In among the various performances, artworks and activities at the British Museum’s Arabia Late event a couple of Fridays back, Mohammed Ali’s talk about street art was an undoubted highlight.
The Birmingham-based graffiti artist began by addressing the very notion of graffiti as art. Some people in the room he was speaking in – which itself houses a collection of Enlightenment paintings and works, more traditionally institutional art forms – would not associate graffiti and art, he conjectured. But for Ali, “love of the spraycan” has “transformed” his life. He began his love affair with it through a passion for hip hop, both the music and the culture. Like hip hop, he explained, “street art glorifies the primacy of the word”. Graffiti proved to be a means of engaging with literature more accessible for many than it would have been previously.
One of the most – perhaps the most – interesting points he made on the night was addressing the link he saw between street art, hip hop and Islam. Hip hop brought with it a certain inclusivity, which translated well into street art – as he said: “Everybody can pick up a spray can.” He compared this to what he called the “simplicity of faith”, a corresponding inclusivity in Islam. “How do you become a Muslim?” Ali asked. “It’s just some words on your tongue.” Whether or not you agree with Ali’s comparison, it’s a fascinating, almost provocative, angle to take.
Ali’s philosophy of street art is that it is an expansion of what we all do when we write, text, Tweet – laying down our mark on the world. “It’s an innate part of man’s nature to leave a mark on a part of the earth’s surface that wasn’t meant to be scribbled on”, says Ali. This perhaps explains why Subway Art, Marcy Cooper and Henry Chalfant’s exploration of the New York graffiti scene, a prime example of this intrinsic need to leave a mark, is – as Ali noted – claimed to be the most stolen book in the world.
The second half of Ali’s talk pointed up the transformational kind of beauty that could be achieved through graffiti. Part of the attraction of graffiti for Ali is its ability to turn something mundane and everyday into something else. “For me,” he explained, “real beauty is something that has been transformed from something ugly into something really beautiful.” A good example of this is the first piece of his work he showed, ‘Knowledge – a weapon against mass destruction’, which he sprayed on Green Street in Upton Park. This piece, which warns against ignorance and aims to unite the multi-faith community in Newham, was previously a blank shop wall, the owner of which told Ali it was a “blank canvas for you to take.”
After showing more examples of his work – including ‘Patience, after hardship comes ease’ (which can be viewed, along with others, at Fatcap), a piece he sprayed in Birmingham which references a verse from the Qur’an, and his Writing On The Wall performance at Birmingham’s since-demolished Repertory Theatre – Ali went on to talk about his love of working with cubes. A cube allows a wall to become three dimensional, something that Ali gets “very excited” about, particularly because people have a natural inclination to see what’s around the corner. Once again, head over to Fatcap for pictures of Ali’s cubes in Oman and London.
Ali then placed his art in a greater context, that of the natural world around him. Talking about another of his sprayed cubes, this time in Manningham Park, Bradford, he explained that while painting it, he became highly aware of the natural beauty that surrounded him in the park: “I feel like no, I’m nobody. How can I compete with this? The artist is nothing compared to this?”
He closed by showing a video of his piece Cubizm, where painted a rotating cube at the Walsall New Art Gallery as part of the Salaam Festival in November 2011. Accompanied by poetry by Tshaka Campbell and percussion by Daniel Waples, the performance is brilliant – watch it for yourself below.
For anyone going into the talk doubting street art’s worth, Ali’s passionate insights and reflections on his work, and graffiti more generally, must surely have proved a revelation. For everyone else, it confirmed Ali as a hugely exciting practitioner, and one, no doubt, to keep an eye on.
For more on Ali, head over to: www.aerosolarabic.com