Words by Ed King / Pics and images supplied by Myah Barrah and Waheeda Rahman-Mair
Last month, Erdington Local ran the first in a series of articles inspired by the monthly Artists Conversations group – where local artists come together at the Secret Art Studio Space in Central square, every third Wednesday.
In part two, Erdington Local talks to Waheeda Rahman-Mair – a Birmingham-Bangladeshi artist commissioned through the Queens of the Commonwealth project, finding out more on the subjects she chose to depict and the double-edged sword of such a royal appointment.
“I saw how attached she was to the painting, and that’s what I love – I love that people actually do see themselves and that they do connect.”
Waheeda Rahman-Mair is a multi-disciplinary artist, working with a range of mediums from traditional oils on canvas to digital animation and graphics – with a BA (Hons) in Visual Communication: Animation and Moving Image and an impressive portfolio. A respected portrait artist, Waheeda has seen private commissions across the city, country, and even Atlantic Ocean.
Inspired by her ‘childhood fascination for cartoons and video games’, Waheeda grew up interested in art – moving from Handsworth Wood to Erdington about four years ago. She was referred to the Artists Conversations monthly meetings by a friend, after leaving her job as a visual and motion graphics designer with the Ember Regis Group.
“I was already working in Digbeth, from an office,” tells Waheeda, “but when the pandemic hit, I started working from home more often. I quit my job back in April to pursue being a full-time artist, and someone recommended I go to the Erdington Artists Conversations group meeting.
“I did, and it was really nice to meet local artists from Erdington and to explore the other side of the creative industry which is more about local communities – as opposed to being in an agency that works for larger clients. It was more like ‘what can we do as a community for the people locally and the people we live next door to.’
“I’m also part of another group which is to do with South Asian art creatives within the UK, which networks across the world.”
As Birmingham prepared to host the Commonwealth Games, a series of projects were commissioned as part of the Birmingham 2022 Festival – including the LGK Productions documentary Queens of the Commonwealth, where local filmmaker Panikos Panayiotou explored the ‘unique journey of 22 women from various Commonwealth nations’ after migrating to Birmingham.
Needing local artists for a supporting exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery – depicting the women featured in Panayiotou’s documentary in their own mediums and styles – a representative from the Birmingham 2022 Festival came to the Artists Conversations group offering commissions.
Whaeed explains: “I started with conceptual designs (using Procreate) of how I wanted to draw them, based off the interviews and the photos I was looking through. Just a general vibe of who they are, if they angle their face in a certain way when they laugh or smile – and from these mannerisms I worked out how they should look, and I started sketching that out.
“Then I went on to Photoshop, where I can draw on screen, and then started to do the paintings whilst I was listening to the interviews.
“Hearing them, more of their mannerisms and the way they talk, was helping me pick out extra bits. Like when they were laughing, I could see the dimples come out, or that they do this extra gesture with their hands.”
But from 22 women to choose from, each with a unique and inspiring story to tell, it was Darshan and Yvonne that stood out for Waheeda.
“They were really strong resilient women,” she tells. “This came across from all the interviews, but especially with the two women I chose to paint. They both migrated from areas that were tough on them or the lifestyle was very different, and migrated to have a better life or to be reunited with family members.
“I thought that was such a meaningful and touching part of their lives that they exposed through the interviews. The fact that they shared such vulnerability in front of a camera, with people they didn’t know, just showed me how strong they are.”
The final digital drawings are similar in style, but strongly unique with the colours and iconography Waheed felt brought her subjects to life – such as the hydrangea engulfing Dashan, and the amber jewellery and background that adorns and surrounds Yvonne.
Deeply engaged with the women she was vicariously coming to know, Waheeda admits it was instinct that prompted some of her artistic choices – but on a chance meeting with Yvonne, her gut turned out to be right.
“I wanted to show that amber was part of her (Yvonne), that she is so warm, and glowing, and inviting to people. The circles also show how she connects people, and how (though her outreach work) she has made these circles of unified women.
“She told me ‘I’m so happy you put in the amber jewellery’, when she was in Jamaica she used to play with sap, which is where amber comes from. It’s part of her childhood… everything I guessed in her painting was solidified when I met her.”
Although Waheed was unable to meet Darshan, she was introduced to some of her close family members and reached more who know her muse through the Internet.
Waheeda continues: “Art is subjective, and I do worry sometimes… especially when I do portrait paintings, because people see themselves differently to how people see them from the exterior, they notice things about their face or their bodies that strangers wouldn’t see.
“I met one of her (Darshan) daughters and her husband, and they both said how I’d really captured her. And once I posted the painting on Instagram I had so many of her relatives say, ‘that’s my aunt; that’s my grandma… you’ve really captured her.’ It was reassuring to hear how many people had recognised in her in the painting.”
From Bunny’s widely embraced mural of Louvina Moses on Coton Lane, to Waheeda’s deeply personal depictions of Darshan Bhumba and Pastor Yvonne Brooks exhibited at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the Queens of the Commonwealth project has been a significant showcase for these Erdington artists.
But the history of the British Empire, the foundation blocks to the Commonwealth, is still the elephant in the room– with the Commonwealth Games Chief Creative Officer, Martin Green, publicly criticised for having ‘sidestepped’ Birmingham’s ‘Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities’ when allocating Birmingham Festival 2022 funding.
“I made sure the projects I contributed to were addressing the racial aspects (of the Commonwealth),” tells Waheeda, whose family’s heritage is Bangladeshi.
“With the Queens of the Commonwealth, it was more about the women; these strong resilient women who’ve done things for the community, who are still doing things for the community.
“In the interviews they did shed light that when they moved to England… it shocked them, and they weren’t afraid to say what they were truly feeling about migrating to England. I found that a reassuring aspect of this, and the fact it was more about the women really helped me find peace in this.
“There was another project I worked on which was about the opinions of the South Asian community about the Commonwealth, that I also did a painting about. That’s going to be posted on my Instagram and on my website… it’s called ‘The Golden Mask’.”
Erdington Artists Conversations are held every on the third Wednesday of each month, from 7pm to 9pm, at the Secret Art Studio Space in Central Square – on Erdington High Street.
Free to attend, for more information call 07966 699 894 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org