A report on a recent incident in Birmingham where a ‘Free Gaza’ mural was removed by the council at the request of the police.
A pithy phrase, an insult, wry political commentary and, just sometimes, real art appear on public display almost as a matter of course on the walls of any urbanised society. The prevailing regimes generally speaking do not like it and use loose arguments ranging from defacement of property to revolutionary intent to remove graffiti.
Some examples of graffiti, as in the case of the now renowned Banksy in the UK, have reached the status of works of art, drawings and copies sold at auction for substantial sums.
Mohammed Ali, a British Muslim of Asian origin who describes himself as a ‘born and raised Brummie’ has recently been the centre of controversy and some dubious police action surrounding one of his colourful works.
With the full permission of the house owner and her sons, the award-winning artist Ali created a work with the title ‘Free Gaza’ on the wall of a house in Alum Rock, Birmingham.
On 16 February the mural, which according to Ali highlighted the plight of the people of Gaza, was wiped out by Birmingham City Council.
‘This was ordered by the police from Nechells Green police station,’ Ali wrote in explanation of the event, ‘this mural was one of four murals that have been painted over the past two months, during the Israeli bombardment of Gaza and have been painted by myself alongside various youths who represented a diversity of different background and faith.’
Although similar works remain in Small Heath and Sparkbrook, the award-winning artist fears creeping censorship will eventually see these wiped out too.
Ruth Jacobs from the Israel Information Centre, based at Singer’s Hill Synagogue admitted to being ‘not overjoyed’ at seeing the murals, but said: ‘The people who hold these views must be free to express them. That’s what living in a democracy is all about.’
West Midlands police, who decided that the mural should go, seem not to agree with Ms Jacobs or Mohammed Ali. They recently asked Birmingham City Council to remove Ali’s mural from the wall of the house in Alum Rock, claiming that the householder – a woman in her 70s – wanted it painted over.
‘The building owner witnessed the creation of the mural, and in no way objected to its creation’, wrote Ali on his website. ‘Her son had heard of my various murals across the city and wished for me to do the same on his building … Funds for the creation of the mural were raised from the local community.’
According to Ali, the police visited the homeowner, who speaks little English, and warned her ‘your home could be in danger of being petrol bombed. If you sign here we can remove it [the mural].’ Her sons supported his version of events.
The police claimed the elderly woman did not want the mural on her house and, along with her sons, wanted it removed.
‘Yes, she may have agreed to the removal of the art, but if police came to my door, I would feel the same, and comply with any of their requests, especially with mention of “petrol bombs”. Who wouldn’t?’ asked Ali.
All the other Gaza themed murals in the area still remain intact. ‘But [for] this wall, they got the magic signature,’ said Ali. ‘The police have denied any reports of threats of petrol bombs from any member of the public.’
Of course the police were absolutely correct; the house could be petrol bombed. Equally it could stand for the next hundred years, be covered in snow or be left entirely alone and take pride in its adornment. The apparent use of an un-subtle scare tactic on a 70-year-old woman achieved what the police wanted; they got a signature on a piece of paper.
The question remains; why were they so determined to have the mural removed? Not one member of the public complained, there was no complaint from officialdom and there were three others in the area.
It could have been to minimise any incitement of hatred in the local community. That however is hardly likely, seeing that the project was community funded and attracted the measured support of the local synagogue. ‘The mural was created by young people of all faith and colour, so this was not an issue that divided this community, but rather united them,’ said Ali.