Ikon Showcases Carlo Crivelli’s Shadows on the Sky

Writer Beth Exley / Photographer Jessica Whitty

Walking into the first-floor gallery at Ikon, one of the last things you expect to see are huge, gilded frames containing masterpieces from the Italian Renaissance, but that’s what you’ll get when visiting Carlo Crivelli: Shadows on the Sky.

For an organisation known for its work with contemporary artists, it is quite a radical move to show such works. But, for some reason, Shadows on the Sky feels like an organic and logical extension of Ikon’s usual work. Located on the first floor of the gallery, the white walls and pared-back display of Ikon allow the exhibition to really shine.

In the first room, you’re greeted by two small canvases that wouldn’t look out of place in a church. In a space that is often dominated by large abstract works or projection screens, long-time Ikon visitors may at first feel a little shocked or confused. However, upon closer inspection, these works hint at something beyond your typical fifteenth-century altar painting.

In both ‘Saint Mary Magdalene’ (c. 1491-94) and ‘Virgin and Child’ (c. 1480) the women are presented with elongated hands and necks – typical of the baroque-offshoot style called mannerism. However, Crivelli was painting in this style about fifty years before it became popularised by figures such as Parmigianino and El Greco. Now, I may be slightly biased as mannerism is one of my personal favourite artistic styles from this period, but it feels truly exciting to have works of this nature shown in a contemporary arts space.

Ikon Director Jonathon Watkins has long championed Crivelli as being ‘ahead of his time’ due to his understanding of the relationship between art and what it represents: a concept that became a mainstay of modern art almost 500 years later. Watkins points to Crivelli’s exploration of ‘material and spiritual realities’ within the same canvases as evidence of this claim.

This idea of the relationship between art and representation is explored throughout the exhibition – particularly in the largest work the ‘Annunciation with Saint Emidius’ (c. 1486) which illustrates the meeting of heaven and earth and plays beautifully with pictorial space. Crivelli’s works are rich and luxurious to behold, but they also have an impressive depth; you can truly get lost in them.

If you’re anything like me, you may find the use of QR codes for online exhibition guides popularised during the pandemic annoying – it makes me feel bad to be staring at my phone when trying to admire and understand a person’s artistic output. However, the exhibition assistants at Ikon usually have a few paper copies secreted away.

I’m glad I’m reading a copy as I walk around the space because I’m a little confused by the selection of Susan Collis’ work in the final gallery room.

Upon first sight I think some pieces of equipment have been missed out from the clean-up after install, but these contemporary works embody the same sense of irony captured by Crivelli which is the main basis for the exhibition. Everyday objects are inlaid with precious gems, which appear to be in the gallery by accident when you first see them.

The show is open until the 29 May. You can find more information about Carlo Crivelli: Shadows on the Sky here: www.ikon-gallery.org/event/carlo-crivelli/

Casey Bailey’s GrimeBoy Runs At Birmingham Rep 22-30 April

Writer Ed King / Photographer Graeme Braidwood

The idea of a Birmingham REP production about grime music raises a few questions and eyebrows. How is the well-established theatre, home of traditional and touring shows, going to tackle the birth of an inner-city musical phenomenon?

But seeing the name Casey Bailey behind the production – Birmingham’s current poet laureate and a talented writer/poet/spoken word artist – was enough to bring a packed house to the preview night. We snake into The Door theatre towards the sounds of the aptly named character DJ (Audrey Allen).

Am I coming into a theatre or a nightclub…? As it turns out, both.

The titular protagonist GrimeBoy (Keiren Hamilton-Amos) is an upcoming MC, pent on building a name in a scene where reputation is everything. His counterpart is Blue (Alexander Lobo Moreno) a young artist with a hot temper who is fighting in the literal sense of the word to make a name for himself too.

The young men become friends and move from musical rivals to partners, with GrimeBoy trying to stymy Blue’s self-destructive anger – an emotion he knows only too well for the wrong reasons – and mould the man from the boy.

The story is not a straight homage to Wiley or Stormzy, but a sensitive and acute look at a world where young black men are still charged and convicted without evidence or trial. Metaphorically and literally.

It’s about anger, justified and unjust, and the ever present dangers of rampant ambition and a competitive, violent youth culture.

The narrative is raw, unflinching, unpatronising, and at parts wonderfully witty – delivered by a small cast of four, on a stripped-back set with the clever use of speaker stacks that are transformed into a club, a bedroom, and even a hospital.

All the actors are pivotal in telling the story, but Blue and GrimeBoy are in essence two sides of the same coin – one thrown repeatedly in the air with an ever uncertain outcome.

After presenting a hard attitude we see Blue’s anger masks a frightened vulnerability, which ebbs out of the character with perfect timing. Whilst GrimeBoy’s wise words and steady hand ultimately come from a dark history that is sadly set to repeat itself.

GrimeBoy is an exceptional piece of work, deftly handled by the impressive Casey Bailey – who has delivered not only a beautiful piece of theatre, but a narrative that will raise important questions for the environments certain young people endure and how they choose to react to them.

Is reputation and self image worth dying for? Is fame success? Is money a cure? And before the curtain comes down you may not have all the answers but at least questions have been raised.

GrimeBoy (cypher) – written by Casey Bailey

GrimeBoy was written by Casey Bailey and directed by The Rep’s Associate Director Madeleine Kludje.

GrimeBoy runs at Birmingham Rep from 22 – 30 April. For more information and online booking visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/whats-on/grimeboy

Birmingham Critical Film Forum ‘Earthly Bodies’ Screens’ At Eastside Projects

Writer Beth Exley / Photographer Dinosaur Kilby – Eastside Projects

I feel a little awkward arriving at Eastside Projects for the ‘Earthly Bodies’ Birmingham Critical Film Forum screening. I’m pretty early and haven’t been to many film screenings before, so I’m not entirely sure what to expect. 

Birmingham Critical Film Forum is a relatively new endeavour which is being supported by the Stuart Croft Foundation Curatorial Award. The project aims to help disseminate and develop the work of artists using film and moving images in the West Midlands. 

April 14’s screening is the first of four film screenings planned, and according to the programme it aims to bring together feminist, multi-vocal, and ecological film-making practices. As a side note, the program has been printed by the Holodeck and is gorgeous – I’m definitely going to be holding onto this after the event finishes.

The gallery space is delightful at Eastside Projects.  It’s a warehouse that is currently filled by a straw, cardboard, and (I think) burlap construction that seems to evoke a prehistoric settlement. I later find out this is a project by Emii Alrai entitled The Courtship of Giants. I clock huge cheese plants growing out of industrial barrels and neon lights overhead – there’s lots to take in whilst I wait for the screening to start.

Taking my seat, more people start filing in, it seems like the typical arty Digbeth crowd, there’s lots of interesting coats and cool haircuts about. I exchange smiles with a few other solo attendees, and begin to feel at ease. 

Once most of the seats are filled, Jessica Piette, a Birmingham based curator responsible for tonight’s programme, provides an overview of the themes, artists, and films involved. The aforementioned neon lights are turned off, and Watershed, a 2020 piece by South African artist Linda Stupart is projected onto the wall.  

A figure wrapped in fabric scraps that obscures their head wades into Birmingham’s River Cole, whilst the artist’s voice instructs me to be aware of the spit in my mouth. I’m immediately confused and intrigued, a feeling that sticks with me throughout the 11-minute piece. Every time I think I know what’s going on, the piece changes tone, from an acapella cover of a Black Sabbath song, to an intense spoken word piece, to the ambient sounds of the river itself. 

The voice of the piece is hard to pin down, but ambiguity is clearly Stupart’s aim. The river becomes a body to be mapped and fiction is mixed with science and history to create a surreal and haunting film. 

As Watershed finishes, Unctuous Between Fingers (2019) begins to play. This 15-minute short by Bryony Gillard uses an archive of pressed seaweeds collected by 19th-century women and held by the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery as its starting point. 

It has striking visuals – including one shot of pressed seaweed that reminds me of an anatomical heart – merged with short sections of spoken word and synth music. There are obvious parallels between the first two films; the water, and human interactions are a mutual central feature, but Unctuous feels far calmer and slightly more tangible. 

As Shireen Seno’s 2021 work To Pick a Flower starts, I am immediately grasped by its stripped back display of historic photographs accompanied by a simple narration. The piece explores the relationship between humans and nature in the Philippines during the late colonial period, particularly in the lumber industry. 

Maybe it’s just my inner history nerd speaking, but I am completely engrossed and feel like I’m learning a lot about the topic. I even write down a list of things I want to read more about after the film. 

With the start of the fourth and final film, Seeds (2016) by Philippa Ndisi-Herrmann, I start to get quite sad that the evening is coming to a close. 

As the shortest piece of the night, Seeds also manages to pack the biggest punch. A visual poem that explores the balance of life and death, good and bad, and the interconnectedness of this world, in a mere 4-minutes. Seeds is truly moving.

And, among a group of strong contenders in ‘Earthly Bodies’,  which all speak wonderfully to the theme of feminist ecological film making, it stands out as my favourite.

For more information about the artists and their work please see:

Jessica Piette: www.jessicapiette.com/Earthly-Bodies
Linda Stupart: www.remembertheliquidground.rca.ac.uk/artists/linda-stupart
Bryony Gillard: www.unctuousbetweenfingers.co.uk/
Shireen Seno: www.vimeo.com/629308301
Philippa Ndishi-Herrmann: www.philippandisiherrmann.com

You can also check out Birmingham Critical Film Forum, via @birminghamcriticalfilmforum on Instagram (only) to keep up to date with the project, and find out about their upcoming screenings. 

Empower Poetry Eliminates Elitism With Soul-Revealing Spoken Word And Free Cupcakes

Writer Jasmine Khan / Photographer Enhance Creatives

Empower Poetry delivered a truly unique experience last Wednesday at Zumhof Biergarten, on Lower Trinity Street. One which provided a safe space for all attendees, and samosa for just a pound.

The upstairs of Zumhof is a bit of an enigma and I’m curious about how Empower Poetry is going to create intimacy in such a spacious venue. Curated, is the first word that comes to mind. Everything about the events set up is purposeful, the crew’s matching hoodies, the spotlights, the Instagram-inspired flower wall. The seats are cosy boasting several sofas and there’s chicken and dumplings with greens as well as free cupcakes.

Before the night kicks off, Empower’s Kohinoor states that the night’s purpose is to eliminate elitism and give power back to spoken word poetry. She’s piqued my interest already.

Keilah Rebekah, gives a brief trigger warning (a frequent occurrence throughout the night) before starting the evening off on a soulful note. Her dynamic vocals sing us through her childhood trauma. It’s great to have some creative variety from the offset, though I experience a sinking feeling and tears start streaming down my face as I helplessly reflect back Keilah’s vulnerability.

God, I wish she had a band behind her.

Next up is Destiny, who starts his first poem with ‘Dear future wife’ and all the fems in the room swoon. Destiny’s poetry is passionate and lustful, it’s humble and hilarious, and then it’s over because we swiftly move onto…

Ameena, who I adore instantly because she’s a loud-mouth brown girl, who talks about politics. ‘Why are we cancelling celebrities but not politicians?’ Ameena to-the-point flow questions. I’m clicking vigorously, while several ‘mhmms’ emanate from the crowd. Her clever rhymes and confidence definitely make Ameena one to watch.

Ade, must also get a mention. His use of an instrumental backing track matched to his spoken word is atmospheric, making him stand out from the other poets. Ade’s performance speaks on his blackness and spirituality, as he thanks his parents for their grace in raising him. It’s refreshing considering the parental focus so far has been, justifiably, negative.

Stephanie follows, and I indulge in a small sigh of relief as she appears on stage with a notebook in hand. Maybe it’s because I’m about to hit my quarter-life crisis, but there’s something about phones on stage that challenges my focus on the poetic ambiance.

Stephanie sultrily speaks of womanhood with its joys and fears. Her flow is relaxed and cool, but purposeful. Stephanie’s imagery is expressive, demanding more and sarcastically unpacking the notorious orgasm-gap. She pauses, letting the seriousness of her words land amongst the audience, as our giggles settle.

Stephanie knows that what she’s saying is the truth, her truth, our collective truth. So, she doesn’t need pace to prove a point.

There’s a 10 minute comfort break. So, I grab myself some water because the halal friendly vibes mean no one’s going to question why I’m not drinking, and take my seat again.

Straight on is Birmingham Review’s very own, Hassan, who passionately speaks about the confines of religion. Then, Irram, who speaks about curry for breakfast on Sunday mornings and the challenges she experiences as a hijabi who wears her culture and religion proudly on her face.

Next, we’re blessed by separate performances from organisers Ryan and Kohinoor, who are both clearly experienced poets. Then, introduced to Haroon and jodY from BYOB or Bring Your Own Bars, a London poetry collective who Ryan stresses have been hugely influential in his personal spoken-word journey.

jodY’s (BYOB) performance moves me in a different way, even though he’s the only poet on the night to ask for a restart.

jodY becomes his childhood self on stage as he performs his poetry without an aide, physically embodying all of the sadness and rage that his words express. Labelled a naughty child at school, jodY’s dyslexia suffocates him as he recounts choking up whilst being made to read at school. His flow and mannerisms perfectly synced, they are a scarily accurate representation of a child falling into crippling anxiety.

Too many children are made to feel stupid when they just need a different kind of support. I take the time to thank Jody for his performance before I head out. Wait, there’s one more spoken word artist left.

Jada, is a Birmingham based poet who is “Interested in the conversations we are not having and using poetry as a medium to provoke thinking about equality, empowerment and economics”.

In her spoken-word set, Jada’s flow is well-timed and cleverly critical, talking directly to the audience about Kim Kardashian beauty standards and how they impact modern day sex and intimacy. In her final poem Jada’s voice fortifies, calling out the horrific behaviour of our government throughout the pandemic, and sharing her personal loss at being unable to attend her uncle’s funeral.

Empower Poetry’s event leaves me simultaneously fulfilled and exhausted. There is a lot to process. It’s been real, looking forward to the next.

For more, including updates on their next event follow from Empower_Poetry and links to social media, click here.

Coming to England “world premiere” at Birmingham Rep

Writer Ed King / Photographer Geraint Lewis

“My smile is my armour…”

Outside is rain soaked and grey, but inside the Birmingham Rep are colourful balloons, calypso music, and the lure of rum cocktails on a Monday. It’s a stark contrast, one I could get used to, and an appropriate metaphor for the journey we are about to witness, albeit in reverse.

Tonight is the “world premiere” of Floella Benjamin’s autobiography turned musical, Coming to England – adapted for the stage by David Wood, the longstanding and celebrated children’s playwright (and gun toting anti-establishment public schoolboy in If..)

Originally published by Pavilion Books in 1996, then again by Pan Macmillan as a children’s picture book, the personal account tells of the hopes and racism that surrounded Floella Benjamin and her family when they moved from Trinidad as part of the now called Windrush generation.

Overcoming the bigotry she suffered both at school and in the London suburbs, Coming to England tells how the 10 year old Floella battled through these cruelties and challenges to become one of the most well known and loved faces of children’s television – serving as one of the longest standing presenters of the phenomenally popular Play School, amongst an impressive portfolio on big and small screen.

Although often remembered for her presenting work, Benjamin’s rising prominence in Britain was far from childish. She received her first OBE for her services to broadcasting in 2001, was appointed Baroness of Beckenham by the Liberal Democrats in 2010, then made a Dame in 2020 by the royal family she unashamedly venerates.

But the purported land of hope and glory was not as welcoming as many had believed it would be, with even the fiercely patriotic still being judged by the colour of their skin. As the young and confused Floella is quick to tell us on stage, “…but we were British through and through.”

Coming to England, begins with a happy and literally clappy opening number. The tone is set by the energetic ensemble, swapping costumes and roles as they dance, play, and smile across every square of the stage; this one’s for the children.

Following a brief reference to the royal honours, we are transported to Floella’s early family home in Trinidad, “a wooden house on stilts,” with the rose tinted memories of childhood in warmer climates. Butterflies and orchids parade around the stage, as the carnival of youth invites us in with open arms.

But even from the exuberant opening, as if Play School had drunk a bottle of Angostura Gold and exploded on stage, there is the cruel edge of racism present in the narrative.

Bold colours and sounds wash over the audience, those young or free enough clap along, but onstage the lyrics are cut with snarled faces in trench coats demanding, “…your kind should go home.”

Floella’s family grows, with comical ‘deliveries’ from the stork, and we watch her siblings enjoying a loving home. Yet, the children fear corporal punishment at school, highlighted in a scene that scares some in the audience but generates a ripple of bittersweet nostalgia (and laughter) from others.

The narrative’s duality is soft and continuous, with the first half building to what we know will be a more uncomfortable second. Marmie and Dardie Benjamin burst the children’s bubble by heeding the colonial call to “make Britain great again” and Dardie expresses desires to “make money and music” in the burgeoning London jazz scene.

Dardie leaves for the UK first, with Marmie and the two youngest following a year later, as the remaining four children have a brutal 15 months with foster parents – touched upon by the quickly referenced actions of their faux aunties and uncles, but not overly dramatised. Again, this one’s for the children.

After a nearly 4,500 mile sea journey for the young Benjamins (and an interval break for the Rep audience) we watch the large Trinidadian family suffer the cold, cramped surroundings, and bigotry of their new white dominated world – moving from a one room London apartment to their first UK family home in Beckenham.

Jumping quickly across the years, arguably too quick for a life so varied and full of achievement, David Wood’s adaptation relies heavily on music and song – directed and superbly choreographed by Omar F Okai. The songs are thoroughly infectious, as you would hope from a musical, but ‘She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain’ is perhaps the most memorable and I won’t be singing that on the way home.

The story is short, simple, and full of inspirational messages for the younger audience, whilst thoroughly entertaining all ages in the room – from the children it is clearly aimed at, to the “Play School babies” who are secretly hoping for a cameo from Big Ted and Little Ted.

British hypocrisy and colonialism are somewhat side stepped in Coming to England; it is not my story to tell, but this felt like a missed opportunity to fill in the blanks left by a selected approach to classroom history. But the production is unflinching in the face of racism – presented both a confident and child-friendly manner.

The harsh reality and ultimate betray of the British Nationality Act 1948 are comically referenced towards the end of the second act, by a Goon Show/Mr Chumley Warner-esque World Service announcer (depending on your age and cultural reference points) who delivers stiff upper lip advice to the Caribbean community establishing themselves in Britain.

There are some clever touches that bring home the two lives lived by our central protagonist. The young Floella, played magnificently by Paula Kay, talks in a Caribbean accent, whilst the older/narrator Floella breaks the fourth wall in a straight British drawl.

The use of versatile sets and energetic dance routines fill the large stage well, with lighting and mobiles framing the scenes beautifully – although so much so, when it comes to the official carnival scene there is nowhere to go but straight ahead. And whilst the whole cast commit and excel with aplomb, with no weak links, Bree Smith’s performance of Marmie (and the evil ‘auntie’) also stands out.

A joyous and educational hour and a half, Coming to England does exactly what it sets out to do and does it wonderfully well – telling the story of a young, loving, patriotic family leaving their home in the British colony of Trinidad to live, work, and help rebuild the “mother country”, only to be met by racism and bigotry.

Floella Benjamin’s approach to the home soil hatred is to be lauded and listened to, told through a rich and accessible story that inspires you with both its innate kindness and the fantastic achievements of its narrator.

If you’re wanting a tough polemic on the failures of Atlee’s post war Britain to embrace integration from countries the Empire took by military force or financial mercenary… Coming to England is not for you.

But if you want nearly 90 minutes of carnival flavoured songs, dance, positive storytelling, and a narrative littered with encouragement and inspiration – one that will open the discussion on racism in a child appropriate tone – then I’d book a place at The Rep for you and yours immediately.

And whilst Coming to England is certainly aimed at a younger audience (the rum cocktails are optional) every age can learn something from Floella Benjamin’s life story – told with a litany of life affirming lines from start to finish.

“…and winners smile.”

Coming to England is presented as part of the Birmingham 2022 Festival, a six-month celebration of creativity in the West Midlands surrounding the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games.

Coming to England plays at The Rep until Sat 16 Apr. For tickets visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk  or call 0121 236 4455.