British Bangladeshi artist and curator Mohammed Ali is a trailblazer in the creative industries. He is passionate about empowering communities, reclaiming narratives and telling untold stories.
Starting his career as a street-artist, once known under the artist name 'Aerosol Arabic', he has grown his practice to curating theatrical performances, immersive experiences and exhibitions. We caught up with the multi-talented creative producer to talk about his journey, love for hip-hop culture, working in the heart of communities, and his thoughts on curating the future of Islamic art.
You have been painting street-art professionally for over 20 years, travelling the globe with your art. What has been the most memorable moment of your career as an artist to date?
Many years ago, I used to work in the gaming industry and spent most of my time sitting behind the screen designing games, turning kids into zombies. I gave this up to explore ways of how I could use my art beyond the commercial world and use it for better purpose in the world. I had a great time learning how I could use my skills to benefit others with many memorable moments in that journey, but there is one particular moment which will always stay with me.
I was standing on stage in the Vatican at a TED X event, where I was invited to present to an auditorium full of faith leaders. It was a blessing to have the opportunity to present my art at a time where faith and religion is perceived as something as backwards and irrelevant to modern life. I was invited into the heart of Catholicism as a Muslim and to share my faith with a non-Muslim audience; it was quite spectacular. As part of my performance, I painted live on stage whilst talking through my art along with a soundscape from audio recordings I had captured from my pilgrimage to Mecca. It was a pivotal moment where I really felt like a bridge was created and I was able to make an impact with a new audience who may never have encountered someone like me before.
Credit: Chelone Wolf
What inspired you to fuse street art with Islamic script and patterns?
I was a child of the eighties and hip-hop culture was the voice of the youth at that time. It was born on the streets and was the art of the everyday people. It was accessible and transcended class and cultural barriers. Reflecting on it now, I realise how and why graffiti-art, a pillar of Hip-Hop culture, had such an impact on me.
The spirit of street-art for me felt very much in keeping with my rediscovery of my faith as a Muslim. Graffiti art was the beautification and decoration of the word of the people. It was exciting, it was a celebration of words, our words, everyday people’s words. I often wondered why the words we painted as graffiti-artists were exclusively in English. Why were there no other scripts or expressions in any other languages used? That interested me a lot and in my teenage years I started exploring Quranic Arabic and Hadith through my graffiti. Islamic-art, in stark contrast to graffiti-art, was pretty much a beautification of, not the words of people, but the word of God.
This felt like a logical and natural progression, marrying graffiti-art with Islamic script. It was like words from two different worlds colliding beautifully. It was almost unheard of at the time, and I was excited back then that hardly anyone else was doing this.
From practicing as an artist, how did you start curating?
Pondering on the accessibility of street art, I began to draw on connections to Islam and see parallels. They both stand for equality and accessibility and both are open to everyone regardless of class and race. As I became more mindful of my own faith, I felt in some ways both were interrelated and melded together, rather than be at odds or be in conflict with each other. I could actually be a graffiti-artist and found ways of weaving it into my practice of faith.
Placing people, the community and our own narratives at the heart of my art is really important to me. As a street artist that works in the public realm, I have to place people at the heart of my art. My art is people centered; my studio is in the heart of community. Storytelling, reclaiming narratives and celebrating unheard voices is key to my work. Through my practice I am passionate about telling peoples stories who don’t necessarily get to share them or have their voices heard. Through developing my murals, I was conscious of the storytelling that was happening and by placing people at the heart of my work I was able to make connections with curating and heritage.
My thinking is this: If a people have been silent for so long with their voices unheard, if am going to throw a spotlight on them, I better do it in such a form that will blow people away aesthetically speaking…or don’t bother doing it at all. Go big or go home, I say. Represent beautifully and don’t insult people by doing otherwise.
Do you think your experience as an artist gave you another insight into curating?
My experiences as an artist gave me insights into many different worlds. To be honest, I have never felt I was exclusively an artist. My practice is very versatile, and I wear many hats – I’m an artist, a director, and a trustee at a city museum. These different perspectives have given me very different insights. I’ve learnt to be able to work seamlessly, crossing over from the brilliant space of creative chaos to a strategic, thoughtful approach. I used to be quite happy working with creating those one-off moments of magic, a bit like the spectacle of fireworks. But what happens when the dust settles? What next? This limited ‘experience’ was not enough for me. I wanted to be a part of telling a bigger story and build legacy.
Can you tell us about Knights of the Raj?
The Knights of the Raj was me dipping my toe into the world of heritage, museums and archives.
I came into it from a very personal perspective as I was keen to capture the narratives of my father and his generation, after his passing in 2009. These stories were about the histories of the Bangladeshi community and the restaurants they opened in the UK since the 1940s.
The cuisine they introduced shaped and changed the fabric of British society and culture. These were untold stories about migration and working-class communities that really excited me. I felt a duty and responsibility to tell these stories from a place of lived experience in a beautiful theatrical form that was an immersive and memorable experience.
You curate digital and immersive experiences, including recently Bangladeshi
Tales of Kings Cross projection mapping. How did this project come about and what was the reaction from audiences?
Aside from the spray can, my experience from working in the gaming industry, really enabled me to hone my skills working in the digital realm. I began working with video projection mapping and presenting stories onto civic buildings like the British Library. We are talking about public buildings being taken over, with digital graffiti! These are spaces where migrant communities in Britain often feel unwelcome and not represented at all, not visible at all. It was really rewarding to take over this public space in the heart of London and tell the historic stories of the immigrant Bangladeshi community.
Seeing the reaction of the community, having their’ own stories being told in a big bold manner, was really exciting. Seeing the community presented in this form in unusual and unlikely spaces is really important - not just tucked away inside of some gallery. It totally uplifts their confidence and sense of ownership and belonging. I like to play with the idea of power and public space, questioning who owns public spaces and whose stories are told in these spaces.
How has your faith as a Muslim influenced your curating and creative practice?
My faith at the start of my journey as an artist, was very visible through my graffiti-art. As time has gone by, it is probably less visible, but my faith still sits at the heart of my work. My work is very values led, it espouses the values of inclusion, equality, justice, freedom and humility.
I have struggled as an artist battling the ego and this is something I am very conscious of. I often use my creativity to tell other people’s stories. Being an activist is commanded by my faith as a Muslim and that is how my faith has influenced my practice. My faith goes beyond just the aesthetics, it now defines and leads my creative practice.
What is the perception and visibility of Islamic art in mainstream art institutions?
I am no expert in the field of Islamic art. I often question what ‘Islamic’ art actually is. I have been labelled as a ‘Muslim’ artist, but I am not sure how comfortable I am with that either. I don’t know if I want to be confined to a label. I have been on a journey navigating these terms. I am expressing my faith and engaging with mainstream institutions but I’m not sure I want to be labelled so narrowly. If I must answer the question, I feel the perception of Islamic art is geometry, calligraphy, illumination, but how can we move beyond that? They have almost become a cliché, very much heritage and traditional as opposed to cutting edge and contemporary. In the US and the UK mainstream institutions often explore Islamic art under those terms, but how do we push beyond this? Can Islamic art be considered more than the confines of those labels and become more than the typical community outreach initiative and instead celebrate radical expressions of faith-creativity?
What do you think is the potential for curating Islamic art exhibitions in the future?
The keyword here is the ‘future’ for me. It’s about celebrating new mediums. To use as an example my own practice, using the spray can and hip hop culture to update traditional calligraphy showed the potential of the future of Islamic art. Embracing new tools and techniques is the future of Islamic art for me.
For more information check out www.artofmohammedali.com
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