Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery partially reopens today and, having been closed since October 2020, they've got some serious diem to carpe. Major galleries have been transformed, working in partnership with some of the city’s most exciting creatives who have responded to the theme of ‘This Is Birmingham’ with pop-ups and live performances. It's BMAG but not as you know it, in a buzzy, rollicking way. The iconic Round Room, Industrial Gallery, Edwardian Tearooms, Gallery 10 and the shop are reopen, seven days a week, as of now. Here's just a tiny portion of the newness on display within those sorely-missed walls...
WE ARE BIRMINGHAM @ THE ROUND ROOM
We Are Birmingham reflects the people of 21st Century Brum. Co-curated by Birmingham Museums and a group of six young people of colour from Don't Settle, a project of Beatfreeks, the new display is a vivid and utterly packed celebration of the city that Birmingham is now, how it was, and how it could be.
The Past is Now, by Sarah Maple (above), is one of the key pieces. The painting explores the complex role of the British Empire in the construction of Modern British culture and identity. Sarah's work often draws on her own mixed background and in this piece, she is particularly interested in looking at her family's history of migrating to Britain as a result of colonialism.
Handsworth Self-Portrait, by Derek Bishton, Brian Homer and John Reardon is an amazing collection, some shots of which are now at BMAG's Round Room. On a dull day in August 1979, Bishton, Homer and Reardon set up a pop-up take-a-selfie photo studio, on a street in Handsworth. They had no idea if anyone would show up. They did. The late seventies was a time of huge demographic change in Birmingham, and in Handsworth the shift in Afro-Caribbean and Asian culture was particularly obvious. "At a really basic level" says Bishton, "the streets looked different, and we wanted to capture that".
Where My Grandfather Sang, by Stephen J Morgan, depicts the Ladywood Social Club, frequented by the photographer's grandfather in the 1970s and ‘80s. Through his images, Morgan revisits his formative years, creating not just a memorial to his grandfather but also an examination of his identity through the context of the pubs and clubs of Brum's Irish community. "It was a conscious decision to photograph what I knew and where I came from," said Morgan. "In the Ladywood Social Club, there are three bars where my grandfather drank and two stages that he sang on... Through this work I started to question my relationship to religion and my Irish heritage, and how this shaped me and gave me my identity."
Birmingham Town Hall and Queen's College, by Samuel Lines Snr, is a real throwback. The pillars of the Town Hall protrude from behind a castellated building known in the 18th century as Allin's Cabinet of Curiosities. This building and others were bought in 1853 for the construction of the Council House, which started in 1874. The more I read about Lines, the more I like him. His art classes on Newhall Street notoriously started at 5am, with Lines himself personally visiting latecomers to rouse them.
WONDERLAND BY FLATPACK
Wonderland, by Flatpack Projects, and presented by Birmingham 2022 Festival, explores how cinema has shaped the streets, social lives and dreams of Brummies over the past 125 years. It is amazing to be surrounded by it. In Wonderland, Flatpack has mapped a physical, 3D history of Brum cinemas. The wider display showcases photographs and cinema memorabilia, alongside Birmingham’s collection of magic lanterns and optical toys. Visitors can join in by sharing their own cinema-going memories, watch film screenings or take part in drop-in activities. There are cinema chairs from The Electric and a very cool ticket booth.
One of the most mind-blowing objects Flatpack found during their research was a scale model of the Odeon New Street in its 40s heyday. Cyril Barbier was a diamond-cutter based in Sutton Coldfield, who decided to make the model to commemorate his first date with his wife, Norah. It ended up taking him 28 years, and the level of detail is astonishing — down to tiny light bulbs, toilet paper and a little Compton organ that rises from beneath the stage. The model now lives at Paul Kirner's Music Palace in South Wales, but BMAG opens with immaculate photos (two of which are above and below) and a fly-through video of the extraordinary find.
IN THE QUE BY BIRMINGHAM MUSIC ARCHIVE
A sensory exhibition celebrates one of Birmingham’s greatest music venues – the Que Club. Curated by Birmingham Music Archive and Pretty Hate Production, In The Que, features previously unseen photographs by critically acclaimed photographer, Terence Donovan, personal artefacts, archive film footage, flyers and posters and a 35 minute documentary film. Reflecting the experiences of the Que Club – from the ravers to the DJs, musicians to staff – the exhibition encourages visitors and former clubbers to share memories, which are surely deep down in your amygdala somewhere, right?
Some shots of David Bowie at The Que are included, taken in August, 1997, during The Earthling Tour, promoting Bowie's Earthling album. The images, which have never been publicly exhibited before, were taken by Neill Milton, who attended the gig. They're fascinating for the proximity of Neill and the crowd to such a global superstar like Bowie, in a relatively small and intimate venue, given his status as a global superstar at the time. They capture the legend up close, striking a series of poses as he sometimes stares straight into the camera lens. What is also significant about these images is that they pre-date the now ubiquitous use of camera phones. Neill would have had to snap shots not knowing what the photos would look like, evidenced in a couple of pics featuring Neill’s thumb over the flash.
"After a day's walk," said G.M. Trevelyan, "everything has twice its usual value." It's something a lot of us discovered during lockdown and it rings true for Bournvillian, Josh Allen. Josh wasn't a big plodger pre-panny, but got into it big-time when it was all we were allowed to do — remember that? Mental. When, more recently, Josh was knocked for six by COVID, bed-bound for 10 days, he mulled over his new found love for a stroll and decided to launch Walk Midlands, a growing and glorious website of walks around our landlocked plot of the UK. Perhaps the thing that most appeals, and separates, Walk Midlands from many a walking webpage, is that Josh doesn't drive, so all start points (and end points) are reachable by public transport. There are 33 walks so far, across nine counties, with Brum walks very well represented. You can either follow Josh's very thorough directions, which include photos, or do what I did and download the OSMaps app. Josh, handily, provides a link on every walk which, when clicked on from your mob, will launch OSMaps and guide you. There's no charge for any of this, which makes Josh just a typically bloody lovely Brummie. He's updating the site with, roughly, a walk a week and they range from two milers to big ol' tenners. You can search by geography, topography, scenery (I went to Baddesley Clinton, pictured) and distance. Happy leg travel. More
"I'M GUNNA GO VISIT TANWORTH, VISIT TANWORTH"
Not an expression they would use, but Ikon Gallery will be back to its batshit best come June, when it presents The Sky in a Room, a major off-site project with Icelandic artist, Ragnar Kjartansson. The Sky in a Room involves professional singers taking turns to perform an ethereal arrangement of Il Cielo in una Stanza, the famous song by Gino Paoli, originally released in 1960. If you're anything like me, you'll know it from Scorsese's 'Meet the Crew' scene in Goodfellas, the one where Jimmy Two Times says "I'm gunna go get the papers, get the papers". Simultaneously playing the church organ, the singers repeat the piece uninterrupted for five hours a day for nine days, like a never-ending lullaby. The performances take place each day, June 25 to July 3, from 2pm to 7pm (so not never-ending then), at St Mary Magdalene Church, Tanworth-in-Arden. Tanworth is not to be mistaken for Tamworth, in Staffordshire, because, ahem, who'd ever make that mistake? The setting is appropriate for Kjartansson's work — characterised by a sense of melancholy — as it is also the place where singer-songwriter Nick Drake is buried. Nick Drake is not to be mistaken for Nick Cave, who's very much alive. Because, *cough*, who'd ever make that mistake? Tanworth is ace, by the way. You could combine your trip with a visit to the 300-year-old Bell pub, Umberslade Farm Park, the aforementioned Baddesley Clinton, or Packwood House. Not the snowdome, though. That's Tamworth. Free
WIN BETFRED BRITISH MASTERS TICKETS
The Betfred British Masters returns to the historic Belfry Hotel & Resort in Sutton Coldfield next week (May 5 to 8), with tickets available from here. This year’s tournament will be held on the iconic Brabazon Course, which has hosted the Ryder Cup on four occasions. Cup legends, Thomas Bjørn and Lee Westwood, will return to the scene of one of their most famous Ryder Cup victories when they tee it up alongside Masters host, Danny Willett, defending champion Richard Bland (pictured), and some of the DP World Tour’s most promising rising stars. Bjørn and Westwood were members of Sam Torrance’s side, which famously won back the 2002 Ryder Cup on a 15½ - 12½ scoreline and started Europe’s undefeated streak on home soil. To celebrate the tournament's return to the West Midlands, we've teamed up with The Betfred British Masters to offer one reader two general admission tickets to each day of the event (Wednesday to Sunday inclusive) a prize valued at £340. To enter, simply click here, answer a question, then one winner will be drawn at random at 4 pm tomorrow (April 29) and informed of their win by email.
WING FEST: SELLING LIKE HOT... WINGS
Some 45,000 people will be served wings from 80 different restaurants, street food traders, pop-ups and BBQ teams at this year’s national Wing Fest events. I know because I read this article in which Digbeth Dining Club — who are teaming up with Wing Fest for the Brum shindig— gets lauded by Forbes Magazine, no less. Wing Fest, the world’s largest chicken wing festival, makes its Birmingham bow, August 13 and 14, with tickets (from £17.50) already shifting fast. Taking place at Digbeth Loc, Fazeley Street, local chicken chiefs, Greidy's, Yard Bird, Buddha Belly and Brum Mi are all confirmed, while London wing titans, Chick'N'Sours, are also onboard. I'm particularly excited to get messy with some of the Magic Wingdom's fine fare. I've heard great things about the Leamington Spa team and they deserve a gastronomic roll of the dice on the basis of their Disney-goading logo alone. “Every time we launch in a new city," WF founder Richard Thacker told Forbes, "it’s like launching a new business and has to be considered carefully." They will have done their due diligence on Brum, and this will definitely sell out. Tickets
BIT SKETCHY, THIS
You haven't been to the Gunmakers Arms for a while, have you? You silly sausage. Birmingham Urban Sketchers currently have an exhibition of a selection of their artwork on public display at the Two Towers Brewery pub for two months, the presentation consisting of rarely seen works including original sketchbook drawings. Many of the sketches are local scenes or everyday views that may not otherwise attract artistic attention, but here have been treated to the individual styles of the artists, like Tim Griffiths' portrayal of The Anchor pub, in Digbeth (above). Many are small scale, using simple pen and watercolours in line with the practical considerations of always carrying a sketchbook and paint. Subject matter reflects the individuals' interests, with everything from jazz singers to chickens and, due to lockdown restrictions at the time, some chose to sketch the views from their windows over the seasons. The exhibition runs until May 26. If you visit on a Saturday afternoon or evening you may even see some of the sketchers working in situ. More
Venue: The Coconut Tree, 35 Gas Street, B1 2JT; website Choice: Hot battered spicy cuttlefish (£8.95) Chooser: Rehana
Don't shoot the photographer, but we need to talk about cuttlefish. In 2006 I had a cuttlefish dish in Oman (oooh look at you, aren't you well travelled? Pathetic), that was so bad I embarked on a 16-year boycott of the stuff. That embargo was lifted, last week, when my Sri Lankan buddy, Rehana, took me to new Sri Lankan restaurant, The Coconut Tree, her third trip in three weeks. She's playing it cool ("yeah, it's pretty good") but a hit ratio of one-a-week suggests she's more into it than she's letting on. The first time I met her she told me about buttered cuttlefish — a national speciality — for a solid 15 minutes and, four years later, I'm scooping up the oniony, crispy debris with an index finger. "There's better in Sri Lanka," she says, and I'm sure there is, but we're not in Kansas (Colombo) anymore Dorothy (Rehana). In one bite, cuttlefish came clean off my black list, leaving just baked beans and sea urchin as the Russia and Belarus to my UN. The squid-like fish is fried in spiced butter (to batter it) and topped with capsicum, peppers and fried onions. I picture eating this beside a beach one day but, for now, beside the canals of Gas Street basin will do. I like The Coconut Tree. It's 5.30pm on a Monday and one customer stands to her feet and has a little dance to the joyful tunes — remember this venue next time you wonder what's open on the culinary blackhole that is Brum on Monday. It feels almost like a Caribbean place, such is the relaxed and bubbling atmosphere. Other menu hits include a treacly beef in a molasses gravy. It won't appeal to everyone, so peculiar is it to a first time trier, but the balanced spice (without spiciness) is warming, homely and memorable. The hopper is a must try. I'd rather mine were crispier to the edge, but what do I know, I've never had one before. Fermented rice flour is laced with coconut and turned into a crispy, bowl shaped 3D pancake with a pillowy middle, on which nestle a fiery katta (literally meaning fire-hot) sambal, a chilli coconut relish and an oozy, caramelised onion number. Break a piece off, scoop a bit of each and wallow. Maybe lob in a few chickpeas, fried in mustard seeds, garlic, ginger, scallions and chunks of fresh coconut. I'm not so keen on the Cheesy Colombo in a sticky sauce but no bother, the sticky devilled chicken wings tick that box with gusto, and the St Colombo 'cocotail' — Tanquerary, elderflower, lemon soda — sends everything southward with a tickle. Butter battered cuttlefish, though. Tell your mates. Menu
The David Attenborough Jungle Rave is tomorrow, in Digbeth. Not a joke. Tickets —
The offensively talented team behind Birmingham Design Festival returns this year, the three-dayer celebrating the theme of ‘freedom’ (apt being as we were locked down when the last one should have taken place). Talks, workshops and exhibitions spanning design, architecture, illustration, and more will take place across the city, June 9 to 11. More —
The Great Birmingham Run is this Sunday (May 1). Here's the route if you wanna get behind them. It's also worth a look for road closure purposes. Main areas of disruption (rubbish word for such a great event - sorry) are town, Digbeth, Edgbaston (just use your helicopter), Selly Park, Stirch Vegas and Bournville. —
Birmingham Brewing Company are hosting a Star Wars screening on, you guessed it, May the 4th. What idiot called it 'Star Wars Movie Night' and not The Admiral Ack-BAR?
"It's a trappist!" —
Andy Low N Slow (or Andrew Lowensworth-Slowbury, to give him his full and proper name) will be taking his BBQ teckers to Kings Heath's Poli for one night of smoke and pizza wonderfulness — Monday. Details —
Tommy Wiseau’s The Room — aka ‘the worst film ever made’ — is almost twenty years old. To celebrate the mac will be showing it and star Greg Sestero will be stopping by to chew over the disasterpiece, undigestible mouthful by undigestible mouthful. May 5, £16.50 —
The Birmingham Vintage Furniture Flea is at the Custard Factory, May 29. £3 —
Barnt Green is getting a new restaurant, Black & Green, from the people behind Craft. in the ICC. —
Brum's annual Burger Festival returns to Aston Hall, July 16. Heck of a line-up, like. £6.50 —
Next week's email will be the 400th issue of I Choose Birmingham. We've been going nearly as long as the Lee Longlands sale. When will either ever end?
WORDS: Tom Cullen
PICTURES: Jon Bryant, Flashback December 2010 (first Que Club shot)
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