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Ways of Belonging: In Conversation

by Megan Daly


WAYS OF BELONGING brings together four young female artists from Birmingham. Working with the medium of photography, the women use portraiture, pattern and place to examine identity and diversity in the city they call home. Radical Art Review caught up with three of them following their recent group exhibition at the Midlands Art Centre.

Farwa Moledina's project 'Interwoven' explores the significance of pattern and fabric in representing culture and tradition. The subjects of her portraits from Muslim, Sikh and African backgrounds pose in front of a backdrop pattern made from traditional English symbolism, and wear their traditional headdress, celebrating the beauty and complexity of dual identity.


Sat behind a flock of swan pedalos and the odd waddling goose, Midlands Art Centre is a cultural hub in Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham. Boasting free gallery spaces, a cinema, two theatres, a number of studios, a café and a bar, MAC has a footfall of over 1.2 million people, making it an essential provider of arts to the public of Birmingham.

Between January and March of this year, the walls of the MAC's ground floor gallery displayed photographs of smashed Union Jack teapots, intricately patterned wallpaper, and portraits of young women in the city's boxing rings and gyms.

The exhibition, Ways of Belonging, combined four projects by Midlands-based artists Farwa Moledina, Anisa Fazal, FreehandFanatic, and Sabiheh Awanzai Mahmoud.

Anisa Fazal's ongoing photographic documentary series 'Beyond Belief'. This photo is of Birmingham artist Shaheen wearing a pink headdress and glasses holding a pen.
Anisa Fazal's ongoing photographic documentary series 'Beyond Belief' depicts Muslim women who call Birmingham home. In this series, Fazal challenges misconceptions of Muslim women and the role of women in Islam and British society. Photographing them in spaces of their choosing, Fazal provides the women with agency in their representation. Pictured: Shaheen, in her artist studio in Birmingham.


Firstly, I just wanted to congratulate you all on the powerful and personal work on display in the MAC. You have had a high level of visibility in the city - could you tell us about the kind of responses you received from the public?

Anisa: The response has been great. People have been so impressed with how empowering these women are, and I feel proud that these women are from Birmingham. When you witness people doing amazing things in the city you live in, your home, you feel a sense of pride and want to celebrate their achievements. What's interesting is that the MAC is a community centre with thousands of visitors passing through, and many visitors unintentionally walk past the gallery space before being drawn to the work. I love how the space engages people who don't usually interact with art.

Farwa: It's wonderful to see so many young people of colour interested in art and I hope that they continue to think and create and feel supported. I've had some young women of colour talk to me about their art, the issues they face and want to tackle through their practice.

I tried to make my work at the MAC inclusive and representative, not just about Muslim women in the way that I usually work, and I think that it has been really effective. It's brought different members of the community together. I hope that it has been inspiring to young women of colour to know that we can make a space for ourselves.

Sabiheh: Many people approached me who said that the work resonated with them and spoke of their struggle; reckonings with their own identities. People seemed to be either mocking or defending the [ideas within] the work. On one occasion, an elderly white couple could be heard discussing how 'anti-British' the work was. During a Q&A session, a young woman who related to the work said she felt the work was a 'slap back'. I very much expected these telling reactions.

Sabiheh Awanzai Mahmoud reveals a more introspective probing of identity in her project 'In the Absence of Belonging'. She investigates the personal experience of assimilation for a person of colour in Britain: how the self is scattered by national identity and colonial legacy. Through self-portrait, Mahmoud confronts personal history and wholeness - a method of restoration and healing.

Anisa, Your work explores ways of directly representing Muslim women in their own spaces. How did you allow the women agency in shaping their narrative, while also guiding the project into a cohesive series? How have the women who are the subject of your work responded to the exhibition?

Anisa: When I first began the project, I knew that location was a very important part of the narrative. I wanted to photograph these women in spaces that represented them - right here in Birmingham.

When meeting and speaking with each of the women, I asked if they had a location they would like to be photographed in. This was important as I needed to be authentic to their representation. With some of the women, we discussed different location options together and collaborated in making the final decision. With others, I had already visualised the compositions I wanted to