Culture Forward
Start the Press, 2024, at Ikon Gallery. Photo by Rob Harris

‘Forward’ is the City of Birmingham’s dynamic motto. But, given current contexts, this is proving difficult: the City Council has just announced significant budget cuts of up to 100% across the cultural sector in the next couple of years, with many organisations likely to suffer drastic effects.

The need to continue looking forward though, particularly in times of difficulty, is at the heart of the ‘Culture Forward’ initiative launched last year by the University of Birmingham, which has a laudable, and now essential, goal: to further align the University with the city’s cultural organisations in a closer and more creative collaboration.    

Among its first commitments is the sponsorship of two Birmingham-based artists, Taiba Akhtar and Haseebah Ali, who are engaged with ‘Qur’an in the City’. This project aims to increase public engagement with the Mingana Collection and The Birmingham Qur’an through a programme of activities including theatrical installations, exhibitions, workshops and lectures.

Culture Forward
Taiba Akhtar, Printmaking Studio at Ikon Gallery (2024). Photo by Tod Jones.

In collaboration with Ikon Gallery, and for their latest exhibition ‘Start the Press!’, Akhtar and Ali will also be making art in public, as two of eight artists operating an antique printing press from Wolverhampton School of Art. Within the white-walled gallery space, they will produce original prints inspired by the Mingana Collection.

In January, both artists visited the Cadbury Research Library to view the impressive collection, which comprises nearly 3,000 manuscripts of mainly Arabic and Syriac Middle Eastern origin, together with other items including a few Hebrew and Jewish works, coins, seals and clay tablets.

It also houses The Birmingham Qur’an manuscript, which is one of the earliest surviving fragments of the Qur’an. This is the object which has inspired Aktar to make three different etchings. 

Having previously incorporated text into her printmaking practice, and with an interest in palimpsest – when language has been erased or obscured – she was drawn to this ancient manuscript, written in an early form of Arabic script known as Hijazi.

Aktar has captured this fragmentary nature in three delicate copper-plate etchings, each combining calligraphy, lyrical characters and scripts. Read from left to right, the Arabic text connects with the very nature of printmaking, which requires writing in reverse. It also relates to her Islamic faith and family, with whom she recites verses from the Qur’an. While working from a public collection, she says: “I’ve never made work that is so personal before”.

Culture Forward
Haseebah Ali, Printmaking Studio at Ikon Gallery (2024). Photo by Tod Jones.

Ali also felt a personal connection to the Mingana Collection, commenting that: “Being a Muslim and seeing spiritual texts felt like home”. As a printmaker, she creates narratives through the imagery of Islamic patterns, and for this project will be layering ornamental designs and text from a manuscript, Arabic paintings and the Qur’an across a series of linoprints.

Usually, the two artists work alone, and in silence. However, on this occasion, they will be printmaking in public, turning the wheel on inked-up copper plates and linocuts to press their intricate designs onto paper before Birmingham audiences.

Ali, who is a socially engaged artist, is proud of this element to the project, commenting that, “South Asian communities don’t see much representation in terms of artists”. She hopes her involvement will have a positive impact.

She also points out that “It’s rare to see manuscripts in a modern art setting but for some viewers, it will be something familiar that they can relate to”. She’s already experienced this while leading a workshop for a girls’ school from Handsworth.

Likewise, Akhtar sees herself as “an artist facilitator”, and explains that interactions with audiences will both add to their gallery experience and her own work, as such communication travels both ways. This interactive element to the collaboration with Culture Forward connects with Ikon’s history of arts education, showing that many cultural partners have the same audiences and aims.

Culture Forward, and many other initiatives at the University, are also responding to the need, as Ali points out, for “Birmingham’s institutions to reflect the city’s multiculturalism in their programmes.” As she says, “different people and personalities make up Birmingham – there is so much life and so much colour to the city, and the project is one way to show that”.

If culture is to be taken forward – for the diverse communities of Birmingham – we do urgently need creative solutions towards continued investment in the arts. At an uncertain and worrying time, the University of Birmingham, like other Higher Education institutions in the region, is actively trying to support the city in keeping moving forward.

Taiba Akhtar and Haseebah Ali’s artwork will be added to Ikon’s Start the Press! exhibition during February and March.

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