How the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games Festival tackles the murky history of British Empire

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With a jam-packed schedule under the Commonwealth banner, you might expect a pure celebration of empire. However, the festival doesn’t shy away from difficult colonial legacies

For many people, the idea of the Commonwealth triggers one of two images. For some, it’s a cross-continental community that exemplifies Britain as one of the most powerful countries in the world. For others, it’s a painful reminder of violent colonial rule and the damaging legacies of the British Empire.

It would be easy to assume that the 2022 Commonwealth Games Festival would focus on marking the achievements of Commonwealth residents. But in fact, the programme doesn’t hesitate to tackle the lasting damage from empire around the world. Hew Locke’s reimagining of Queen Victoria’s sculpture raises questions about the spread of empire, while Black-lash, at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, explores the racism faced by communities who were invited to help rebuild this country.

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Blood & Fire: Our Journey Through Vanley Burke’s History then reexamines the artist’s personal collection of images and archival material at Soho House Museum, representing the Black British Brummie experience.

The raging bull makes an entry into the stadiumThe raging bull makes an entry into the stadium
The raging bull makes an entry into the stadium | Birmingham World

The schedule has been jam-packed with opportunities for Brummies to take off any rose-tinted glasses and interrogate the Commonwealth’s complicated history – Fierce, the events company behind the festival’s flagship Key To The City tour, are challenging perceptions of the Commonwealth through Healing Gardens of Bab, an artistic response of five LGBTQ+ creatives including performances, events and artworks that uplift expressions of queerness globally.

“Just like Babylon’s Gardens, the existence of queer people has often been disputed,” says Aaron Wright, Artistic Director of Fierce. “We have always existed: from Hijras and Kothi communities in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; the Fa’afafine of Samoa; Sangomas of South Africa… Fierce’s Healing Gardens of Bab is an artistic response to English colonial history exploring penal codes that criminalised homosexuality,” he adds.

Fierce’s photography series Arrival also shot LGBTQ+ refugees and asylum seekers to explore how the British Empire “exported homophobia across the world,” with many Commonwealth countries keeping hold of these prejudices.

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The inclusion of these issues was important for Tim Hodgson, Senior Producer at Birmingham 2022 Festival. In a statement on Healing Gardens of Bab, he said “It is crucial that all voices are heard… There are still too many places in the Commonwealth where people are not free to express themselves.”

For Avatâra Ayuso, Artistic Director of the Ava Dance Company, and Michael Walling, Artistic Director of theatre group Border Crossing, the idea for their Remembrances dance project came from the need to represent indigenous peoples while recognising that Birmingham supplied arms that sustained an empire. The work is a dialogue between artists in the UK and Canada, asking how we can welcome Indigenous people in 2022.

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

In a blog post, Michael commented “What we hadn’t realised was just how acute and immediate the challenge of welcoming First Nations Canadian artists would become with the discovery of the mass graves across Canada. These atrocities of colonial policy drove home the question we have placed at the heart of Remembrances – ‘who are we now to welcome you?’.”

The central question at the heart of Remembrances is how to be deeply aware of and question colonial history, but also move forward. “I hope people realise that being aware of one’s pasts (on a personal and national level) can bring change and reconciliation,” Avatâra says.

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Michael also adds that while there are positive structures in today’s Commonwealth that “genuinely attempt to deal with the legacy of empire… until the Commonwealth acknowledges that it is institutionally a part of the problem, it will only ever be scratching the surface of a solution. We might not be personally guilty, but colonial history is built into the fabric of our nation, particularly in the form of wealth.”

Eastside GalleryEastside Gallery
Eastside Gallery | Eastside Projects

For Gavin Wade, Director of Digbeth gallery space Eastside Projects, Birmingham is a perfect place to reckon with this history. “Birmingham was the engine and workshop of the Empire, now it is a complex multicultural city that could lead the UK in demanding and devising the replacement of negative systems of colonisation.”

As part of the Commonwealth Festival, Eastside Projects worked with a range of artists to make art that “reveals a future diaspora after the end of white supremacy.” Think a reimagining of immigrant futures and climate refugees, the story of the Pekingese dog stolen from China by British troops as a ‘gift’ for Queen Victoria, an exploration of the global chocolate trade and a multimedia meditation on Black athletes in the Commonwealth complex.

While Gavin took the opportunity to address colonial histories in the city, bringing a positive energy to imagining the future together, he actually hopes that this is the last Commonwealth games. “Once you accept the reality of how [they were] established, the final conclusion is that it must stop. If we want to celebrate the brilliance of cultures working together, we have to come up with a new format to express our humanity.”

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Unapologetically OtherUnapologetically Other
Unapologetically Other | MAC

Being part of a festival under the Commonwealth banner has been complex for many artists. Niall Singh, who is part of Mixed Rage Collective and currently showing his work as part of the Unapologetically Other exhibition at Midlands Arts Centre, joked that lots of artists didn’t want ‘blood money’ on their hands.

“There was a wariness from Black and brown artists about the Commonwealth funding, but I was always going to put in work that was difficult, challenging and critical. For a lot of artists of colour, they’ve taken the platform that they’ve been given by white institutions and said what they wanted to say. We’re starting good conversations.”

With the Commonwealth Festival running until the end of September, there’s still a chance to grapple with what empire means for Birmingham in 2022.

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