FEATURE: Artists Conversations (part two) – Queens of the Commonwealth with Waheeda Rahman-Mair

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 one, we heard what happened when Bunny met Louvinia, and the mural so many have enjoyed brightening up the walls of Coton Lane.

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.

This is how Bunny met Louvina Moses. And this is how Waheeda would meet Darshan Bhumba and Pastor Yvonne Brooks, two more women featured in the LGK documentary.

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.

“And I thought in that sense it was empowering to uplift other women, and that’s where I stood with the Queens of the Commonwealth project.

“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’.”

For more on Waheeda Rahman-Mair visit www.waheeda.co.uk or follow @waheeda_art on Instagram.

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: erdingtonartists@gmail.com

FEATURE: Erdington Artists Conversations (part one) – when Bunny met Louvina, the Coton Lane mural set to change the city’s streets

Words by Erdington Local editorial team / Pics supplied by Bunny (Create Not Destroy)

Erdington has a varied, vast, rich, and ripe art community, with monthly run ‘Artists Conversations’ held at the Secret Art Studio Space in Central Square – a vibrant think tank of creative endeavour, bringing new ideas and splashes of colour to the North Birmingham streets.

Recently commissioned under the Queens of the Commonwealth project, four Edrington artists from the collective were asked to paint portraits of inspiring women from the Commonwealth – to be hung in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.

But one was too big for a museum wall…

Erdington Local caught up with Bunny, the talented creative behind the cherished Coton Lane mural reviving a street art trend.

The mural of Caribbean born, Erdington resident nurse Louvina Moses on Coton Lane, just off the High Street, is not just a pretty face.

The mural, painted by Erdington artist Bunny, also known as Create Not Destroy, is one of the first visible artworks of a transformative exciting new art movement. Bunny joined the Erdington Artists Conversations collective in November last year, and after a successful start – and some daring ideas – there is real hope every empty Erdington wall will be adorned by art.

If Helen of Troy was the face which launched a thousand ships, then Louvina’s face could launch a thousand murals across Erdington and further afield.

Bunny told Erdington Local: “We wanted to bring artists in Erdington together, and our first meeting in October at the Secret Art Studio Space; there was just six of us in the freezing cold.

“What has happened since has been amazing, we now have a real diverse group of artists, young, old, every colour, Muslim, Christian, you name it. But everyone is connected together through a love of art.

“We meet every month and have really great discussions about art. But what really gave us a boost was when we were approached by those running the Commonwealth Queens project to help them create 22 portraits of women.

“As soon as I saw a picture of Louvina and a video of her talking, I knew I wanted to paint her. Her face shows such a journey; she, like my parents, came from a Caribbean island to another island all those years ago and made such sacrifices. Her face tells so many stories.”

He added: “I asked if instead of painting a canvas portrait whether I could create a mural on a local wall, they loved the idea and it has taken off from there.”

From the moment Bunny pitched up on the corner of Coton Lane to paint the giant mural, he knew the people of Erdington would take it to their hearts – just as many did with the mural around the hoardings of the old Maplin site.

He said: “I spent as much time on the ground chatting to people than I did up the ladder painting. People were so interested what I was doing, normally they would walk past me without giving me a second glance but when I start painting murals people are suddenly interested.

“There is a real appetite for art in Erdington, through our (Artists Conversations) group we know there is talent in the area and art can make a difference. I want art to become part of Erdington, like how the murals and art really are part of Brixton; there is no reason why Erdington cannot be the Brixton of Birmingham.”

Father-of-two Bunny, who lives near Six Ways island, began his art career in the mid 1980s, incorporating painting, photography, videography, music, aerosol art, and graffiti. But his renewed love for mural making was sparked two years ago when he was asked to paint one in honour of an old friend in London.

Bunny said: “Social media has really changed art. In the old days we would travel miles to look at a wall with graffiti or a mural, now people can see what you have created on their phones and give instant feedback.

The 55-year-old added: “This got me back painting murals. They are within the open realm, they are there to provoke a reaction, whether people love it or hate it they will look at it.”

Those who will be taking more than a second glance at the dignified lady emblazoned in the colours of St Kitts are her Louvina’s children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, many of whom live around Erdington.

Louvina was born in Tabernacle Village in St Kitts in the Caribbean in the 1940s and left for Britain with her husband in 1961.

She said: “I came to England when I was pregnant but left two children behind as well as my parents and grandparents who I missed, but leaving my children was worse than anything.

“We brought our first house in 1966 and sent for both of them. We have four children, 12 grandchildren, 14 great grandchildren, and one great great grandchild.”

Louvina is still married 63 years later and featured in Queens of Commonwealth documentary, which celebrated the migrant women who helped to rebuild the UK after the Second World War.

The 22 positive stories of the women contrast vividly against the backdrop of the Windrush Scandal, which saw the British Government illegally deport Caribbean pensioners who had lived in the UK for decades – many of whom are yet to receive compensation.

Louvina, known to many as Rose, unsuccessfully tried to become a teacher in the 1960s but finally got a job in the NHS at East Birmingham Hospital.

She said: “There was racism by my white colleagues, they gave me the hardest time; I was given the worse jobs all of the time.”

However, Louvina stood her ground in the NHS and worked for 43 years at Heartlands Hospital until her retirement.

She continued: “One day at work my manager called me and told me I had been chosen to go and have tea with the Queen at Buckingham Palace, I could not believe it. We sat just behind Maggie Thatcher.

“Buckingham Palace! I never thought I would get to the door, let alone get inside. If you are a poor person back home you would never think you could get to Buckingham Palace. I went back again when one of my sons got an MBE and it was easier then.

“I tell my children, stand up for yourself, you can’t go backwards in life you want to move forward in life. You have to take each day as it comes, live for today and praise God for tomorrow.”

An active Louvina instilled the desire to give back to the community into her children, her son Lincoln was awarded with an MBE for his work with youngsters and setting up the Holford Drive Community Hub.

He gathered siblings, cousins, nephews, and nieces for an epic photo underneath the watching eyes of Louvina at the mural, although the matriarch missed the gathering as she was back in St Kitts.

Lincoln told Erdington Local: “My mother is my Queen, she and my father have been together for 63 years, they are an inspiration.

“The Queens of the Commonwealth did a great job reminding everyone the hard work and sacrifices my mother’s generation went through to give their children a better life.”

He added: “She loves the mural, we all love the mural, from one come many! Bunny did an amazing job and hopefully it will be there for years to come.”

Bunny said: “It was an absolute honour to paint a remarkable woman like Louvina and shine a light on the huge self-sacrifices her generation made to help others, and become the backbone of institutions like the NHS and the transport industry.”

Shortly after Louvina appeared near the High Street, another Erdington local who came from the Caribbean has been immortalised by a mural – new UFC welterweight champion Leon Edwards.

Bunny, who recently created the Lozells art trial featuring pictures of local reggae stars, said: “It is great to see another mural pop up in Erdington after Louvina, and I another one will appear soon. I have been commissioned by Erdington Litter Busters to design a mural.

“So, Louvina will be the first of many, now every time I see an empty wall or space I am thinking what mural could we put there.”

For more on Bunny / Create Not Destroy visit www.createnotdestroy.com

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 on Artists Conversations call 07966 699 894 or email: erdingtonartists@gmail.com

NEWS: Community comes together to celebrate the completion of the Maplin site mural

Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Pics by Ed King

Ed’s note… this is a community story; the Erdington mural is a community endeavour – many local groups and individuals played a part in this beautiful project. We are focusing on the community.

For this article, Erdington Local was invited to a group photo opportunity – as organised by the project’s steering group. Our aim was to follow up from our original story and document the spirit of unity that the project reflects – understanding the individuals featured in article (or group photo) are not the only people involved.

We appreciate there will have been those who were unable to attend, but we thank and recognise everyone who helped make Erdington that little bit brighter. 

The Erdington Mural project is complete. Having turned an “eyesore” of hoardings into a community-involved, professional art display, many of the artists and organisers gathered together for a celebratory (and socially distanced) photo for Erdington Local.

I think this is fantastic – it’s great!” praises Rob Gunnell, founder of Erdington Litter Busters [ELB], “it doesn’t just add colour, it supports a connection to the community – and it’s also saying, Erdington’s a good place.” Along with many other organisations, ELB assisted in ‘priming’ the site before the four commissioned artists set to work on painting on the boards.

Our contribution was to apply the white paint – the base,” explains Dawn Edwards, another ELB member, “then we cut down the overgrown branches and Birmingham City Council took away all the bags of greenery.”

The project was funded by Mercia Real Estate, the owners of the site, as well as Active Arts – via the Erdington Arts Forum.

Erdington Local covered the story of those involved with the project at its inception – and whilst the original impetus is somewhat contested, the final project is as vibrant a representation of community spirit as the artwork itself.

Erdington Local caught up with the four artists who were tasked with bringing the boards to life – each one taking a separate side for their original design. Whilst each artist is unique, each of them noted the positive feedback they received for their work.

I’ve seen a few pictures put up [on the internet] of kids standing in front of it,” notes Steve Allen, pleased with the social media pick up. Steve painted the ‘Welcome to Erdington’ side of the mural, which includes a big ‘thank you’ to the NHS and what is purported to be the coat of arms of Erdington.

I got a lot of positive feedback from when I was doing my painting,” echoes Abian Richards, responsible for the rather psychedelic take on Erdington’s Witton Lakes – featured on the small segment by York Road.

This was to celebrate Erdington’s many ‘green spaces’, with an interesting interpretation: “I chose to use blues, pinks and purples to get some vibrancy into the piece.”

The project proved to be an excellent incubator for local talent, with Keely Iqbal admitting “it was quite challenging because it was my biggest mural to date.”

She painted the striking ‘historical Erdington’ on Sutton New Road – complete with an image of a spitfire, a horse and carriage, Rookery House, and the esteemed Mothers nightclub.

Such a large undertaking was not without its challenges, as Keely continues: “I was painting and then it started pouring down with rain! All of the paint started running everywhere. It was so bad. I did all of this lettering – there was a delay, but I managed to catch up with it.”

It was even a learning curve for experienced artist Edward Thrush: “Fly posters are hellish – I hate them! I won’t use those again. There’s been a lot of maintenance!”

Edward created the eye-catching ‘It’s all Go, Go, Go in Erdington!’ piece on Summer Road, celebrating the various community groups in the local area. Edward especially praised how “the volunteers were amazing – they were really good help.”

Councillor Gareth Moore, who had been helping whitewash the boards – along with fellow Erdington Councillor Robert Alden – explains how the piece is “visually appealing and significantly improved the site in question given its prominent location.”

Likewise, Robert Alden tells how “it’s been a really great community project, pulling together people across Erdington. It’s celebrating our heritage, our history and the culture of Erdington.”

Erdington Local overheard Dawn Edwards from ELB prodding Sam Clark, a founder and current CEO of Mercia Real Estate, about some potential future projects on the land. Especially advocating for the intended retail space to have greenery.

This project is just an example of what the community can do in terms of improving the area,” Dawn reflects, “there was nothing on the boards and now there is that reflects Erdington. Watch out! More to come.”

Mercia Real Estate acquired the Maplin site following the closure, a spokesperson from the Birmingham based real estate and asset management company said:

Mercia Real Estate acquired the site in 2018 with a view to redeveloping the buildings into a terrace of convenience retail units.

Whilst this has been in planning we were approached by community leaders earlier this year who had expressed an interest in creating various murals on the site hoarding.

Wherever we invest we are always keen to engage with the community and in this case were happy to extend a donation to support the creativity of the various groups involved.”

For more on Steve Allen, visit www.nozzleandbrush.co.uk
For more on Abian Richards, visit www.facebook.com/faffabout
For more on Keely Iqbal, visit www.keelyiqbal.com
For more on Edward Thrush, visit www.elthrush.com

For more on Mercia Real Estate, visit www.merciarealestate.com
For more on Active Arts, visit www.activearts.wordpress.com

NEWS: Community art project transforms Maplin hoardings into a mural ‘to celebrate Erdington’

Words & pics by Ed King

On Saturday 15th August, volunteers from across Erdington kick started a new community art project – transforming the hoardings that have ring-fenced the old Maplin site into a vibrant mural ‘to celebrate Erdington.’

Over 20 local residents and representatives gave up the start of their weekend to help whitewash the 107 boards that surround the disused commercial site by Six Ways Island.

In huge display of community spirit, members from a wide range of local action groups worked across the morning and into the afternoon – preparing a blank canvas to be filled throughout the week by four Birmingham based artists.

Displaying the very unity that they want to celebrate, the mammoth task was completed by 1pm – aided by hard work and camaraderie from organisations including Erdington Litter Busters, Erdington Community Volunteers, Ahmadiyya Muslim Association, Witton Lodge Community Association, Urban Devotion, Good Gym, Erdington Arts Forum, and Active Arts.

Erdington Councillors Robert Alden and Gareth Moore, who helped the project get up and running, also rolled up their sleeves on Saturday – working alongside the collage of community groups to get the job done quickly and professionally.

The idea is to celebrate Erdington as a place to live,” tells Claire Westmacott – a member of the Erdington Community Volunteers group who were helping whitewash the hoardings.

When you drive through here, you are going to see this mural… it’s to celebrate the different areas of Erdington and what makes Erdington so good.

It’s the people, it’s the people getting together – you can see here the community spirit. It’s been brilliant… people have been asking what’s happening and saying that’s a brilliant idea.

“People passing by have taken notice of what we’ve been doing; it’s the community making improvements.”

Steve Allen – the first of the four artists commissioned – began his painting immediately, completing the front face of the mural by the evening on Sunday 16th August. Steve, aka Nozzle and Brush, is a local ‘mural and spray paint specialist’ who uses aerosol paints to create ‘one off artwork for bedrooms, walls, shop shutters, gym spaces and more.’

Further work will continue on the mural throughout the week, with local illustrator and designer Edward Thrush using the boards along Summer Road for a piece celebrating the volunteer groups that work in and around Erdington.

Keely Iqbal, an illustrator and fashion designer with a studio at The Custard Factory, is using the Sutton New Road side for an artistic exploration into the history of Erdington.

Whilst Abian Richards, a local artist who ‘works with an expressive mixed media style’ will be painting a special piece that celebrates the green spaces from across the constituency.

Organisers hope the full mural will be completed by Sunday 23rd August – hoping to see selfies and photos captured by members of the public across social media, tagging Erdington Arts Forum or one of the other groups.

Supporting this act of community spirit, Mercia Real Estate have financed the lion’s share of costs attached to the mural – fronting £2250 for the project, with an extra £750 added by Active Arts who have helped coordinate the artists commissions as part of their Erdington Arts Forum role.

Maplin Electronic Supplies went into administration in February 2018, closing all of its UK stores and putting it 2,500 strong work force into unemployment.

Since then, the site that looks out over Six Ways Island has been boarded up – sitting as both a public eyesore and an unpleasant reminder to the employees at the Erdington branch who lost their livelihoods.

Mercia Real Estate, the Birmingham based company who took over the land following the Maplin closure, said:

Mercia Real Estate acquired the site in 2018 with a view to redeveloping the buildings into a terrace of convenience retail units.

Whilst this has been in planning we were approached by community leaders earlier this year who had expressed an interest in creating various murals on the site hoarding.

Wherever we invest we are always keen to engage with the community and in this case were happy to extend a donation to support the creativity of the various groups involved.”

For more on Steve Allen, visit www.nozzleandbrush.co.uk
For more on Edward Thrush, visit www.elthrush.com
For more on Keely Iqbal, visit www.keelyiqbal.com
For more on Abian Richards, visit www.facebook.com/faffabout

For more on Mercia Real Estate, visit www.merciarealestate.com
For more on Active Arts, visit www.activearts.wordpress.com