Horror in the Modernist Block Explores Dystopian Brutalist Landscapes At Ikon Gallery – Running Until 01/05/23

Writer Sadie Barnett / Photographer Connor Pope

The atmosphere is one of excitement as photographer Connor and I arrive at the Horror in the Modernist Block press tour. This marks a new season for the Ikon, their first opening since director Jonathan Watkins stepped down. The exhibition aims to explore modernist architecture, starting with Birmingham and the city’s renowned Brutalist style buildings and as our tour guide explains, “expanding outwards globally”.

Continuing to describe the exhibition, she tells us how it aims to explore the implicit dystopian nature of the landscapes around us; “it’s important that the show is a provocation,” she says.

Thus we all enter, eager to be provoked.

The problem with architecture exhibitions is that at first glance it’s hard to tell if something is a part of the exhibition or the building. This is the case with one of the first pieces we see, Exit Sign (2021) by Abbas Zahedi.

I see the classic green and white design of a standard exit sign. However, on closer inspection we see that the running figures on either side of the arrow – which points to the ceiling rather than giving directions – are turned upside-down.

Zahedi tells how this work is inspired by his experience in Grenfell Tower. The crowd is silent as he describes, with contempt, watching an interview where politician Jacob Rees-Mogg said: “If I was in Grenfell I would have left, common sense,” showing us how an exit route can, at times, be a privilege.

Next, I enter a second floor room. On one side is Seher Shah’s Notes from a City Unknown (2021). This work is made up of black and white prints paired alongside short pieces of text. Through the geometric nature of these prints, with a clear dichotomy between the shaded and non-shaded segments of the shapes, we see a blueprint of Brutalist New Delhi.

A personal favourite of mine is a print entitled City of Privacy, a black backdrop with sharp white imagery layered over it and corresponding text reading: ‘To listen to a city / The sound is distant / Eyes open in the dark to a mouth with no teeth.’

Here, we see a major theme of the exhibition shine through: architecture creating a looming spectre, the horror of the everyday.

On the other side of this room is Laëtitia Badaut Haussmann’s Vanquished Space, Controlled Energy (2022), featuring a 3D structure that takes up half the room. It is a combination of screen-printing and painting that depicts a larger than life image of a room.

This ‘para-architecture’ (something that resembles architecture) is a style used in modernist horror film sets, and as I watch it blend almost seamlessly into the walls of the room it brings to mind the concept of the ‘uncanny’.

As I’m guided through the rest of the tour certain pieces catch my attention more than others. I enjoy Amba Sayal Bennett’s Carus pieces, showcasing hand-drawn blueprints so precise they seem almost digital. I am intrigued by Firenze Lai’s paintings, which depict brightly-coloured figures within tight spaces – exploring Hong Kong architecture and the effect that packed-in cities can have on human psychology.

I am stopped in my tracks by Ismael Monticelli’s Spaghetti Junction (2022), a new commission by Ikon. The piece takes up a wall; a blue triangle covered by ornate wooden and paper mâche symbols, gold and red standing out against the backdrop. English is not Brazilian artist Monticelli’s first language and so he employs a translation pre-recorded with a friend to describe his work.

The voice plays over the speakers and as the room listens in hushed awe, looking up at the triangle looming over us the air takes on an almost Ozymandias-esque worshipful silence.

“Look on my works, Ye Mighty, and despair!’”

Listening to the recording, it’s clear this homage to ancient Egypt is not an accidental one. It describes how Brazil’s retro-futurist architecture draws inspiration from ancient Egypt. This is clear in the work’s iconography, depicting various hieroglyphic-style figures. Though the scenes in the picture represent ancient conflicts, we are told how these conflicts are ones echoed in the political turmoil of modern-day Brazil.

In the same room is a bench. I am keen to sit down and am about to do so when the tour guide speaks again. She tells us that ‘This is a bench but it is also an artwork!’

And I realise I’ve stepped into every art enthusiast’s cliched worst nightmare. It’s an architecture exhibition, of course the bench is art. I make a mental note to keep my wits about me, and look mistrustfully at every other unassuming object in the room. The bench, by Simon and Tom Bloor, aims to explore the functionality of modernist architecture.

Moving forwards, I’m intrigued by Monika Sosnowksa’s dramatically spiky sculpture, Tower (2019). It draws inspiration from avant-garde Soviet architect Shukhov, with the sculpture particularly referencing his method of deliberately fatiguing steel.

This reference is one that taps into the exhibition’s core of ‘horror’ – as this same technique, the tour guide tells us, ended up being the cause of the death of several construction workers executing Shukhov’s vision when it did not work as intended.

I’m tickled by Richard Hughes’ Lithobolia Happy Meal (2022), it consists of several suspended chunks of rubble alongside an out-of-place and smiling Space Hopper. However, on further inspection I am thrilled to realise that this is his brutalist simulation of a happy meal.

Hughes balances a genuinely playful and nostalgic piece with a skillful commentary of the capitalist nature of demolition and rebuilding through both its materials and subject matter.

Finally, I end the press tour with the film screenings, which will be the exhibition’s start point for the visiting public. I sit on one of Simon and Tom’s helpful modernist benches as the show begins. Each short film is projected one at a time onto the different walls around us, so that we follow the videos around the room.

I’m particularly blown away by Kihlberg & Henry’s Slow Violence (2018-2022). It explores ever-encroaching man-made environmental changes through a fast-paced mix of spoken-word, text on screen, videos and images. It’s fascinatingly meta, with words flashed across the screen before being flashed across the actors’ screens.

There are too many memorable segments to choose from; a slideshow of cigarette packet images provides a damning commentary of an industry invented with an aim to limit smoking –  “It’s the one I ask for in the shop, you get to choose!”.

A prisoner who reflects on how brutalist architecture impacted his life: “I learned to love the cell”.

A slideshow of images switches from natural landscapes to building sites as a deadpan cast chants, “Mountain. Mountain. Mountain.”

It is a devastatingly clever representation of the exhibition’s core theme, horror.

Horror in the Modernist Block – official trailer

Horror in the Modernist Block runs at Ikon Gallery until 01.05.23 – entry is free. For more on the exhibition visit: www.ikon-gallery.org/exhibition/horror-in-the-modernist-block

For more from Abbas Zahedi go to: www.abbzah.com
For more from Seher Shah go to: www.sehershah.net
For more from Laëtitia Badaut Haussmann go to: www.laetitiabadauthaussmann.com
For more from Amba Sayal Bennett go to: www.ambasb.com
For more from Ismael Monticelli go to: www.ismaelmonticelli.com
For more from Simon and Tom Bloor go to: www.simonandtombloor.com
For more from Monika Sosnowksa go to: www.hauserwirth.com/artists/2824-monika-sosnowska
For more from Richard Hughes go to: www.richardahughes.com 
For more from Kihlberg & Henry go to: www.daniellearnaud.com/artists/artists-kihlberg-and-henry.html 

For more from Ikon Gallery go to: https://www.ikon-gallery.org

Shado’s REIMAGINATION Packs Out Centrala On Digbeth First Friday 6/11/2022

Writer Jasmine Khan / Photographer Connor Pope

As I stroll into Centrala at 8pm on a Digbeth First Friday, I’m not sure what to expect. REIMAGINATION is packed, more packed than any gig I’ve been to at Centrala, and someone’s speaking spoken-word robotically over the mic.

This evening is organised by shado – “a lived-experience led community of artists, activists and journalists united in the fight for social justice”, who produce an online and in print magazine centred around activism with a global reach.

Led by curator Leyla Reynolds alongside Birmingham artists, tonight is exploring the theme of (you guessed it) reimagination. But I can’t get to any of the art yet because I’m trying to decide whether Bethany Slinn’s first poem is pretentious or ingenious – it’s often the way.

The sizable crowd makes it clear that something worth seeing is happening here. Slinn’s placing elongated blank pauses between relatively simple words, saying our minds are meant to “fill in the blanks”. It’s a tad monotonous.

Their second performance couldn’t be more different. ‘Joy Class’ lands with much more pace and linguistic variety. It’s hilarious, and I find myself clicking in the stereotypical way as they discuss the bureaucratic methods Ofsted uses to measure children’s joy.

Joy Class: it’s half a joke and half an ideal. “In Joy Class we pronounce each other’s names correctly”, chimes in an audience member when prompted, “In Joy Class we eat!”

Next up, it’s Affie Jam. “In Joy Class there’s no technical difficulties”, she banters, managing them in her stride.

It’s an art exhibition and I’ve still not looked at any art. The energy of the crowd feels like a clustered whirlwind, and I need to ground myself. There’s a slow, soulful guitar being plucked by, I assume, Affie Jam. But I’m at the back, and the audience is listening too acutely for me to shimmy up to the front.

So, I wander around and take in some of the art.

I stop at the Shado magazine stand. ‘Shado: See. Hear. Act. Do.’ reads the cover of the two aesthetic, matt, magazines on the table. They cover youth and global womanhood. I don’t have time to read through them in much detail but there’s a wide range of person/experience centred copy that warrants further investigation at a later date.

Next, I check in with BR journalist, photographer, and all-round artiste Emily Doyle. She’s displaying a ‘Moss Blanket’. A patchwork knitted sensory experience in sea, lime, and muddy green. ‘Please touch it, says the sign. How nice, you never usually get to touch the art.

As the full, neo-soul vocals of Affie Jam ring out, like the backing track to my Hollywood meet cute, I notice works by Adam Wynn – a multi-disciplinary artist born in Birmingham. ‘No-one has to say goodbye’ is a series of provocative and jarring vintage collages, commentating on the dual impact of capitalism and climate change.

Wynn contrasts gut-wrenching natural disasters against human complacency, and the final result is nagging guilt combined with rage at a wasteful, lethal system.

“I think I’ve forgotten the second verse of the song.”

Affie laughs off her faux pas charmingly; her silky voice is defining a vulnerable, open atmosphere, so she’s easily forgiven.

Looking for more art, I turn my head to the right and I’m struck by photographs of a Desi, pregnant woman in traditional red and gold sari. Her belly is bare and proudly protruding as the main focus of the piece, not something you see everyday.

I can’t get around to have a closer look because there’s people blocking my way in every direction. Affie’s voice sores over hazy runs, and I think about how ridiculous it is when people say there’s nothing happening here.

Vidya Patel, another Birmingham based artist, is a choreographer and performer whose work takes its influence from autobiographical narratives surrounding identity and empowerment. The work I’m so struck by is of her sister Janieesha Patel a few weeks before she gave birth. Which explains why it feels so intimate and knowing.

The six photographs/collages display Hindu rituals combined with magical realism and watermelons, with one piece featuring paisley patterns and a woman with her naked breast out, most likely preparing to nurse.

Patel’s art maintains a strong, mystical feminine influence throughout, and the bright colours draw the eye at multiple points across the collection.

Tolmeia Gregory (Tolly), animator, artist and climate artist, says we’re free to play with her dolls house, which is situated in the middle of the room. (More interactive art, what a treat.) There’s an art room and ‘hippy font’ slogans saying ‘slow down down down’ on the interior walls. The exterior is painted in pastels that remind me of 60’s VW camper vans.

“This is so positive, it’s making me so happy”, says off duty BR photographer Jess Whitty, who is also admiring the pastel colours, funky furniture, and map explaining the various institutions of Tolly’s reimagined world.

With Affie Jam’s set over, receiving strong applause, I can head to the pack of the room and see Jane Thakoordin’s ‘Blue Faces Ladies’. It’s a strange and intriguing video, but I can’t quite hear it above the rabble of the crowd. It’s about mental health, so I’ll have to investigate it at a later date and check out the accompanying zine that’s floating around.

Cherie Kwok, yet another Birmingham based artist, is a vibrant, daring illustrator and located to the right of Thakoordin. The piece in front of me focuses on ChinaTown in London, highlighting the breadth of experience a cultural space of such magnitude can contain, featuring almost neon brush strokes, building textured worlds and characters.

Before I have to depart, I make a point of checking out the oddest display, which up until this has been swarming with people.

‘Reimagining Death (in the greenhouse)’ is a multimedia installation by ITZATNA, which “seeks to recognise the intrinsic relationship between life, death, soil and humanity”. By the entrance of the audio visual installation is a poem ‘manifesto of death’ and what greets me at the door is quite harrowing,

The outline of a human body with ears of corn at the head and hands has been fashioned on the ground like a paranormal crime scene. To the left is a jar of sweets adding to the halloween vibes, to the right a radio, and projected on the back wall is a film switching between gardening and roaring fires.

The smell of soil fills my nostrils, it’s creepy and I wonder what exactly it’s commenting on. I can’t read the poem, apart from the title, because there’s people in the way, but it feels like a warning. We all know the reality of the impacts of climate change. We all know what’s coming if our unsustainable system persists.

REIMAGINATION has given me a lot to think about as I make my way back into the cold November night. I’ll definitely be back in the next two weeks to take in some more activist art and process it all.

For more from Shado go to: www.shado-mag.com/about/who-we-are

For more from Leyla Reynolds go to: www.leylareynolds.co.uk
For more from Beth Slin go to: www.instagram.com/beffslinnprojects 
For more from Affie Jam go to: www.soundcloud.com/affiejam 
For more from Emily Doyle go to: www.oldbort.wordpress.com 
For more from Adam Wynn go to: www.adamwynn.uk 
For more from Vidya Patel go to: www.danceartists.co.uk/about 
For more from Tolmeia Gregory go to: www.tolmeiagregory.com 
For more from Jane Thakoordin go to: www.janethakoordin.com 
For more from Cherie Kwok go to: www.cheriekwok.co.uk 
For more from ITZATNA go to: www.itzatna.org 

For more from Centrala go to: www.centrala-space.org.uk

For more from Digbeth First Friday go to: www.digbethfirstfriday.com

Your Aunty’s Art Sale At Dig Brew On 5 October 2022

Writer Jasmine Khan / Photographer Maddie Cottam-Allan

Whenever you’re at Dig Brew you have to eat the pizza, and Your Aunty’s Art Sale is no exception. I’m waiting on my Shrunken Head when Connor from Bad Girlfriend shows up. He sits down on the wooden bench next to me and buys me a beer – a rare occasion worth mentioning.

“Jaz? You know you’re the most wonderful, sexy person ever…” says Connor.

“I don’t have any baccie Connor,” I interrupt, wise to his gentlemanly charms.

Once I’ve finished my pizza and a pint of tasty Optimo, I reacquaint myself with the intimate art cove, where just over half a dozen artists are sharing their works as part of Daisy Richardson’s Your Aunty’s Art Sale. Which typically happens on the first Wednesday of every month.

The first artist I pop over to see is Poppy Wilkes, who uses silver art clay to set semi-precious stones in metal, and then fires them on a Bunsen burner to produce necklaces and other jewellery.

Poppy tells me, “I made most of them this morning,” gesturing to the shiny magpie treats below.

Just in front of Poppy is Haseebah Ali, 25, showcasing a collection of geometric Islamic prints, as well as mock stamps from the Syrian Arab Republic and other pieces inspired by the plight of Syrian refugees.

A professional artist since 2016, Haseebah says her works often addresses “… cultural issues, and 50% of the money gained from pieces on Syria will be donated to Syrian refugees.”

There’s a stark contrast between the consistency of her shape work against the drypoint etching pieces on Syria. The former evokes a sense of calm, and the latter fear and chaos, yet there’s understandable artistic and cultural reasons for pairing them together.

Faeby is nowhere to be found, but their art is pretty in your face, so I’m happy I get to explore the details without blushing in front of the artist.

In Faeby’s work naked or leather glad silhouettes stand against bold colourful backgrounds, with saucy, mid-century, Art Deco aesthetics.

And these sexy prints are situated perfectly next to Molly Rose Cleaver, whose abstract plant pots are paired with abstract tits. A sapphic delight.

Next I check out JD Allen.  He’s brave enough to have set up next to our Resident Comic Whore, Maddie Cottam-Allen, and is selling prints of digital drawings of iconic Brum spots: Mr Egg, Medicine Bakery, BoneHead.

They’re sleek and feel like a gamification of the city. Although there’s no Brum piss stairs which is understandable, though still slightly disappointing.

Esme Stillaway doesn’t draw digitally but she doesn’t mind a bit of tech to make her works more accessible. Featuring a variety of illustration prints, clay dishes and tote bags with subdued sea blues, abstract spooky flowers and hands grasping galore, Esme’s art is a tad creepy while being curiously inviting.

Behind Esme is KANGA, one of the most interesting (and practical) art forms on display. With crochet hats, gloves, bags, bracelets and balaclavas perfectly positioned ahead of the Midlands winter, I’m really struggling not to make a purchase of the oh so fluffy, vibrant works of art.

Rude Brown Dude, whose name “came across randomly but fits” says that he moved back to Brum in 2018 and also does poetry. However, what jumps out at me first are the handmade bracelets which he explains are made with his sister.

“We were very artsy growing up but we didn’t come from the most privileged background, when lockdown came around she started doing crafts and I did poetry and stickers.

“This is our way of having time together and saying let’s go craft. She’s a big reason for why I am the way I am,” reflects Rude Brown Dude.

Rude Brown Dude has also got 69 ready-to-be personalised zines which cost £4.20, featuring his poetry, stickers and ‘gaff’. Which I think means ‘graff’, but obviously means graffiti.

Last but not least, it’s the Peroni Slut/Maddie who’s selling ‘Nice Italian Beer’ T’s, a print of her sexuality/an aerial view of Birmingham’s spaghetti junction, and her soul.

Her soul’s price is negotiable and I’m in need of a fresh one – I wonder if I can get her down to £3.59, it’s all the change I’ve got on me.

For more from Your Aunty’s Art Sale check out their Instagram @urauntysartsale

For more from Dig Brew go to: www.digbrewco.com

Discovering Kantha Kathak-K With Amina Khayyam At Birmingham Hippodrome 20/09/2022

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