Bringing soul to the city

Why a Birmingham-based urban arts collective connects with youth in the Persian Gulf.

New Statesman
Soul City Arts founder Mohammed Ali works on a mural as part of the Eid Festival in Gothenburg Sweden. (PHOTO: Soul City Arts)

Last Monday, Soul City Arts - a Birmingham-based organisation delivering “arts interventions” throughout the UK - hosted Def Jam poet and Stanford University professor Mark Gonzales and Palestinian poet Rafeef Ziadeh for an evening of poetry at Rich Mix theatre. Between their verses, questions ranged from the US election, the Occupation, the Syrian uprising and the plight of indigenous Americans.  I discovered that Soul City Arts, despite being relatively unknown in London, has an international following and its artists are lauded by the likes of Benjamin Zephaniah, Jazz singer Cleveland Watkiss and the Arts Council of England.  The organization have collaborated with photographers like Henry Chalfont and Peter Sanders, poets like David J and Lowkey and with institutions like Birmingham’s Rep theatre, British Museum and V&A.  The secret to its appeal according to founder and artistic director, Aerosol Arabic, is “spreading the love to the younger generation through a combination of street art and civic duty.” Aerosol Arabic (real name Mohammad Ali), is known for his unique fusion of graffiti art and Islamic script and symbols.

The message of Soul City Arts has spread to the US, Australia and, interestingly, the Gulf.  Why would super rich Gulf patrons need an inner-city arts collective interested in poetry and graffiti?  Was this just a case of buying cultural kudos?  Christopher Davidson’s latest book After the Sheikhs, have shown how Gulf countries invest in Formula 1 racing, football tournaments, art galleries, universities and have stadiums emblazoned with their name in order to shape the cultural and intellectual landscape. As an example Davidson mentions the generous donations of Gulf families to British universities like Exeter, Durham, LSE, Lampeter, Oxford, Cambridge and even Sandhurst. Whilst no strings are attached, there is always the risk of self-censorship. After all it’s hard to criticize the patron who is funding your department.  But Soul City Arts does not fit that bill.

But why would its rich patrons take interest in an organization that concerns itself with urban regeneration? One answer lies in the medium of communication; ‘high art’ found in UAE’s Louvre does not connect with a generation raised on MTV Arabia. Graffiti arguably does; it is one of the fastest growing mediums in the Middle East. In Palestine it is the expression of choice; in fact Hamas runs night classes for its artist and used its communicative power to savage their opponents during the Oslo peace process.  In Tunisia the work of graffiti artist like El-Sid made national headlines. Malu Halasa, a specialist in resistance art, has shown the importance of graffiti in the Syrian uprising. This trend, though somewhat muted, is also found in the Gulf.  In Dubai, anonymous artist have used graffiti to great success. British graffiti artists like Tom ‘Inkie’ Bingle and Banksy have also attracted attention in the Gulf. But the problem is that their counter culture art doesn’t always connect with the malaise of the Gulf country’s citizens.

“The truth is”, says Aerosol Arabic, “the Gulf is dealing with social problems that we deal with all the time. I guess that’s why we are getting more calls from there”.  The formula that Soul City Arts have used to engage with young people in inner city Birmingham is being utilized by Gulf countries to deal with the cracks exacerbated by the Arab Spring. Davidson points out that for forty years Gulf countries have been giving their citizens subsidies to buy their acquiescence and inadvertently creating a culture of endemic indolence. This coupled with declining hydrocarbon resources has created deep social problems and contradictions. Whilst some Emirati citizens suffer from power and housing shortages a prince is carving out his name onto an Island. The aptly named Hamad’s folly is visible from space. Whilst Islamist parties are coming to power claiming to remove corruption; their own countries are consuming alcohol, trafficking prostitutes and investing in gambling in greater numbers.  Whilst human rights abuses continue in the occupied territories Gulf countries are strengthening their contacts with Israel. However, with oil subsidies becoming increasingly unsustainable, these contradictions are becoming harder to swallow.

The new generation, accepts government handouts as a birth right, not as generosity from its ruling families. In the UAE many choose to be voluntarily unemployed due to its generous state welfare benefits. According to Davidson there are 12, 000 Kuwaiti nationals waiting for public sector jobs to be created for them.  Idleness, it seems, is also creating devils; in the case of Saudi Arabia it has lead to security threats. Many Saudi citizens arrested for terrorism offences were unemployed. The Arabian Gulf in general is suffering from unprecedented social problems like joyriding, traffic offences and crime.  Drug and alcohol abuse are no longer taboo subjects and are openly discussed on TV. Whilst draconian laws do exist to curb the worst excesses there is recognition that youth engagement is paramount. This is where the small arts organization from Birmingham comes in; Soul City Arts speaks to a generation used to good living but in need of some soul. Thus, when the Omani government commissions Soul City Arts to pimp out a ride to several hundred young people obsessed with fast cars, it does so not only to emphasize road safety but also to address a much deeper problem: the malaise of a generation raised on government handouts.