Discovering Kantha Kathak-K With Amina Khayyam At Birmingham Hippodrome 20/09/2021

Writer Jasmine Khan / Photographer Simon Richardson


 
Before her dance company’s performance of Kantha Kathak-K at the Hippodrome on the evening of 20 September, Amina Khayyam took the time to answer a few questions about her personal relationship with kathak and the journey that led to her dance company’s performances here in Birmingham.

For those who don’t know, which included me before seeing the dance company’s moving and deeply elegant performance of Kantha Kathak-K, kantha is a type of embroidery craft originally made from recycled materials and founded in Bangladesh and eastern regions of India. Its namesake pertains to the aesthetic style of stitching used to make everything from saris to quilts.

Kathak is a story-telling style of dance and one of the eight major forms of Indian classical dance.


 
“We are telling a story, not just dancing, and do so in character, so character development within the story we tell and their exploration of the theme matters,” explains Amina, “each performer has their own methodology of how they prepare for a show – and they go through that before the show.”

Amina begins, “I first encountered Kathak as a teenager, watching dancers like Nahi Siddiqui and fell in love with it, so I started learning intensely.”

Amina first started dancing with Alpana Sengupta in Croydon. She then progressed to a professional level with Sushmita Ghosh at The Bhavan (London) under whom Amina also made her professional debut at the Purcell Room, Southbank. She is estimated to have performed over 1000 times wearing kathak costumes.

And it’s not Amina’s first performance in Birmingham.


 
“We’ve been to Birmingham several times performing our previous shows at the mac,” she explains, “this is the first time at the Hippodrome – we are always in Birmingham for workshops with a number of women’s groups.”

Indeed, one of these workshops is a significant inspiration for Amina’s recent performances – the Kathna made by local groups of South Asian women which will be hung as part of the performances.

In Birmingham, the kantha were created in association with Ashiana Community Project and Birmingham Settlement. But the project was initially developed with over 638 women in Luton, Woking, Slough, Brighton, Birmingham, Leeds, and London, who told their stories and engaged with their experiences of Covid-19 lockdowns during October 2020 to March 2021.

Amina says: “It was as expected that they (the women) readily jumped into Kantha – it was an activity that they found intensely pleasurable and yet cathartic to the environments of covid lockdowns.”


 
She continues: “Despite the lockdown being a standstill period  it was busy for us – managing and engaging in activity in about six WhatsApp groups up and down the country. The WhatsApp groups were amazing – in the way they created engagement with each other – how participants reviewed each other’s work and shared and discussed their stories.

“This is not entirely a mental health issue project,” Amina explains, “but one of the stories originates from that. Just before this project we had completed The Hum in My Heart which explored mental health in communities that do not acknowledge it, so the topic was fresh in our awareness.

“All the kantha from Birmingham are part of the display at the Hippodrome around which we have created dance from a select six stories that have a common theme of loneliness, anxiety, fear, death, and hope.”

As I enter the Patrick Studio at the Hippodrome (after grabbing a tasty combination of vanilla and salted caramel ice cream) it’s dressed with the aforementioned kantha. I don’t get much of a chance to decipher the various messages and daintily stitched artwork, but they fill the space from the ceiling to the floor, creating small rooms adjacent to the seating.


 
Aunties continue to file in late, as is to be expected, but Amina gets underway introducing herself, her company, and the embroidery. All the dancers have bells on their feet and are wearing modest dresses with flowing skirts also donning lockdown inspired kantha created by the aunties whose chatter hushes as the music begins.

The score is Borodin’s ‘Nocturne’, specially adapted by Jonathan Mayer to Indian instrumentation and immediately I’m pulled into the unique atmosphere created by traditional Indian scales and time signatures. The tabla rhythm is particularly prominent emphasised by the dances nimble stomping.

Amina is accompanied by three performers who, in the first movement of the dance, all float about the room, winding their arms with poised fingers plucking flowers, seemingly, open and closing books. The use of synchronicity implies a sense of community and togetherness charmingly expressed through the company’s effeminate movements.

All the while, the dancers softly stop and spin on their heels adding to the rhythm of the music.

Slowly the atmosphere changes and a singer’s voice joins the instrumentalist, releasing a dynamic, graceful, chilling note. A lone dancer slams a chair on the floor, over and over again in different positions around the makeshift kantha rooms.

This is the lockdown I remember.

Part of the artistry of the Amina Dance Company is the way their faces as well as their movements tell the story. I can feel the frustration, the isolation and desperation with each erratic movement made by the dancer as she physicalises the experiences of women in lockdown hanging around her.

The anxiety and fear are clear on her face as she pushes against the makeshift walls and I’m moved to remember my own and the way it felt like Covid might never end, like we might never be able to talk to people face to face and hold our family again.


 
Amina’s repetitive spinning solo, which exemplifies classic footwork at an impeccable standard, seems to express something deeper. Her facial expression isn’t easily visible due to the dim lighting and constant movement, but it is one of terror enhanced by the shadows cast about by her chopping arm movements.

Death and domestic violence are mentioned as one of the key lockdown experiences that came out of the WhatsApp groups made up of the women who inspired Kantha Kathak-K.

6.9% of all women aged 16 to 74 were a victim of domestic abuse once or more in the last year. It also found that 3.4% of women aged 16 to 74 who were born in any of the selected South Asian countries were a victim of domestic abuse.

Considering this, Amina’s kathak is haunting and precise, as well as distinguished and effortlessly beautiful. 


 
For more from The Amina Dance Company see www.aminakhayyamdance.co.uk/touring and look out for Bibi Rukiya’s Reckless Daughter which will be coming to Birmingham in spring.

Hannah Al-Shemmeri & Rowena J Davis At The John Bowen Gallery In Balsall Heath

Writer Jasmine Khan / Photographer James Thompson


 
It’s still warm at 6pm in what I will persist is late summer, as we arrive at The John Bowen Gallery in Balsall Heath. Who is John Bowen? An 18th century blacksmith son, come carpenter, who developed many of the buildings in Balsall Heath and across Birmingham city centre, some of which still stand today. I’m told the gallery I’m currently in used to be his woodshed.

Artists (and directors) of The John Bowen Gallery, Hannah Al-Shemmeri and Rowena J Davis, sit across from me on paint splattered stools around a sizable wooden table. Hannah makes up some Rooibos tea and following a gentle debate about whether or not we’ll head to ‘The Old Mo’(seley Arms) for a curry after we’ve finished the interview, we dive into ‘the birth of the John Bowen Gallery’.

“I got this space four years ago,” says Rowena, “and I slept in it for the first year out of pure joy – I just had to shower at the gym.”

If it wasn’t obvious, Rowena adds: “It’s always been a dream of mine to have a studio.”


 
A studio vibe is still very much present in The John Bowen Gallery. Brushes and cups stand half washed in the sink, art-in-process is propped against more art, propped against a plush armchair. There’s music equipment in one corner that was put to good use a couple of weeks ago at the opening.

It’s nice to see a space that’s useful and multipurpose, the natural creative energy adds to the gallery’s charm. But how did this art (and sometimes music) studio become a gallery, filled wall to wall with vibrant, quirky and very much finished pieces.

Hannah says, “I think we started painting [together] round mine in lockdown. It was the first time I’d properly gotten into painting.”

Hannah was predominantly a comic and illustration artist prior to the pandemic, she’s also a member of Black Country rock band God Damn. “It was a more neat style,” she states, commenting matter of factly about her works. Neat is not a word that comes to mind when you see Hannah’s art now.


 
Hannah pauses before she explains: “My art is a way for me to express my raw emotions, to get rid of all boundaries and any embarrassment. It’s very free flowing.

“I used to find journaling for mental health cringy, and I found words really boring. So, this is a visual thing, a way I can visualise how I feel.

“I have a lot of intrusive thoughts, and sometimes they can be jarring and they can make me feel awkward. By making mine so apparent and letting people read them, I hope others won’t feel as embarrassed about their own intrusive thoughts.”

Hannah’s works are typically very abstract: a combination of chaotic colours, sketches of blunt emotions sometimes accompanied with statements, some so grotesque you have to peep at them; round, pale, doll-like faces with heavy blush and eyeshadow against psychedelic firework backgrounds; and outlines of anthropomorphised demons and angels trekking across alien backgrounds.


 
Rowena’s art is more focused on the human form and informed by classical approaches. I know she does beautiful small, soft sketches of naked women from seeing her at Kaleidoscope and Ur Aunty’s Art Sale, but the art on display in the gallery is very, very bold.

One features a crucifix above a burning Satan. Another almost neon greens, purples, and yellows that bounce your eye about the canvas, and then focus them on the feminine forms posed like renaissance statues, bringing the classical into a contemporary setting.

“I’m normally in a funny mood before I get into painting,” muses Rowena with a softly furrowed brow. Choosing her words carefully, “I usually need to figure something out, but it can take me years of looking at my art to understand what that something was.

“Sometimes I never do, but it’s always expressing something, and often I don’t know exactly what I’m painting until it’s nearly finished.”


 
Rowena finishes her thought: “Figures for me always tell more of an in-depth story.”

Although Hannah and Rowena’s styles are distinct, there’s a collaboration in progress on the wall to my left which could speak to the similarities they have in process. Moreover, how working in such close proximity has impacts their art.

“We really inspire each other,” smiles Rowena.

“And working in the same space gives you new techniques,” adds Hannah.

As if it’s planned, together they say: “we both love colour.”

The John Bowen Gallery is open every Saturday from 12-5pm. It’s free and you can usually find Hannah and Rowena hosting guests and, if you’re lucky, painting.


 
Hannah and Rowena are keen to encourage other artists, especially women and other marginalised genders in the creative community, to use the space. I confirm that they’re not limiting it just to artists.

“It could be artists,” explains Rowena, “but it could also be a musician or a band who want to perform, or even a spoken-word/poetry event.

On 24 September, the gallery will participate in Birmingham Open Studios where people from the city and beyond will have the chance to walk around Brum, taking in its artistic prowess.

The John Bowen Gallery also plans to exhibit a new artist in November, in collaboration with Nottingham based DJ collective Sunfried Tribe.


 
For more from The John Bowen Gallery in Balsall Heath, including prices and private bookings, visit www.johnbowengallery.com or message @johnbowengallery on Instagram

Print Matters Kicks Off Supersonic With Raised Fists 01/07/2022

Words Reece Greenfield / Photos Mo Bukhari

On Friday 1 July, as part of Digbeth First Friday, I attended an exhibition celebrating radical left-wing print art which was set to kickstart the week leading up to Supersonic Festival. The exhibit included such legends as Gee Vaucher, along with both Brummie and out-of-town radical contributors such as La Linterna, Foka Wolf, Lucy McLauchlan, Black Lodge Press, and Dog Section Press.

As I walk into Centrala, I am met with a projector and experimental music emanating from the DJ deck and PA at the far side of the room, which provides a great introduction for what I’m about to see. The night is themed around a mixture of anger and radicality balanced with good cheer, great talent, and comradery.

Upon ascending the staircase, I am greeted by a stall selling prints and distributing free stickers as well as some friendly comrades who take great delight in talking me through the art they have on sale. As I turn around, I see prints of many of them all over Centrala. The walls of the room are covered, the repetition of poignant slogans framed by colour and deliberate imagery adding to their impact.

There’s the cooperatively owned Dog Section Press and La Linterna’s ‘Already Against The Next War’ as well as, ‘Strike! Steal! Trespass!’ and ‘The System Cannot Be Reformed!’ by Black Lodge Press.

Over on the right-hand side of the room stands Foka Wolf’s Foamex Boris Johnson, clad in full armed police get up complete with decorative party hat.

What a fitting façade of a façade.

I am struck immediately by the way the artists utilise the medium of print and advertising. They perfectly appropriate the rhetorical requirements of the medium of political print; powerful in their brevity and creative not despite but by virtue of their limitations. Each piece oozes with radical emancipatory notions regarding war, property, and disillusionment with our own brand of liberal democratic capitalism.

After a good nose at the displays, I grab a beer and have a chat with Black Lodge Press’ CJ. I ask about their influences and CJ replies: “Gee Vaucher (who is also part of the exhibition tonight) her stuff, particularly in the 80s with the band Crass, got me into anarchist politics and of course anarchist art.

“Art is provocation and [this] is firmly rooted in anarchist politics. I went to the G20 protests in London, and I had this banner and it was just a huge black banner with white duct tape with ‘We are fucking angry!’

“The total non-subtle approach doesn’t really say anything about policy, but it’s a statement. Using phrases like that it hits in a different way; you instantly have a reaction.”

And as for their use of colour?

“Well, I use a riso-press up in Leeds called Footprint and it’s so colour limited you can only do like three at most and it restricts you in a really good way. There is direct thought over what colour you use.”

I can’t help at this moment but to think of the censorship via the Haye’s code of early 20th century American television. Any direct profanity or licentious or suggestive nudity was banned. It is precisely through adapting to these restrictions that some of the most creative cinema was conceived.

It is in print media’s limits and its replicability that we see its political value. These artists do not profess to have the answers, rather they provoke the spectator into a search for them. The sense of universality, experimentation and a shared anger at socio and political injustice gets me in just the right mood for Supersonic Fest which is happening this weekend (8–10 July 2022).

For tickets and more information on the Supersonic Festival visit: www.supersonicfestival.com.
For more from Centrala go to their website: www.centrala-space.org.uk

For more from the contributors see the below:
Black Lodge Press –  www.queercircle.org/activations/black-lodge-press
Dog Section Press –  www.dogsection.org
Lucy McLauchlan – www.lucy.beat13.co.uk/shop
Foka Wolf – @fokawolf
La Linterna – @lalinternacali

For more information on Digbeth First Friday visit www.digbethfirstfriday.com (or @digbethfirstfri on Instagram)

Imogen Morris New Exhibition In Flux At Digbeth Art Space

Writer Emily Doyle / Photographer Jessica Whitty

In mid-June, Digbeth Art Space proudly unveiled In Flux, a solo exhibition from local artist Imogen Morris. Months in the making, the works push the boundaries of portraiture and the perception of thread in fine art. Boards are studded with nails, and then threads strung between them to map out faces.

“My main obsession has always been with the material thread and working in thread,” explains Morris. “Portraiture initially was just a means of creating form with thread. However, over the years I haven’t swayed from portraiture. I get a proper buzz from seeing an eye come together and being able to depict the characteristics or emotions of someone. The bigger the piece the more I can play with, so I want to continue working in large scale.”

Large scale pieces dominate the gallery, spilling off of huge canvases and creeping onto the ceiling or intersecting the space with fragile, polygonal forms. Long time followers of Morris’ work will be interested to see the artist spread out not only into three dimensions, but also into a broader palette of sugary pastels.

“I can’t remember the exact point I decided to experiment with colour and what it was that inspired me to go down that route. I think a lot of my influences come into my head subconsciously – I don’t realise I’m influenced by someone until after I create the work.”

“I have been working on the solo exhibition since January, and so in terms of a time it must’ve been then. This was also around the time that I saw Betsy Bradley’s exhibition at the Ikon and started getting into Sophie Tea’s work via Instagram so I can definitely put down my influences of working in colour to their work.”

The subjects of Morris’ portraits are of friends and of strangers, but they’re all of residents of the West Midlands. Personalities bubble though the woven forms, making the crowded private view feel even more busy. Wine Freedom keeps the drinks flowing and Selextorhood’s Dee’Cleo keeps the vibe going well into the evening.

“We had more people than expected,” reflects Morris, “and it was a really good relaxed vibe. I wanted to have proper chats with more people there as I appreciated every single person that came to the event, but annoyingly couldn’t get round to everyone. But aside from that it was a great night.”

In Flux runs until 11 July at Digbeth Art Space and is open daily 8am – 5pm, so catch it while you can. Meanwhile, Imogen Morris is off to complete a residency with DegreeArt at the Bankside Hotel in Southbank this summer.

For more on Imogen Morris visit: https://www.imogenembroideryart.com/

For more from Digbeth Art Space go to: https://www.digbethartspace.com/

Digbeth Photography Walk With Jack Lewdjaw

Writer & Photographer Beth Exley 

I’m helping to run a photography walk around Digbeth with Bristol-based visual artist Jack Lewdjaw, as part of the public programming for The Age of Dreamers is Over exhibition at Grand Union. I’ve been co-curating this exhibition with my university course-mates and the wonderful staff at Grand Union since September, so it’s such a relief to have the finished product out in the world.

Jack’s works that have been included in The Age of Dreamers is Over largely draw upon commercial signage and imagery, so this walking workshop has been planned to offer insight into his artistic process and how he draws upon features of urban landscapes for inspiration. To begin with, Jack encourages all of the group to sit on the floor of the gallery space – which is currently very dark and lit mainly by his neon work, ‘Happy Place’ (2019).

The atmosphere is cosy and relaxed; Jack cracks a few jokes and chats with us about his work and intentions for around twenty minutes.

It’s fascinating to hear an artist talk about their work when sitting directly in front of it. Jack describes how he constructed ‘Low Hanging Fruit’ (2019) from picture frames and acrylic, and then goes on to describe how different types of signage grab his attention – apparently flat, modern signs do very little for him. But he always finds his attention drawn to chunky 3D lettering.

After this short talk and a cup of tea, it’s time to head out and take some photographs. I’m not a natural photographer but the workshop has been advertised as ‘phone camera photography,’ and under Jack’s guidance I think I’ll be alright.

We head out onto the street outside Minerva Works and Jack immediately points out a large sign attached to a derelict building advertising TVs and Printers that looks like it must have been made in the 1980s. Jack explains that his background in freelance graphic design has left him with a keen eye for fonts.

Hearing someone be so interested in something as seemingly innocuous as fonts and signs is quite funny but also quite lovely – it’s great to see someone be so passionate about their work that they can make you interested in something you’ve not really thought much about before.

We walk further down the road, stopping at a few specific things Jack himself finds interesting – a door where the paint has been peeled away by tape, bricks filling a window, an unusually shaped bollard. Seeing him point out these small design choices and strange textures on streets I’ve walked down one hundred times is eye opening. I’ve lived in Birmingham for about five years, and I don’t think I’ve ever looked at the place in this much detail.

After letting us snap some photos of the street, Jack stops and asks us all what we’re interested in photographing, or what we notice we always end up taking pictures of.

One girl on the walk says any kind of dogs, another person says things that look out of place in the surroundings. I have a quick flip through my camera roll and see that I seem to take a hell of a lot of photos of reflections in water. I’ve never realised this is something I gravitate towards, but it is definitely something I find very visually interesting.

As we begin to head back to Grand Union for a second cup of tea and to get out of the rain that’s started to plop down, I find myself reflecting on the beauty that can be found in seemingly boring objects and locations. This walk with Jack has left me with the desire to slow down and take in my surroundings a little bit more – whether that be in Digbeth or further afield.

To find out more about Jack Lewdjaw visit his website here: www.lewdjaw.com 

The Age of Dreamers is Over is running at Grand Union until 25 June, find out more at: www.grand-union.org.uk/exhibitions/the-age-of-dreamers-is-over