Could you first introduce yourself for the reader?
Hi! My name is Josie and I am the founder and one of 3 directors of Ort Gallery. I curate many of the exhibitions and I also organise most of the events.
What happens at the organisation?
We exhibit artists who we feel are under-represented in the arts industry. These are black and brown, disabled, trans and queer artists as well as female artists and artists from low-income or working-class backgrounds.
All our projects are socially engaged meaning they address social injustices such as human and LGBTQ+ rights violations, migration and assimilation into British culture, mental health and disability and more!
Our organisation is based in Balsall Heath amongst other community organisations, residential homes and independent businesses. Our neighbourhood hasn't got a great reputation but we love it and we work towards making it a better place - one that local residents can take pride in.
We want our organisation and exhibitions to be accessible to everyone. We therefore put on lots of events such as workshops, film screenings, discussions and Q&As, walks, talks and lots more to support people to find out more about the topics of the shows, meet artists and other participants.
What do you offer to young people?
Everything we do is accessible to young people. We also offer professional development classes for people who want to learn more about the creative industries.
The classes look at topics like "How do I become a curator?" or "How do I fund my art practice?" and "How do I run a successful workshop?". We also offer young people volunteering opportunities, work placements and paid opportunities. Please have a look at our website for more info or just send over an email with a short introduction.
“Vessels” is currently exhibiting at Ort Gallery. Can you explain the premise of this showcase?
Vessels is an exhibition by Ahmed Magare. Ahmed is a Nechells based artist originally from Somalia. He is a published writer and a multidisciplinary artist who primarily works in painting and drawing. His visual work is rooted in his writing: the themes for his paintings and drawings are influenced by his poems. He also performs his poems.
Ahmed explores his identity and heritage by using traditional materials such as frankincense and charcoal to create his artwork. The use of these indigenous materials in his work creates a link to the historical background of nomadic people from East Africa. The displacement of black African bodies and the Somali migrant experience is explored in a personal and accessible manner.
What inspired “Vessels”?
The title Vessels comes from Ahmed’s most recent poetry publication. Somali cultural artifacts have a memorial and a ceremonial value to the artist who describes them as survival packages.
These artifacts have everyday domestic uses but are also valuable purveyors of cultural identity and memory. “These are essential vessels of life,” says Ahmed, “the artifacts remind me of the connections with people, personal relationships, spirituality, ancient practise and the belongings of my ancestors.”
“If you don’t fully understand the language of the land it takes away your cultural identity and membership. How can we then create our own path of understanding towards this odd culture? Possibly, by developing a new language of storytelling exploring how I feel about my heritage, culture and tradition.”
Here, Ahmed unpicks the concept of trying to belong to a country that is not his birthplace and therefore allows the visitor an insight into the perspectives of a young generation of Somalis living in the diaspora.
Could you give an example of a recent project you have run, and the impact it had?
Earlier this year we organised an off-site exhibition called "Ways of Belonging" at Midlands Arts Centre. We exhibited 4 local young female artists who explored their relationship to Britain and how they belong or don't belong.
It was an amazing experience bringing the exciting work of 4 emerging artists into this venue which is visited by hundreds of thousands of people every year. These were Farwa Moledina, FreeHandFanatic, Sabiheh Awanzai and Anisa Fazal.
We were also really excited to show local residents who use the MAC every day that they can be represented in this space, or someone like them, from the same culture or faith. We wanted to break through this unwritten rule that only a select group of people can be successful in the arts.
We also organised an artist talk with 3 of the artists followed by a guided tour through the exhibition. The artists had a chance to talk to their peers and established art audiences about their practice, they got to say what was on their minds and they were heard. It was a great experience and we are currently working towards a second iteration of this show at the Hippodrome.
Have you faced any challenges in trying to facilitate artistic and cultural dialogue within Balsall Heath?
Not at all. We have been warned numerous times about the reactions of locals but we have always been met with support and enthusiasm. We try and encourage people to talk to us about the topics we exhibit. We invite groups in and tell them about what we are programming, that way they know what's coming.
We also ensure that we speak in a language that is easy to understand because many of our audiences don't have a degree in Art or perhaps English is not their first language. So in order to be understood we make sure we explain, facilitate dialogue and listen to our audiences.
Of course, if you open yourself up to debate you will get it, but we don't see that as an issue. Even conflict and complaints can have a positive outcome. We keep channels of communication open and speak to people on a one to one basis rather than hiding behind the organisational structure.
Have you seen any change in the industry over the last few years? Is it positive or negative?
Yes - we’ve seen both positive and negative changes. The arts scene in Birmingham is growing and with it there are so many more opportunities for young people than there were 10 years ago when we started out. The industry is finally understanding that it needs to be less elitist and start opening its doors to everyone by being more inviting and accessible.
However, it does often feel like this is done in a tokenistic manner (i.e. during Black History month only) and there is no follow-through. Recent reports (most notably the PANIC! report) show that people from working-class backgrounds and non-white British backgrounds are far less likely to enter the arts industry as their white peers would and they will have to work a lot harder to do so. So the sector still has a long way to go.
What worries me the most is that the few organisations who actively support people from diverse ethnic and faith backgrounds, like us, are struggling with funding more than organisations who don't do so. I'm sure it's to do with the size and connections of these organisations but funders also need to understand the value of the work we do.
Is there anything you particularly want to promote to young people at the moment?
Come and see Vessels and take part in our events! Also, come and talk to us! We are always happy to meet new people and to have feedback about what we could do better. We would love to hear from people under 25 more so please come and tell us we can improve our offer!
Where can people find out more about the work you do?
The best places are our website: http://ortgallery.co.uk/
Instagram & Twitter: @ortgallery