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