dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
Creating online art across three countries
A new film showcases a ground-breaking global arts project founded in Birmingham. The Digital Collaborations film, created by Birmingham artist Amrit Singh, highlights 17 projects which took place between artists in Birmingham and cities, towns and villages in Bangladesh and Pakistan. Launched by the Transforming Narratives project at the height of last year's COVID-19 lockdown, the initiatives brought more than 100 artists together online to create new work.
Transforming Narratives was founded in Birmingham in March 2019 to promote collaboration between artists based in the city and in Bangladesh and Pakistan and it initially provided opportunities for artists to travel across the globe. When the pandemic hit, the project became digital with people from across the three countries holding workshops, skill-sharing and creating new artwork on digital platforms instead.
The showcase film, available on the Transforming Narratives YouTube channel from 1 July, features film, music, dance, spoken word, crafts, visual arts, podcasts, photography and debates.
Transforming Narratives project director Sophina Jagot says the team realised they were facing an immense challenge with the pandemic but were determined to continue to support artists. "From the beginning, the vision for Transforming Narratives was about creative and cultural exchange between Birmingham and cities in Pakistan and Bangladesh for the mutual benefit of all three places and we had been doing that through various projects. We were about a week away from going live with the open call for the final part of the programme when Covid hit."
But, she says, the organisation was keen not to stand still. "With the pandemic, we were very aware that it was a really difficult time for artists and creatives in all three countries and we really wanted to spread a bit of hope and provide a space for expression. We talked to our funders and steering board and got agreement to repurpose some of the budget to trial digital collaborative grants. We would still be funding artistic work and it still had to follow the same principles of Transforming Narratives, in being a collaboration between at least two of the three countries and multi art form, but it would now be digital."
The team allocated £75,000 towards the grants and put out a call for project applications – and were inundated. They selected 17 projects, all of which brought together artists from at least two of the respective countries but with many featuring participants from all three.
Projects include I Don't Know You, You Don't Know Me, featuring Shehzad Chowdhury in Bangladesh and Mahtab Hussain from Birmingham who created regular artwork on Instagram. Baasi News looked at how newspapers could be repurposed to create new artworks, while reflecting on the idea of the pandemic being stale news. Shakti promoted skill sharing between craftswomen in the rural village of Sreepur in Bangladesh and artists from Sampad in Birmingham. And CollaborArtists brought together eight artists from Birmingham, Bangladesh and Pakistan in creating a single artwork.
Amrit Singh, who led on the CollaborArtists initiative and has created the Digital Collaborations showcase film, says the digital projects have been a real eye-opener. "For me, the two words which sum up this project are opportunity and triumph. The biggest thing I have learnt is that the world is very small now, there is no reason we can't commission artists from around the world. I think before this we always thought it would be too difficult to do that."
And he adds that the showcase film is just a taster to encourage people to discover more. "You can't tell the entire story of each project but it's highlighting each one so the viewer can see who was involved and what they were doing and they can then go and view them in more detail on the Transforming Narratives website."
Transforming Narratives is managed by Culture Central, supported by Arts Council England and delivered in collaboration with The British Council. Originally envisioned as a three-year project, it has now been extended for a further year. The team are hoping the showcase film not only highlights the amazing work undertaken during the pandemic but also encourages new artists to apply for future grants.
Sophina says: "These projects resulted in such incredible work, we wanted to create something long-lasting with this film – something which shows what can be done. Each grant was up to £4,000 so when you look at the projects, the work created and the amount of people involved it's incredible. A large part of this project is about creating networks and promoting research and development. It's about trying things out and this was a great space to play and experiment. I hope these digital projects are the beginning of new collaborations which can be realised in a much bigger way going forwards."
Project coordinator Nushin Hussain said the past year has been a revelation for the organisation as well as the artists. "I feel like we were on a journey with all these artists and creatives. Especially when the pandemic first happened, it was a time when it was so difficult to see how the artists could come together but digital collaboration has allowed so many artists to think outside of the box. The project has shown how we can collaborate with people on the other side of the world, and we can collaborate as artists even if we can't be together - you can do film, theatre, dance, you don't have to be on stage together."
And it has opened up possibilities for the future. "It's a world of opportunities," says Nushin. "This has shown how we can adapt and how we can work without limiting ourselves. I feel in the future artists will be inspired by this idea of digital collaboration across the world."