Some of my portrait drawings completed at JCC Arts Festival
On Saturday the Art Department I work in at Joseph Chamberlain Sixth Form College in Birmingham held it’s annual Summer Arts Festival. There were lots of activities and art workshops to enjoy and participate in, and also music and performing arts. I’ve written on the blog about it before and described my experiences of either painting or drawing portraits of willing volunteers. I try to do it differently each year to keep myself challenged and also not to appear to be trotting out the same old schtick each time too.
Right up until my first session at ten in the morning I was umming and ahhing about what I should do this year and came duly prepared. I was undecided whether to do some colourful pastel portraits or some moodier, large charcoal drawings. I thought I would wait to see who my first sitter was and then decide. When Mark, boyfriend of colleague Sally, looking quite Biblical with his long hair and beard, sat down in front of me the answer revealed itself: it had to be the moody charcoal. He was a gift to draw.
I really enjoyed working larger and exploring the versatility of the brittle willow charcoal. Working larger also allowed people to watch the process more easily, which lead to quite an audience gathering behind me at times, and I’m not sure if the scale (the drawings were A2) contributed to this rather than my drawing skills, but when I revealed the finished drawing to the sitter I received real gasps of astonishment and pleasure that, in over 15 years of doing portraits with a sitter like this, I’ve never really had before. It was a nice surprise. I was on fire! In around five hours I completed eight drawings. My head was like mush at the end of the afternoon.
The drawing had been fun, but what had been better were some of the conversations I had with the sitters. In particular, a long conversation with a young Muslim guy (nearly all my students are Muslim) studying Islamic Studies and living in a nearby student hostel. We talked at length about my own atheism and his own Islamic faith, which I enjoyed, but also about people’s perceptions of him. ‘They see me coming down the street and they think I’m a terrorist because of my appearance’, he decried, understandably finding it really upsetting. I would have liked to talk more about this, but with the drawing complete and the next sitter waiting it was difficult. He was visibly moved by the drawing, and asked if he could give me a hug, which was touching. I’d been moved listening to him. He was only eighteen, had moved from his home in Bradford to the hostel, had no family around, and had clearly found these changes difficult.
The experience reflected a lot of my recent thoughts about working at the college which is located in the heart of the East Birmingham community under scrutiny over the controversial ‘trojan horse’ allegations in some local schools. Many of the schools recently inspected by Ofsted, and deemed now ‘inadequate’, and reported about by the media are our feeder schools. There have been things going on in some of these schools that should cause concern, but there has been such an Islamaphobic and racist tone to most of the coverage one has to question the agenda on one hand, but also the general ignorance of many of the commentators and journalism. I found Ian Hislop’s comments on Question Time really offensive and patronising in the week that the news broke, but also unsurprisingly Michael Gove’s, the Secretary of State for Education, whose answer, also unsurprisingly, to these problems were to turn all the schools into academies. Not that the academies programme is one of the causes of these problems of course. His single-minded mission to privatise our education system has all the hallmarks of fundamentalism being led by a religious zealot.
The point I would like to make, however, is about my own positive experiences of working with young people from this Muslim community of Birmingham. I’ve never worked with such nice students, who come from some incredibly deprived backgrounds. They have, and continue to be, the friendliest, warmest, tolerant, generous, kind and respectful community. They also have a great sense of humour and a real commitment to their studies in the Art Department. I’ve learned so much from them and they inspire me. They seem to live and practice by example so much more the so-called ‘British Values’ currently talked about, which huge swathes of our society seemed to have left behind a long, long time ago.