Mohammed Ali is a pioneer in the street-art movement, internationally famous for fusing street art with Islamic script and patterns to deliver powerful and moving messages. In his work art meets faith, identity and social change, changing the visual landscapes of the cities we live in. He still lives in Birmingham where he was born and raised. From there he travels globally, inspiring a new generation to boldly express their identity and ideals. Mohammed is an award-winning artist, whose accolades include being invited to perform at a TedX conference at the Vatican in Rome.
A supporter of the Muslim Institute he convened a session at the 2014 Winter Gathering that had as its theme Acts of Imagination. In an interview with Unity Magazine he discusses his work and beliefs.
“I don’t come from an artistic background, but as far back as I can remember I was always drawing and painting. My parents being migrants from Bangladesh in the 1960s didn’t have time for the arts, so it wasn’t really encouraged. We lived in Sparkbrook, Birmingham. My father worked in factories and then opened a fish and chip shop and my mum was busy raising the family. Looking back, there was art in our house - religious sayings or quotations from the Qur’an in Arabic calligraphy hung on the wall, geometric patterns and designs on the prayer mats - but we didn’t recognise it as art. We thought art was something you went to see in a gallery.
But I was always drawn to the creative. Growing up in the 1980s I was exposed to hip-hop culture and graffiti art. That became my outlet to express myself and my creativity. But it wasn’t until my mid- twenties that I decided to commit my life to art.
My turning point came when I began to combine my love of graffiti art with my rediscovery of my identity as a Muslim and the need to explore my sense of place in the world. Who was I as a Muslim, the son of an immigrant, living in a society in which there was a growing spotlight on the Islamic faith and the Muslim community? That sent me on a journey. I coined the name AerosolArabic, to symbolise the bringing together of two worlds – the urban art of New York and the beauty of the Arabic script. The street and the spiritual. It wasn’t a collision, it was a way to express something new about our hybrid identities.
I don’t label myself as a political artist. But today, expressing yourself as a Muslim, to be open about being inspired by your faith in a society with rising Islamophobia, is political in a sense. How much more can we apologise? Why should we apologise? I want to explore the challenges that face us honestly and imaginatively; how some communities suffer marginalisation and discrimination through no fault of their own.
I painted a large mural in Sparkbrook on a wall in a busy road that had been revitalised by generations of migrants. I love to see that, how waves of migration can transform an area. That should be celebrated. The mural depicts the changing face of the street since the 1970s through the trades, the restaurants, the businesses. It has a little nod to the BSA motorbike factory that has been closed down, but where my father worked in the 1960s. These are the spaces and places of which we, Muslim and non-Muslim, have shared memories that bind us together.
In 2008 I founded an arts organisation called Soul City Arts in Sparkbrook to help shape, nurture and nourish the thirst for art in the community. My slogan was “Bringing art to the people that matter”.
Who are the people that really matter? Working class people have the right to enjoy the arts, and to go beyond just ‘existing’; to use the arts to deal with the complex, challenging problems we all face living in congested and isolating inner cities.
Soul City Arts is a community arts organisation with a global vision – we have attracted artists from all over the world to perform not in London but in inner city Birmingham. I have had high profile international artists contacting me saying they want to perform in our arts centre in Sparkbrook, wanting to look at our model of how we have brought together faith and artistic expression to create something exciting for local people.
Working with young people is important to me. When I was a kid I remember being told that I wouldn’t amount to anything and that I should give up art and go on a Youth Training Scheme. I promised myself that one day I would be known and my work would cause ripples around the world.
That was always a vision I held as the son of immigrants – that I would make an impact. Now, I want to open the doors for other young people who ‘don’t amount to anything’ and don’t come from a wealthy background.
I’d be pretty selfish if I sat in a studio on my own making work and money, and took to my grave all that I’ve learned. I want to share that knowledge and inspire young people. When you have your own children it humbles you. Out there are children just like mine, all over the world, and I see it as my responsibility to try and make things better for them.
The internet has made the world a small place. When I was starting out there was no graffiti in the Arab world. Now it is flourishing. I like to think maybe I have played a part in that change. I get messages from kids in places like Palestine saying ‘I’ve seen your work. I loved what you did in Sparkbrook’. I want to see another hundred Mohammeds and a hundred Joe Blogs in the future using art to change their lives.
I did a project in Melbourne, during their international arts festival, with a group of young Muslim women who called themselves ‘Crooked Rib’. There was a drought on at the time. We painted a giant mural exploring the environmental crisis and Islamic thinking around that problem. We used a saying of the Prophet Mohammad ‘Do not waste water even if you are before a flowing river' and it resonated with ordinary Australians who saw it. I always look for things that make connections in unusual ways. That is the key for any successful artist. I have branched out to working in theatre, live-art performance and installations, but I carry into every project the spirit of graffiti art that originally inspired me.
As a Muslim I remind myself that I am no one special. I take my inspiration from people who are not famous or prominent, who are just cracking on with trying to change the world for the better.”
Mohammed’s latest project is curating the Ilm (‘knowledge’) international arts festival in Malaysia.
For more information, images and video log on to: www.aerosolarabic.com