Soul City Arts | Mohammed Ali | Aerasol Arabic

Sparkbrook Mural – Birmingham

The mural painted in Sparkbrook Birmingham was painted by two artists Mohammed Ali and Martin Travers.  Here is their perspective on the experience of painting this wall.

First up, Martin Travers:

I recently had the pleasure of collaborating on an exciting mural project with the artist Mohammed Ali in Birmingham. Mohammed invited me from my home in Holland to come and paint a wall in Sparkbrook, an area of Birmingham England where he grew up. What interested me was that Sparkbrook had transformed from an Irish community to an Asian/Muslim one. Both Mohammed and I grew up in The U.K, I have an Irish background and he an Asian/Muslim one.

Sparkbrook was a predominantly Irish neighborhood up until the 80’s and nineties when many moved into other wealthier suburbs. Having grown up in London with some Irish heritage I knew about Birmingham’s Irish influence and of course the Birmingham six which highlighted the fact that to be Irish in Britain meant you where associated with terror.

Flash forward a decade or so and the same rings true if your Muslim in Britain, Project Champion is a good example of that. Bearing in mind that Sparkbrook is now a predominantly Asian community and most are of Islamic faith, Project Champion was a project to install a £3m network of CCTV cameras to monitor vehicles entering and leaving Sparkbrook. Its implementation was frozen after it came to light that the police deliberately misled councilors about its purpose, it was revealed that it was being funded as an anti-terrorism initiative. The Police believed that because the people of that district are poor (Sparkbrook has the eighth highest level of unemployment in Britain) and a majority are Muslim they were guilty of terrorism.

I had all this in mind as we adorned the large wall in the middle of this neighborhood with Intricate Islamic and Celtic (Irish) patterns that blend in out of one another in the way that the demographics of an area might change, as one fades out another one comes in but somehow they are very much connected. It’s a challenge for me as artist from a social realist background to paint a mural with a message and have nothing figurative to work with. I appreciate this aspect of our collaboration as it pushes me into thinking and working in new and different ways and perhaps that’s part of our message, to smash the stereo types.

It’s very apparent ( boarded up windows and lots of rubbish blowing around) that very little of the state budget goes into this neighborhood, people were very surprised to see us putting so much time, effort and bright colour onto their street. After seeing the word HOPE in bold shapely letters some people who we spoke to would comment “we definitely need some of that here!”
Camouflaged away in the center of the mural the message continues “a weapon against despair”

I don‟t like to go into a neighborhood that I know nothing about and just do a painting and leave, as artists we have to respect the fact that for the local people this wall is a part of everyday life. For me I think it is empowering to engage the local people as much as I can, discuss the concept with them, get feedback from them and perhaps invite them to participate. In this way the painting becomes more than just the work of an individual artist but a part of the community and this is empowering to the art, the artist and most importantly the community. An added bonus will be the longevity of the painting because it belongs to the community. So painting a mural is not about getting your painting up in public, getting a name for yourself as an artist but about giving, sharing and communicating.

With this wall we arm the people with hope!

Now a perspective from Mohammed Ali:

I very rarely connect with artists in the way that I have done so with Martin Travers.  When i was painting a mural in Amsterdam a few years ago, I was introduced to local artist Martin, and we have kept in touch since.  Martin has a very similar outlook and approach to his work, so it really made sense for us to continue working together.  I found Martin to be quite passionate about his Irish heritage, much like the way I am about my faith as a muslim.

I have painted walls around the globe and in cities around the UK, but I have also painted a number of murals in my home city of Birmingham, but i wanted to bring it down even further, and paint in the very street that i was born and raised.  Anderton Road was the street that my father bought his first house.  We owned a fish n chip shop on that street around 35 years ago.  I went to school there, and would walk past this very long wall every single day.  To have the opportunity to paint this wall was something i was excited about and couldn’t wait to get started.

To invite Martin – an artist of Irish heritage, made perfect sense, telling a story through the mural of the changing face of Sparkbrook, how different communities have settled and how people have come and moved on.

During the painting over the course of 5 days, we interacted, engaged and chatted to local residents. We eavesdropped on conversations of people who stood and watched, people who came to shop at the grocery store next to us.  We heard conversations between children and their parents as they walked back from school, the same route i would take as a child.  We heard praise, we heard excitement.

Why would two guys come into such an area and want to paint this giant piece of art in their neighborhood. I think people were intrigued.  People assumed we had been commissioned, but when we shared with them that this mural was not commissioned by anybody, but something we wanted to do,  how Martin had come all the way from Holland to paint this wall, people were surprised.

I have painted many walls in some great cities around the globe.  New York, Melbourne, Toronto, Singapore… but this wall was special.  It was home, the streets that i knew so well.  I painted with an artist who i respected, and invited him into my home to bring some colour into the lives of people, who rarely saw such colour in the concrete jungles they lived in.

To view the artists websites see the following:

Mohammed Ali /

Martin Travers /

The Art of Seeing

Biography of Tony Beckwith BDes(Hons) MA.

  • Illustration and Photography @ DJCA Univ. of Dundee.
  • MA Public Art & Design @ Chelsea School of Art.
  • Founder member and director of the Basildon Art & Design Initiative (BADI), a voluntary sector organisation which won two national awards for the cultural development of the town it was in.
  • Arts Development Manager for Lee Valley Regional Park Authority, influencing the concept development of Gunpowder Park,
  • Senior Consultant with Haring Woods Associates during which time developed both successful and award winning methodologies that work towards that elusive goal,  participative democracy. Haring Woods, CONNECT and Perception AREA.
  • Present, partner in MI Society (Mir’raat in Society). MI Society is an artist led socio/political commentator and cultural think tank that uses art as a vehicle for questioning and challenging societies inequalities and prejudices through the exploration of our perceptions. MI Society is led through the collaboration of Beck’Mclean a partnership between artists Tony Beckwith and Steve Mclean. .

A member of the Interdependence Movement a network of Citizens without Borders, including artists, educators, students, politicians, entrepreneurs, civic and religious leaders and other activists, who recognize the interdependent nature of our world and advocate for new forms of constructive civic interdependence. Tony has publicly spoken at interdependence day symposiums in Morocco, Brussels and Mexico City.

Tony has contributed to Volonteurope’s library dialogues in Amsterdam and London which informed the volonteurope report ‘Effective consultation with EU Citizens’

Tony represented the CSV at the EU4U in Linz, Austria in 2010. A Live-stream conference: Bridging the gap between EU Citizens and EU Institutions.

Random Thoughts from Week 2

Artistic Highlight of the Week

I had the wonderful pleasure of seeing Mustafa at mac Birmingham this week brought to us by the lovely people at Kali Theatre and the Birmingham Rep. I also have Sampad to thank for finding me a ticket at incredibly short notice thanks to the power of Twitter. Social networking works!

The play was absolutely brilliant, all credit to the team at Kali and the wonderful writing of Naila Ahmed.  The play explores the highly sensitive issue of Jinn and Exorcism within the Muslim Community. The script is an absolute gem with an all round excellent performance from the cast. Its always a pleasure to observe a beautifully scripted piece of theatre that connects with you as an audience member on a number of different levels. It appealed to the Muslim in me for tackling the issue of Jinn and Exorcism and the tried and tested partnership of Kali and the Rep has never failed to disappoint at an artistic level.  Great to see a packed house at mac too! A wonderful experience all round.

Bumpy Road ahead for new arts organisations

There is no shortage of artistic excellence or appetite for risk taking amongst emerging new arts organisations in England. The challenges facing them lie not within their ability to articulate an artistic vision but in their ability to access funding, the human resources, physical space and partnerships that can breathe life into that vision. Human resource is absolutely critical, new organisations need access to a diverse range of skills, experiences and networks. For every great artist, producer and artistic director we need a supporting cast of talented administrators, technicians, project managers and enthusiastic champions at a board level. The success of an arts organisation is greater than the sum of its individual parts.

What support is available for new arts starts ups to be fit for purpose so they can hit the ground running and not get lost in the resource grab maze?

Animating the Olympic Torch Relay

I will not forget my first community consultation meeting in relation to animating the route for the Torch Relay across inner city Birmingham.  At times it descended into comical farce as motion after motion to set up a steering group was ignored from the floor. It doesn’t help that many local neighbourhood forums have no access to funds and that bouncy castles are more of a priority than programming arts activity but I digress!

Credit where it’s due, the Community Games concept and the Inspire Mark have made a real impact. People love the concept of the games and feel empowered by the Inspire Mark. Having worked with our Cultural Olympiad team in the West Midlands they have done an excellent job. One of the biggest successes of the Cultural Olympiad has been the level of engagement amongst culturally diverse communities. The level of engagement through arts activity promoted through the Cultural Olympiad has outstripped the success of many any other arts funded initiatives.

Local Authority Funding

Local Authority arts funding is fast becoming a scarce resource and where it is available many new organisations are ineligible by default due to the plethora of policies required before an application can be considered let alone be submitted.

Surely there is way to cut through the red tape to see excellent art flourish in local communities that have for so long been deprived of high quality arts interventions outside of our large scale arts infrastructure.

American Football!

The week that was drew to a close with me attending a documentary screening of a film following an Arab/American/Muslim American football team from Fordson High School in Dearborn, Michigan as they prepared for a big game against a local rival whilst observing the month of Ramadhan. The film dealt with some interesting narratives from the perspective of the young players, their teachers as well as their families and shed light into life for the largest Arab community outside of the Middle East post 9/11.

The Q and A with secondary and sixth form students at Small Heath School was equally compelling as students and staff from both Small Heath and Fordson High tackled issues of identity, nationality, faith and some of the challenges facing Muslim communities on both sides of the Atlantic. Our American Muslim counterparts have a stronger sense of patriotism and there is a lesser sense of the debate and controversy around multi culturalism that we have here in the UK and wider Europe. America seems much more at ease with the concept of being a nation of immigrants despite the many racial and religious tensions that no doubt exist in the USA.

I often find myself grappling with the am I British, Pakistani or Muslim debate, I feel I owe a little part of me to all three but with each being more or less important depending on the day and circumstances I find myself in, what can I say I am a complex personality!

Britain is undoubtedly home for me and I couldn’t see myself being more content anywhere else in the world. I guess if push came to shove it is easier for me to relate to the very clear and distinct set of values associated with my faith that are a more visible part of my DNA and day to day routine than finding the answer to the Holy Grail that is what does it mean to be British!

A love for cricket, football, fish and chips and a bygone age of classic ITV wrestling and British Sitcoms is the closest I get to being able to define my sense of all things British or is that just the Pakistani in me!

Until the next time enjoy your week ahead!


Fordson High Movie

Screenings of the Fordson High movies took place at two Birmingham Schools, Small Heath and Golden Hillock school. The film director and cast members from the film all engaged in a Q&A with students following the film.


A message from founder of Soul City Arts- Mohammed Ali

This week we have launched the much anticipated new website for Soul City Arts.  Many people have been asking us when will it would be ready so we’re pleased to announce the site is up and running.  Over the coming weeks and months we will be adding content and archives of work delivered by the organisation over the last five years.

We want to share and showcase what we have done historically as well as share details on interventions, projects and activity planned for the future.  The Soul City Arts website will be a comprehensive portal detailing the work of one of the most talked about arts organisations in the western hemisphere!

Finally allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Mohammed Ali the founder and current Artistic Director of Soul City Arts a not for profit arts led organisation I set up five years ago. To clarify, I am the graffiti artist – not the boxer! Many of you will be more familiar with my artistic name AerosolArabic but more on that later!

I  also run an arts centre called The Hubb – in the city of Birmingham – a performing and visual arts space that aims to bring art to the people, in one of inner city Birmingham’s most deprived areas

I am excited and looking forward to sharing our ideas and thoughts about our work to date and our future activity via the website.  We will be sharing videos, pictures and write ups of previous and future projects we have been delivering locally, nationally and internationally over the years.  For now, please do enjoy some of the content we have put together for now, in particular some of the great short films that we like to put together from some of our team.

Best Wishes

Mohammed Ali