“We scoured the earth looking for people who have real stories to tell about religious freedom.” – Giovanna Abbiati, one of the organisers of TEDx at the Vatican Mohammed Ali is an award-winning artist based in Birmingham whose work has been described as ‘Urban Spiritual Art’ and celebrated for ‘building bridges between faith communities’. Ali began his career as a graffiti artist, and his work has graced walls of galleries and streets as far afield as Melbourne and Casablanca. His journey as an artist has led to a deeper understanding of what unifies us as humans and a greater and much more urgent need to invigorate our awareness of those bonds.
Ali is best known for his graffiti, but his work has moved on from that. His current work explores digital sound art; the use of sound to engage and stimulate as well as evoking the importance of story and the shared narrative that exists within us.
In 2013, Ali was invited to the Vatican to take part in a Tedx presentation entitled Religious Freedom Today’, part of Pope Francis’ mission for religious understanding. Ali describes himself as not just an artist but a strategist who uses specific formulas to achieve change through art. His work evokes clear messages that concern communities on a macroscopic and microcosmic level, a theme which continues to drive his work in more dynamic and vital directions.
Mohammed Ali is currently creating a Art centre to bring art into the heart of the community to connect people in radical new ways. He works with city authorities, museums and galleries around the world. What Ali has learnt and brought home from his travels is the knowledge that a physical space is crucial in order to maintain community relations. I recently had the opportunity to discuss the arts with Mohammad Ali and gain a deeper understanding of his motivations as an artist.
Graffiti has been a passion since I was eight or nine years old. As a kid growing up in the eighties, I was drawn to it because it was an art form that had an appeal to any and everybody regardless of culture and heritage. It spoke to you as someone who was disconnected from the mainstream, on the fringes where things were bubbling away, where people are asking questions and seeking solutions. But that’s changed now, it’s interesting how graffiti has emerged in societies and is now being embraced.
It’s interesting when you speak about the accessibility of graffiti on so many different levels. Graffiti is a very dynamic art form which man has always used for millennia to convey ideas and messages. Your graffiti sometimes is in the Arabic script, why have you chosen to do that?
I used to track the progress of different graffiti movements on the internet, seeing what different styles emerged in different places. One thing that always struck me was that it was always in the same language, people were churning out the same style. Wherever you went in the world people were using Roman script as it was done in New York, it never took on a local influence. It really struck me and made me question why that was. Graffiti was a declaration of words. It baffled me that such beautiful examples of scripts out there were not being used. And it made me wonder why no one was doing this.
Arabic script in Islamic art was about the declaration of the words and nonfigurative as was graffiti art. It was always about the words. So the marriage of these two art forms just made perfect sense.
Graffiti is associated with anonymity. Why did you decide to go in this direction?
Graffiti is an expression of the self, and is about you imposing your views onto others often using a street name or tag. But although it was a selfish expression, there was also something about the anonymity of it. I’d get a buzz out of that, about not being known. It was almost like you were creating a fantasy kind of superhero character who was going out at night and bringing colour into your neighbourhood.
In later years, I started to experiment with Arabic script and words and messages. As a Muslim artist when you start exploring Islamic art, you realise that it’s not like a lot of European art. But in some ways there are a lot of parallels with graffiti because the artist is not at the centre of it. The anonymity of the Islamic artist that made art for mosque walls, it had an external message that was higher than the artists saying “I am”. I wouldn’t say there were complete parallels; it was for very different reasons. It’s a different dynamic.
You’ve now moved beyond graffiti, what does your current work consist of?
I’m looking at performance, theatre and production. I’m really passionate about capturing stories, telling people stories and letting the art deal with people’s issues. I enjoy digital art; digital video and soundscapes. I will do a lot of recordings while I travel and play with these sounds to create theatrical multi-disciplinary experiences. I also enjoy not just creating but curating, so my work is much more than spray painting on a wall now.
What do you feel is the most important aspect of your work?
One of the key things in the work that I do is to be able to tell people stories, and be authentic to people and the communities I visit and I’m working for. You have to immerse yourself in people. That means spending time, talking, listening and making the effort rather than just cutting and pasting a vision for people. It’s crucial for me to make the effort to connect with people, rather than impose myself onto them.
The desire to connect and immerse myself in people and their stories drives me to provide a voice for people who are not being heard.
Growing up in ethnic communities, migrant communities, I grew tired of being the unheard forgotten voice, the ‘other’ which is not being represented in mainstream society. To move away from that immigrant mentality; ‘keep your head down, don’t make too much noise.’ Being raised in this society, that mentality didn’t work for me and made me think ‘why should I feel that I am not part of this society? So the reason I shout with the work that I do is to make sure it is seen and heard.
It sounds like your work has been a learning curve for you developing yourself as an artist and your craft…..
It’s been a massive learning curve. My approach is forever changing. Once, it would have been how to build bridges and creating work that is interfaith and that connected people. That desire to build bridges hasn’t changed, but now I do it in a more challenging way, and in turn, it builds a much more meaningful bridge between people, because people like to learn about each other and hear difficult stories. That’s what I want to approach, not just the nice stuff. It’s important to be authentic, that in itself builds bridges. It’s important to build something meaningful. Just saying ‘Islam is peace’ is not going to deal with it. And I realise that if you’re going to make changes you have to go deeper than that.
“You should never underestimate the difference you can make” – Mohammed Ali
For more information on the artist visit: www.aerosolarabic.com