“The Migrants are not Addons, They are the City”

Ikon, an educational charity, and contemporary art venue presents The Migrant Festival, a free annual event from August 17 to September 3, 2023, that celebrates Birmingham, UK, as a city of migration, sanctuary, and refuge.

Ikon is housed in a magnificent neo-gothic school building. It is an educational charity for the promotion of visual art of international significance, playing a key role in the cultural life of the region.

Birmingham is a city known for its diverse population and it is now celebrating, for the fifth year, its diversity through an art festival that showcases stories of its migrant population. By focusing on personal stories of migration, past and present, the Migrant Festival aims to reflect the commonality that comes with being a ‘Brummie’.

Ikon, established in 1964 by a group of artists, is an educational charity that works to encourage public engagement with contemporary art through exhibiting new work in a context of debate and participation. It has been organising the Migrant Festival for the last five years with the intent of bringing voices of different ethnicities in the diverse city of Birmingham to the forefront to encourage understanding and mutual respect as they share their individual stories.

This year’s festival features projects by three Birmingham photographers – Vanley Burke, Ayesha Jones, and Maryam Wahid – who are collaborating with inner-city communities to share their stories of migration. The festival also includes artists’ talks, music events by Celebrating Sanctuary Birmingham, and a family workshop, as revealed by the organisors.

Linzi Stauvers, Acting Artistic Director, Education, at Ikon, has led the programme for the Migrant Festival ever since it started in 2018 and she talks to us about the intent behind bringing diverse voices to the forefront.

She tells us about what is in store for viewers this year: “This year’s festival focuses on Birmingham’s status as both a city of sanctuary and compassion. We’re showcasing the work of three photographers – Vanley Burke, Ayesha Jones and Maryam Wahid – who are collaborating with inner-city communities that have been affected by the pandemic, changes to immigration law and the cost of living crisis. We have three partners – a local library, hospice and university – who are working with us to provide safe spaces for difficult conversations. For example, the photographer Ayesha Jones is documenting a dialogue about ageing and dying well with a group of South Asian women. Jones’ exhibition, titled Leave A Light On In My Room, is so bold and yet so tender. As ever the whole festival is free.”

A public art commission by multi-disciplinary artist Osman Yousefzada at the Birmingham store was part of the 2022 Migrant Festival. The Selfridges store was covered by a large canvas showcasing Osman Yousefzada’s black and pink patterned design, entitled Infinity Pattern which  addressed the issues of race, labour and migration, which have shaped Birmingham’s past and present, but also carries a deep sense of optimism, connectivity and hope. Photographer: Jason Alden

SCALE: When and how did The Migrant Festival originate and who was the brainchild behind the idea?

Stauvers: The first Migrant Festival was curated by British-Pakistani artist Osman Yousefzada as part of his exhibition, Being Somewhere Else, at Ikon in 2018. The festival reflected Yousefzada’s interdisciplinary practice, involving performance, poetry and perfume in the galleries.

SCALE: Was there any particular reason why this Festival was initiated in Birmingham?

Stauvers: Yousefzada grew up in Balsall Heath, an inner-city area of Birmingham, as part of a large Muslim community.  His exhibition comprised installations that demonstrated the institutional segregation and social exclusion experienced by his parents, as first-generation migrants from Pakistan, something outlined in his autobiography, The Go-Between (2022). The Migrant Festival was Osman’s way of opening up the gallery to other forms of sense, beyond the visual, in generating a social architecture that speaks directly to Birmingham as a superdiverse city.

SCALE: Do you think that the Festival will help integrate migrants into society or will it aid in identifying and segmenting the population?

Stauvers: The 2022 Festival coincided with the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and featured artists who are representative of a wide range of cultural histories and practices. For example, we staged conversations with Guyanese-British artist Hew Locke, who had been commissioned to reimagine Birmingham’s city centre statue of Queen Victoria, and Nigerian artist, Abdulrazaq Awofeso, who relocated to Birmingham from Lagos during the pandemic. We also provided a platform for refugees to share their campaigns for the right to remain in the UK. By focusing on personal stories of migration, past and present, the festival aims to reflect the commonality that comes with being a ‘Brummie’.

Vanley Burke is often described as the ‘Godfather of Black British Photography’: an artist, photographer and curator whose archive, surveying the Black British experience, is held at the Library of Birmingham.

SCALE: Is Vanley Burke’s A Gift to Birmingham about collecting experiences and how will they be shared with the rest of society?
Stauvers: Vanley Burke’s portraits have been commissioned by Reza Gholami, Professor of Sociology of Education and Deputy Director of the Centre for Research and Race in Education at the University of Birmingham, as part of his research into the impact of non-formal education on intercommunal dialogue in Birmingham.

Right: Mashkura (2021), Digital print, Courtesy the artist. Left: Vanley Burke, Lukano looking out for others (2021), Digital print, Courtesy the artist Both from the photographers’ record of portraying members of Migrant Voice, going about their day-to-day lives.

Vanley Burke, Collette and her children (2021), Digital print, Courtesy the artist.

Gholami reads Burke’s exhibition as an example of ‘living diversity’, which challenges the prevailing notion that migrants must perform their diversity within institutional spaces. By portraying members of Migrant Voice, going about their day-to-day lives, it refutes the idea that they are ‘add-ons’ to an already existing city: they are the city. The exhibition is accompanied by school packs for teachers and students to question traditional educational approaches towards diversity and proposes a richer, more inclusive and innovative curriculum.

Ayesha Jones is an artist based in the West Midlands. She works predominantly with photography and film and is interested in art as a catalyst for growth, healing and social impact. Photographer: Mandip Singh Seehra

Ayesha Jones documents journeys of migration, motherhood and living with health issues, through photography and film. For her exhibition Leave A Light In My Room, at Ikon Gallery (17 – 20 August 2023), she has been commissioned by Birmingham Hospice and Ikon to take photographs of, and document conversations with, the Erdington Asian Group, north Birmingham. Supported by hospice staff, Jones’ photography workshops have provided a space for community members to discuss issues of ageing and dying well. Here is one such photograph from her exhibition.

SCALE: Since you have led the programme since 2018, what changes have you witnessed?

Stauvers: We see artists and communities returning each year to The Migrant Festival, testing out new approaches and realising (what they previously considered to be) their “impossible proposals”. We always have music, by artists associated with Celebrating Sanctuary Birmingham, and family workshops, exploring different craft techniques. Whereas the early festivals were produced within a few weeks, we now plan for The Migrant Festival months in advance, with a network of artists and producers who are collaborating with communities on the production of new work. In this way, we have started weaving the festival into the fabric of the city.

Every year, Osman phones me and says, “So, what’s the plan for this year’s Migrant Festival?” I love talking to him about how we’re keeping the spirit of the original festival alive.

Maryam Wahid is a Birmingham-based artist who uses the medium of photography to explore identity, womanhood, memory, migration, home and belonging. Photography John Boaz.

From Maryam Wahid’s collection; With a focus on the maternal home, Wahid highlights inherited objects and domestic archives as aids for storytelling and learning about cultural heritage. Ikon presents Dreams of Brum, an exhibition of Wahid’s photographic portraits (31 August – 3 September 2023), taken at Handsworth Library during a series of creative community workshops with printmaker Haseebah Ali.

SCALE: What is your personal fav experience of the Festival?

Stauvers: My favourite moment was when the Haitian folk artist, Germa Adan, sang amongst the model ships of Hew Locke’s Armada (2019). Her voice is so powerful, it filled and shook the walls of the galleries. Everyone was in tears. She repeated her performance after Locke’s talk at Birmingham Cathedral in 2022. Her songs are like lullabies, so liberating and full of life.

Images Courtesy Ikon Gallery