In Common: Celebrating Birmingham's rich diversity
14 / 11 / 22 - 8 minute read
Adjacent to the iconic Edgbaston Cricket Stadium and close to the University of Birmingham, Queen Elizabeth Hospital and Birmingham Life Sciences Park, PATRIZIA is creating Corkfield, 375 apartments in the heart of Edgbaston. Always striving to bring art and community engagement together, the project In Common arose.
In Common is an outdoor photographic exhibition celebrating Birmingham’s rich diversity, portrayed by award-winning artist and photographer Maryam Wahid. The portraits feature people living or working in and around Edgbaston, all with links to the Commonwealth. The In Common project was commissioned and funded by PATRIZIA, in partnership with Midlands Arts Centre (MAC).
This interview with Maryam Wahid and Deborah Kermode from MAC explores the medium of photography and how Maryam is creating a bridge from art to the identity and pride of the diverse communities she portrays.
Table of content
Tania di Brita (Curator of the PAT Art Lab): Edgbaston Hoarding Project: How did the collaboration with PATRIZIA, the MAC and Maryam Wahid come along?
Deborah Kermode: Since MAC is a neighbour of PATRIZIA’s building site and we love to engage with the community around us, we were intrigued about PATRIZIA’s ethos of sustainability and communities and thought it was perfect to combine forces. Maryam was an artist at the MAC and a resident. Inviting her to participate as a super-talented photographer made sense.
Maryam Wahid: Being from Birmingham and a huge fan of the city and the different communities I grew up with, the collaboration came quite naturally. I felt honoured to be part of that outdoor photographic exhibition celebrating Birmingham‘s rich diversity.
Tania: Debora, tell me more about the MAC, your vision and mission.
Deborah: The MAC is a large-scale arts centre. We welcome about one million visitors a year through our doors. We offer everything – from theatres, galleries, cinema, dance studios and music studios to rehearsal spaces, studios for various craftsmanships and finally, a bar and café. It’s important to note we’re also a registered charity and we’ve been going since 1962. We are very entrepreneurial in our approach to art and business!
Our mission is to ‘promote innovative and creative arts activities in ways which help to establish them as an important part of people’s lives.’ Our vision is to bring together artists and audiences in meaningful ways so we can learn from each other in a range of intercultural and interdisciplinary ways.
Tania: How do you make art an important part of people’s lives? How do you involve people/communities in various art projects?
Deborah: MAC’s community engagement involves offering people the opportunity to drop in and take classes and courses from pottery and animation to yoga and silversmithing. Getting people to believe in their own creativity contributes to their well-being and brings them together.
We approach our relationship with communities strategically to see how we can stimulate them best and as imaginatively as possible, trying out new ways of enticing them to engage.
Tania: Maryam, photography is your artistic medium. How do you work with photography and why did you choose this medium?
Maryam: Photography, for me, is a powerful medium. I work with digital photography and analogue photography. I grew up in the UK, and wasn‘t taught about migration. I wasn‘t taught why my parents, as Pakistanis, are here in the UK. A lot of the things I learned were through my family photo album and the stories behind the images. So, photography is a medium of mediation, creativity and art too.
A photo can immediately create a connection between the viewer and the creator of the image and trigger an immediate and direct response. Photography empowers you to develop concepts and address issues within a frame, as well as unique composition in the image.
I love photographing people. And I believe that every single one of us has a certain way and aesthetic on how we want to present ourselves. There are things about us that can be portrayed in an image through how we dress, pose and what we bring into the image to tell the viewers about us.
What is important in my personal and commissioned work like Edgbaston is to create cultural understanding between communities in Britain. It has been a real pleasure for me to work on this project because it’s important to me to build bridges between communities. It helps connect us all as humans, which is important not just for me as an artist but for my beliefs as a human.
Tania: Regarding the In Common project, what exactly were you looking for in the people you were portraying?
Maryam: With all the sitters being from Birmingham, we focused primarily on the local communities of various ethnicities with a commonwealth background, as I understand this heritage well. The focus was on representing the ‘faces’ of Birmingham.
Particularly for In Common, we had sitters that bought in particular objects, traditional clothing or family members that represented themselves the most. I was focused on them controlling and telling their own story, so it was important that I show these people and their faces in the same way and in the same light so they could claim their own narrative. That is why I gave them the freedom and flexibility to bring in objects special to them. Moreover, you put the person at ease and make them feel comfortable. In doing so, you can shine light onto who they are, and their pride can transmit onto the image. That was a pivotal part of this project!
Engaging with the local community
Tania: What are the most important values regarding collaboration with the local community?
Deborah: Trust is critical. If you engage with communities, you need to deliver and ensure their voice is integral to the process all the way through, so their opinions, ideas and culture feel valued and appreciated.
Tania: Maryam, you regularly work with people from different communities and commonwealth heritage. How would you evaluate the position of a culture and/or community in a city?
Maryam: Well, the communities living in a city are key! Getting to know other communities and building bridges is a part of expanding the local knowledge and awareness of the different cultures and communities within a city.
Birmingham is a diverse city. For us to live in a space and not want to know about others – their backgrounds, lives, cultures or families – would seem ignorant. It is the people of the city, who make it unique.
Also, I realised there is a relationship of identity, pride and belonging between a city and its community. Deep down everyone knows, “this is my community, this is my city, this is home.” It gives you a huge sense of belonging and confidence that you come from a specific place. And it also works the other way around; you could build a portrait of a city, where the various communities make that city a unique place.
Tania: I like the idea of a city portrait by its community. How does the community inhabiting a city contribute value to the city?
Deborah: Communities own their city; they are the lifeblood – they bring their knowledge, energy and ideas – whether that’s around food, dance, music or employment opportunities – a strong and successful city is shaped by the residents that live and breathe it.
A question of space
Tania: Do you think art, culture and community have enough space in contemporary cities and art institutions?
Deborah: The most dynamic cities have culture at their heart – you feel it as a visitor or resident. The most important aspect is to ensure that everyone’s culture is represented on the screen, stage and walls of art institutions and that inclusivity is celebrated.
Maryam: The representation of the diversity of a population should be a basic ‘right,’ not only in art institutions but also in any institution that expresses and reflects contemporary times. Nevertheless, I feel that over the years, there has been more space and awareness around creating diversity. Being a British-Asian woman, I can talk about my identity loudly and proudly. This is a big thing. Whereas when I was at university, I was the only Muslim-Asian girl in my course doing photography. I felt very awkward talking about my race and heritage to my classmates.
Tania: Thinking about education and role models, like teachers or educational and cultural institutions, what could be improved in urban planning/development and place-making?
Deborah: Better consultation concerning community-oriented projects and ensuring that any urban planning considers the nuances of the community it seeks to serve and feels relevant to people’s lives. People want to live in a unique space, not a generic one that could be flat packed and taken anywhere.
Maryam: It can still be improved. In educational institutions, students need a diverse panel of lecturers, tutors and people so they can talk to about their work. It is very motivating and empowering to connect and create within a community that has a similar understanding of history, race and identity in art and photography. Connecting with like-minded people and women, especially, has helped me become more confident with my identity and intentions in my artistic work.
Maryam Wahid was born in Birmingham in 1995. She has a First-Class BA (Hons) degree in photography from Birmingham City University. Her style of portraiture, inspired by her British Pakistani heritage, has won many followers and accolades. She was awarded the British Journal of Photography’s ‘Portrait of Britain 2021’ and invited to join the Duchess of Cambridge to judge the National Portrait Gallery’s ‘Hold Still’ photography project, documenting life during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Deborah Kermode is the CEO of the Midlands Arts Centre. Before that, she worked with internationally acclaimed galleries in Birmingham. She always dedicated her curatorial work to projects incorporating art, music, education and charity creating cultural opportunities and life chances for children and young people.