Hush Bedrooms, La Favorita Restaurant and Kaleidoscope Imaging.

Our new space is located in a semi-basement space within the Bordesley Centre, otherwise known as the Muath Trust in Stratford Road, Sparkbrook, a historic building which was formerly a King Edwards grammar school.  We are delighted with our location as it sits close to the city-centre as well as being at the edge of Sparkbrook and Balsall Heath.

So far we have been busy putting in new flooring, re-plastering the walls, carrying out electrical work including some beautiful LED uplighting, and many other works to get the space ready for the public.   The good news is we are now in the final phase of work before the space can open, but as can sometimes happens with building projects, we have had a few surprises along the way which have slowed things down!

Rest assured we are working hard to make the space ready, and will be in touch with details of our launch in the very near future.

In the meantime Soul City Arts has continued working in the community, developing various projects, but some of that news will be shared in the next update. Stay tuned!

We thank you for your belief in the power of the arts to affect real, positive social impact!

Best Wishes

The Soul City Arts Team

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An Italian cardinal, a Serbian basketball star, the Cuban-born American singer Gloria Estefan and a Muslim graffiti artist from Birmingham, UK are among those invited to take part in the upcoming TEDxViadellaConciliazione event April 19th, the first ever TEDx event to take place in the Vatican State.

Though not to be confused with boxing giant Mohammad Ali, the award-winning U.K street artist bearing the same name, will present to an audience in the Vatican on how his Muslim faith has inspired his artwork and influenced his relationship with others. Mohammed Ali is the only British speaker to be invited to this first event in the Vatican State. He is an artist who has created thought-provoking street art in cities across the globe, with the aim of connecting people of different faiths.

He will be also be creating a piece of art live on stage and then hopes to present Pope Francis with the artwork as a gift.

Mohammed says, “It’s exciting to be presenting here in the Vatican, both as a street-artist, as well as an artist inspired by my Islamic faith.  We live in extraordinary times where the notion of ‘the clash of civilizations’ is frequently banded about.  I am hopeful that the ordination of the new Pope, will provide us with refreshing new opportunities of engaging and connecting with people.”

Already a global phenomenon lauded for its commitment to “ideas worth spreading,”’s online talks are gaining attention in Italy and other European countries through similarly locally organized “TEDx” events.

Speakers from all walks of life and profession are invited at TED events to give the talk of their lives in 18 minutes or less.

The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture has embraced the initiative of a group of academics in Rome to organize this TEDx forum on the subject of Religious Freedom – the first time ever that the theme has been tackled by a TEDx event.

One of the organizers of TEDxViadellaConciliazione, Giovanna Abbiati, explains how the speakers were selected:

“At the beginning, we really scoured the earth,” she says, looking for the right people to address the conference: “from Mexico to China, from Nigeria to Serbia…(looking) for people who have real stories to tell about religious freedom.”

The conference takes place Friday April 19th.  For more information on the event visit the website:

For more information: Contact Haroon Ravat of Soul City Arts on or call 07946 488 413

*Notes To Editors

Mohammed Ali is an award-winning Birmingham-based street artist who’s work has been celebrated as ‘building bridges between faith communities’. His work has graced walls from as far afield as Melbourne, New York, Dubai, Singapore and Casablanca.  More of his work can be seen at

If walls could speak

An account written by Khyle Raja

“You have to make this trip. Arrange to leave work early, promise you will be back even earlier tomorrow. Hope the car has petrol because this theatre would mean catching the bus, and the train back wouldn’t give any time to mix and mingle.”

We arrived a little early, but nonetheless the queue extended to the glass doors of the Mac. A mixture of ages, colours, backgrounds. Various cities in the house, and on stage to come – each an ambassador, representing the past 50 years of migration, habitation and survival to the very minute they arrived.

One passes through the wide corridor adorned with photographs of Birmingham’s well-established Yemeni community. Wise elders and bright young faces draw you in to a darkened space.

Almost pitch black, but for a sound stage dressed in wires, laptops and decks in a subtle blue hue.

Posters across a few walls, CCTV watching from a few angles and a number of stages surround you.

Opening – A soundscape. Faint, barely audible for a few moments and slowly growing. Our eyes begin to adapt to the dark and we can make out a few brick walls, mics and gangways. Cleveland Watkiss gradually layers tones with no instrument beyond his own voice.

Poetry – MC Conrad takes centre stage. Bathed in white light, he recounts a political address, filled with vague statements, context-less facts and a few buzz words on multiculturalism, oh and the need for surveillance. Those grand gestures promise much and reveal nothing.

He is interrupted by Stephen Morrison-Burke, Birmingham’s young poet laureate. Lights switch between them as he articulates a reality that clashes with the political spin.

Twisting and turning through the crowd, RTKal reminisces about hanging on the street, the safe refuge of cafes and gangs at war.

Mohammed Ali emerges from the dark, and a blackened brick wall takes on a bright white dawn. A rooftop chimneystack emerges; hope arriving with new faces, colour and cultures in inner city Birmingham.

Sparkbrook will never be the same.

Tones fade and switch, Martin Stannage enters. He recounts afternoons at Shamrock café ran by the Irish but filled with brown youth. He recalls the thrills of Space Invaders; dodging an imminent storm that looks daunting, heavy and vicious. It seems hopeless. He looks for help outside the bitmap but his peers are all massing outside, looking serious with barely a word spoken. He narrates as intrigue and curiosity leads him through the crowd, pushing and shoving his way forward. Game over. But the tension can’t be cut, no one moves. Skin heads on one side, the sons of immigrants on the other. No one moves.

A white-capped youth enters the mural at the end of an aerosol can. Above him, the bright sky gives way to a dark nemesis – a CCTV camera stalks him from across the street.

Standoffs shift stage to Rajput restaurant. Stephen weaves lyrically through lary punters, exotic menus and the exhausting shifts of self-made businesses. He recounts the alcohol fuelled blood rush as racism lifts its ugly head. A venom they kept secret even as they ate at an Indian restaurant. They don’t pay, but his father does. It hits home, as he is powerless to keep him from being beaten unconscious.

Then music brings us back. UB40, reggae & skar – two poets recounting through lyrics a conversation to be remembered. Both had the same passion, both loved the same anthems. One recalls a fateful standoff outside Shamrock. He who is selling the records was wearing dock martins, red laced amongst a crowd of clean, cold faces.

The other stood as an immigrant, invading a street, which he could never hope to own. Yet there he was, buying reggae music from is an old enemy who recalls peer pressure, fad and phase; who left it behind and embraced the unknown cultures he was brought up to hate. He leaves us with a strange taste and distrust that threatens to slow-poison a sparkbrook spring.

RTkall climbs a chimney stack an speaks into the camera. CCTV is projected onto the walls of Sparkbrook and the interiors of Rajput restaurant. Mohammed Ali adorns it with a powerful and sinister top lit face.

The face of surveillance.

No one can be trusted; not this lot, not the community here. Everyone is at risk, so everyone is under suspicion.

The voice crescendos, each of our poets joins the fray, recounting stories, mistakes, passions, fights, loss, grief, anger, optimism mixed with self loathing for a community gone off the rails. MC Conrad complains to an Uncle about fly tipping on once immaculate roads, only to find a rat. In his car.

Punks hold umbrellas at bus stops for unsuspecting young Asian women – a kindness never expected where dress and appearance are flipped on their heads in a decade.

But that camera bleeds green ink, music really did bring enemies together, space invaders had to be beaten and livelihoods carved out from the very houses people lived in.

If walls could speak, they would have told these stories.

Kathputli, a beacon of hope

A journey into the heart of the slums of New Delhi
By Martin Travers

Kathputli Colony

Kathputli – Historically, these puppets were not only a source of entertainment but also provided moral and social education. The puppet shows were used to make people aware of the problems that everybody faced and also showed ways of solving them.

Shortly after my arrival to Delhi and my uncomfortable introduction to the world of art hipsters and the kind of street art that is as disrespectful to the locals as the gentrification that it beds,
I found myself on a mission to find the real down home community style art, the kind that has, well you know SOUL, a deep, positive connection with the people whose world it cohabits.

This is a very typical type of search for me and luckily I already had a hunch.

A year earlier I was on a layover in Delhi airport on my way to Nepal where I found an article in a magazine I randomly picked up whilst wiling away the hours, it told of a “colony” of artists living in a place on the outskirts of New Delhi where puppeteers, magicians, acrobats, dancers and musicians and other itinerant performance groups have settled since at least half a century ago.

So, a year later, I’m in Delhi on the trail, armed with what could be the name of the location; a strong sense of determination (some would call it madness); and a good friend who’s up for whatever adventure comes along (also mad). You’d be surprised how far one can get with these two things alone.

After a brief excursion into what we later discovered was the close vicinity of Kathputli I decided to do a bit more research before furthering our adventure. A few long hours on the web and I had a name and number.

The next morning we were met by a couple of well dressed lads, as Kailash had arranged, who guided us into the heart of the vast slum of west Delhi known as Kathputli Colony.


The ever-narrowing streets turn into even narrower dark alleyways with open sewage, tin roofs and homes were made of whatever materials people could find. Then we noticed the walls become varying shades of turquoise which look even more striking when contrasted with the orange glow of lamp light from inside a house and tinsel hanging overhead, somehow the place seems as warm and playful as the kids running around.
Shadipur DSC_8151

Kailash, our host for the day, is a puppeteer, like his father and generations before him. He explained that kathputli means puppet in Hindi and went on to tell me the history of it. Kathputlis are a wooden puppet native to Rajasthan and unfortunately now a dying artistic tradition in India.

He runs “House of Puppets” inside Kathputli Colony and told me over the phone that they would be having a performance that afternoon so we were not only greeted by him but most of the crew and half the kids from the area who were as eagerly anticipating the show as I was.

The House of Puppets teaches colony children the traditional ways of puppetry, music and performance art.

House of Puppets

The adults and youth within the House of Puppets performed a cultural tapestry that fused gypsy music from the desert with an urban slum vibe. First the youth flexed their musical skills by blending Rajasthani folk rhythms with a Hip Hop feel, some of them clapped the air coming from their mouths, some used their bodies as instruments, one sang like a wailing gypsy in the desert and then rapped while they all danced.

The older guys then came in with some serious dhol drum beats raising the tempo a few notches while the kids added some more complex rhythmic patterns using any objects that might be found lying around their homes.

House of Puppets

We were then treated to a puppet show, with puppets made entirely from garbage, an important aspect of the philosophy of the House of Puppets.
Garbage dump, Shadipur

A garbage dump borders Kathputli Colony. As this area does not have a legal status whatsoever, the Government neither provides garbage bins, nor garbage collection. A lot of kids do not go to school, as they have to support their parents to earn a living sifting through waste and selling the glass, plastic or whatever else they can find.

Kailash Bhatt, House of Puppets

Kailash explained to us the ancestors of most of Kathputli Colony’s residents were originally from Rajasthan. They were travelling performers and due to lack of work in their villages they ended up moving to and staying in Delhi. They make their living by performing at weddings, celebrations and various events.

When they arrived over half a century ago there was no slum here but over the years due to the influx of internal migrants and laborers, it has been built up around them.

Generations of performers have passed on their ancient knowledge keeping the arts alive so that now in the center of this vast slum on the edge of India’s capital city there are magicians, puppeteers, musicians, dancers and acrobats practicing their art. There are over 2000 artists living in the center of the slum that has close to 50,000 inhabitant’s altogether.

You may be able to see a fun performance put on for tourists or entertainment purposes in various parts of Rajasthan but historically, these puppets were not only a source of entertainment but also provided moral and social education. The puppet shows were used to make people aware of social problems of their times and show various ways of solving them.

Kailash firmly believes that this social aspect of the artistic tradition is the most important aspect and through his House of Puppets he is able to keep this alive.

The puppets are a tool to educate the youth, share stories and carry on the traditions. They directly use the puppets to tackle issues that are relevant to the youth growing up in the slums right now and all the problems that they are facing, especially health problems and the lack of education.

Now they face a new problem, the entire area of the slum has been chosen for “urban renewal projects” which means the inhabitants, including, the artists of Kathputli Colony will be evicted to make room for large shopping malls.

For the artists this move will be devastating because the new high-rise buildings that the government want to move them to will not be an environment they need to survive as artists.
On top of that it will destroy their networks and displace them from their work area.

It’s an uncertain future for the arts in Delhi as a new generation of middle class “street artists” paint stencils of cats, squids and rainbows or just write there name on walls making absolutely nothing out of everything they have, while others like the artists living in the slum of Kathputli will carry on making something beautiful out of nothing in the face of gentrification.

Photographs by Pooja Pant and Martin Travers