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by dpm (subscribe)
dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
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Art turns the spotlight on the Commonwealth
Should this be the last ever Commonwealth Games? Four internationally-recognised artists will ask this and other anti-colonial questions to Birmingham this summer by creating new artwork exploring the city's history and relationship to the Commonwealth.

Forming part of the Birmingham 2022 Festival, which coincides with the city hosting the Commonwealth Games, the works have been commissioned by Eastside Projects in one of the organisation's most ambitious initiatives to date. Three artists from Toronto and one from South Africa will be working between June and August on projects across the city.

Rajni Perera's Traveller will see the painter and sculptor, who was born in Sri Lanka and now lives in Canada, creating a mural along the River Rea on the border of Highgate and Balsall Heath and an exhibition at Eastside Project's large gallery in Digbeth. Traveller explores a world following the end of white supremacy in which other cultures are freed to reach their full potential.

Eastside Projects Commonwealth Games
Rajni Perera Traveller 5



Inspired by the story of Looty, a Pekingese dog taken from China at the end of the Second Opium War and gifted to Queen Victoria, Toronto-based artist Amy Lam will create Looty Goes to Heaven, an animation alongside a piece of written fiction looking at Looty's possible life and afterlife. Combining this story with the heritage of the Typhoo Tea Company in Digbeth, Amy, who was born in Hong Kong, will also be creating an opium poppy garden as a lasting legacy.

Toronto-based Irish-Vietnamese artist Jon McCurley examines the role of the Cadbury company and the global chocolate industry in Monsters of the World. Based on European explorers' descriptions of people in other continents, Jon's 'monster people' will take over historic green spaces in Bournville while the work also includes a satirical taste test.

Eastside Projects Commonwealth Games
Jon McCurley


Johannesburg-based painter and filmmaker Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi's Equations for a Body at Rest features a video and multimedia artwork exploring the history of the Commonwealth Games seen through a lens of the experiences of black athletes in the realm of elite sporting competition and mass entertainment. Using video, printed billboards and supporting Birmingham artists, the work will tour community sites around Birmingham.

The commission has taken years of planning with the Eastside Projects team visiting Canada and South Africa, and the artists carrying out site visits in Birmingham. For the Eastside Projects team, it was imperative the artworks develop current debates around the Commonwealth, colonialism and racism.

Eastside Projects artist-curator Gavin Wade explains: "The approaches of the work are wildly different, based in different experiences and different cultural heritages but they're all operating in a wider international art world. We wanted to bring some experienced artists who can talk about the Commonwealth to Birmingham and add to our own voices. We are an artist-led organisation and we want to feel an affinity, connection and dialogue with other artists so we were interested in their approach to these ideas of Commonwealth. One of the artists said to me 'well I'm an anti-colonial artist' and I thought 'that sums it up, that is the approach we were looking for'."

The works aim to exchange ideas and experience between Birmingham and other international voices both historically and in the present day. "I think they should be sparking a wider examination of the history of Birmingham and how we express our identity," Gavin says. "We need to better understand how the wealth of our city has been built on exploitation and the taking of resources and people from around the world."

Eastside Projects Commonwealth Games
Amy Lam visits Birmingham


In order to achieve this, the artists have been learning more about Birmingham. "One of the key things which each of the artists wanted to do was to meet a range of other people in the city including people from global majority heritage," Gavin says. "So we introduced them to people in Birmingham and when they visited they met other community leaders and heard the opinions of other artists, particularly artists who had anti-colonial interest and knowledge.

And he adds: "Jon wanted to meet some ex-workers at Cadbury's and chat to them about their experience of working there in the eighties and nineties. Amy wanted to meet with the Chinese Community Centre and find out their experiences and talk about the relationship of Birmingham to Hong Kong via India."

Jon has a specific interest in the Cadbury story as his parents worked for the company globally and met at the Bournville site, an area of Birmingham which has retained its own character. "Bournville is very interesting and unique in our country because it still has special rules," says Gavin. "There's a lot of respect for George Cadbury and how he set that up. We want to have these conversations because we want to change Birmingham from the position that we love Birmingham and because we respect the histories of Birmingham - but we respect them in a way that should be more honest, it's a self-knowledge that we need to have about our own city."

So too, Amy is bringing together current communities with Birmingham's complex past. "With Amy, one of the elements was connecting with Pekingese dog breeders and owners in Birmingham so they will be doing a walk from the Chinese Community Centre to Digbeth Community Garden near to the Typhoo Factory. There's also a link to Birmingham Dogs Home because the landowners, the Gooch family, set up the dog home as charitable support, so there's an interesting narrative which links the aristocratic and ultimately royal family through to the dogs home."

The community elements continue with Rajni working with children at Chandos Primary School to explore themes arising from future Travellers. Meanwhile, Thenjiwe's work will be shared at community venues across Birmingham and in some cases will be accompanied by additional films by Birmingham-based filmmakers Pogus Caesar and Yonatan Tiruneh.

Supported by Birmingham 2022 Festival, Canada House, Canada Council for the Arts, the Heritage Lottery Fund, Arts Council England and the British Council, this summer's commission is the largest undertaken by Eastside Projects since its foundation as a public arts organisation, known as an 'artist run multiverse' in 2007.

Gavin says: "Our work aligns with the festival, we realised that early on. We have the strongest artist development programme in the city, Extra Ordinary People which has 330 members, so we thought 'what can the festival do for us that we can't usually do?' We have the international connections but we don't always have the resource to bring artists here so this year we're able to do that. We hope that the artwork will then open conversations about historic roots of Birmingham and the future of the Commonwealth."

For more information on all of the installations see https://eastsideprojects.org/
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Why? Join the debate sparked by new art commissions
When: June-August 2022
Where: Across Birmingham
Cost: Free
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