"I was about 30 and I was doing a labourer job, working minimum wage," says Foka Wolf with a slight disbelieving head shake. "We got called in to do some work at De Montfort Uni and I just remember peering through the window into the art department and thinking that should be me."
Foka is stood in Ikon Gallery, his trademark balaclava, on this occasion, not on — his eyes wide and his hair all over the place. He's spattered in paint as he prepares to unveil what is, by any stretch, his most legitimate installation to date. Not that he cares for legitimacy. Foka, real name redacted, is the mastermind behind some of our city's most talked about street art. From fake paste-ups trolling Primark to tearaway subvertising, Foka has taken on McDonalds, the Tory party, and even Pat Butcher, his work appearing (usually unasked for) in bus stop poster windows, on public transport and across entire billboards. You might not think you've seen his work, but you will have done.
And for his next trick? Well if you'd told him a decade ago he'd have an installation at Ikon he'd have "called you a liar and a bastard". But here is, the chosen artist to drop the spotlight an an issue he, and those he's partnering with at Ikon, the University of Birmingham and charity Changing Our Lives, admit is a relatively unheard of issue. "Just because you might not have heard about this problem," he says "Doesn't mean it's not an enormous one."
Called Why Are We Stuck in Hospital? and running from now until March 19, the installation illustrates the invisibility of people with learning disabilities and/or autistic people in long-stay hospitals. "They're trapped. Like, actually trapped. Maybe it's red-tape, maybe they've been forgotten about, but they're in this horrible long-term holding pattern, losing all hope.
"I don't think many people know about them, know about this widespread issue. I didn't until recently. It's f*cking shocked me to hear some of the real-world stories. I couldn't believe I was reading about events happening now, in this country. It felt like some Victorian shit, but it's present day Birmingham and beyond."
Foka's usual go-to mechanism to put the focus on whatever it is he wants to discuss, is humour — something starkly and rightly missing this time round. "I quickly realised there wasn't a funny entry-point here and there absolutely didn't need to be one. It wasn't appropriate for a subject matter so harrowing." What Foka has done, instead, is confront the issue head-on, with a billboard style poster that presents the hard facts, surrounded on either side by a maze of red lines on black, to represent the confusion and helplessness of those that must believe there is no way out. Finger-printed dots, Foka's fingerprints, represent those patients lost in the maze. If you don't see it in Ikon, you might see parts of it on Brum's billboards, the very billboards Foka has been using without permission for years on end. The irony isn't lost on him.
As if the maze and the statistics aren't unnerving enough, every thirty seconds or so the lights drop and a hidden message is revealed in UV. The sentence, a powerful punch to the belly for all visitors, is something Foka read in the research papers that were handed to him in the early discussions about the exhibition. A quote from one of the lost patients, it simply reads: "I'm so far away from my mum."
"There are about 2,000 autistic people or people who have learning disabilities currently detained in specialist hospitals across England, with hundreds there for more than a decade! I wanted the installation to have the feel of a horror film because these people are living a nightmare. But I also needed a talking point. Something that will get this matter discussed and seen on social media. I think the light trick does just that."
As serious as the subject matter is, it's also nice to see Foka hasn't lost his wicked sense of humour. I ask him what it's like to get a spot at an internationally revered gallery like Ikon. "It's very much a step down for me," he says with the wriest of smiles, surveying his corner of the gallery. "I never came into this line of work because I wanted to be exhibited. I guess that puts me in a strong position. I simply don't care about that sort of thing. I'll be back getting my stuff up across Brum before you know it." The streets of Birmingham — Foka's forever gallery.
Perhaps it's exactly that attitude, though, the lack of giving a sh*t about where his art is seen, that has drawn Ikon to Foka, not the other way round. Representatives of the gallery have, of course, known about his work for years but it wasn't until they met Foka at a shop in Dudley (where he had taken over the interior as his own mad little exhibition), that they set about bringing him in. It's a change of pace for Ikon, make no mistake. A venue perhaps on occasion guilty of lending itself overly to the more inaccessible arts projects — you know the sorts — the WTF exhibitions that have you leaving with more questions than answers.
With Foka, though, it's all very on the nose and inside Ikon's beautiful walls the gallery feels all the more refreshed for it. The other bonus, of course, is that Foka's legions of younger fans will, one hopes, want to visit and you can bet it will be the first time many of them have set foot in Ikon. A fish out of water artist, drawing attention to a vital issue at a venue that will be inundated with new guests. It's bold and it's brilliant in equal measure. More things like this please.
As anyone else who was part of the standing ovation when the curtain fell at last year's Grease With Cocktails event will testify, few Brum pop-up nights have got entertainment licked quite like The Wine Events Company.
Here's the drill. Wine genius and all round entertainer, Tony Elvin, and his teammates show blockbuster films in some of the best known and lesser known corners of big screen Birmingham. But at specific moments in the movie the action is paused and Tony, in some form of fancy dress and probably attempting an accent, will introduce a wine that will have a connection with what's happening at that point in the plot. The connection could be clear as day or it could be ludicrously tenuous because, frankly, it doesn't matter. What matters is they show great films, serve great wine, it's excellent value but, and most importantly, it's effortlessly fun. Tony's not a comedian, but he does have funnybones, and whether it's going well on stage and you're learning a thing or two, or he's just knocked over a full bottle of burgundy and borderline chaos has ensued, you'll be smiling. It's a helluva skill.
The Wine Events Company have four wine-focussed evenings for your consideration, kicking off with Gladiator on April 15 at the Electric, then stopping at Millennium Point's JUMBO screen for The Greatest Showman, on April 22. In May the movie on the menu is Bohemian Rhapsody (May 14) again at The Electric before a June 4 screening of Back To The Future at the Crescent Theatre.
All screenings include five (might I say, ahem, tall) glasses of the good stuff and The Wine Events Company have kindly made a handy YouTube video here that explains all of the above, in case what I've written is about as clear as a bottle of Douro red. From £27 per person
UNLEASH YOUR INNER SPOOK
I don't know if you watch Apple TV spy drama, Slow Horses, but if you do it will unlock the idea that any old venue could house MI5 agents. It doesn't have to be grandiose Thames-side statement buildings. But what if you could be a WFH spy? It must happen, right? In this post-COVID era.
Well you can and you don't need to take on the real-world pressures of MI5-ing. Birmingham-based immersive theatre company, The Other Way Works has launched A Moment of Madness, which is a free interactive online experience which sees players set out on a covert spy mission from the comfort of their own home.
You'll take part in a stake-out of a multi-story car park (oh very Slow Horses) and be led along an intriguing timeline, uncovering the story of an ambitious politician. You’ll witness political corruption (obviously) and barriers to environmental progress (yep, sounds about right), all the while solving Escape Game style puzzles and questioning the ethics of surveillance.
Made previously as a live immersive experience, and later adapted for online, A Moment of Madness is now available on demand which means you can gather a team at home and play at a time that suits you. Which is probably not how real espionage works, but is dead convenient.
Launched on March 3, the experience, which has been supported by digital agency The Space, will be free for the foreseeable. Each team of 2 to 4 people will need a computer connected to the internet and at least one smartphone. Lasting around 60 minutes it’s a great social activity for those looking for something different — an immersive and visceral experience which fuses compelling drama with real-time gameplay. If you enjoyed Bandersnatch on Netflix but wanted to get more actively involved in the experience, then A Moment of Madness is right up your strasse.
Head here to play for free and to watch the trailer. Speaking of the trailer, does that bouffanted MP remind you of someone local?
THE GOLDEN STATE LIVING MUSEUM
The Rep's PR department who are, quite frankly, on a roll since they took Tom Cruise's Spitting Image puppet out on the town, have done it again but with a delicious change of pace this time. Prominent cast from Of Mice And Men have taken part in a positively Californian photoshoot at the Black Country Living Museum.
Shot by Kris Askey, one of Brum's very best photographers, the snaps were released ahead of the opening of a brand-new production of the stage adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic novel, which runs March 18 to April 8.
The images — all of which you can see here — feature cast members; Maddy Hill as Curley’s Wife, Tom McCall as George (above), Reece Pantry as Crooks, Lee Ravitz as Candy, Riad Ritchie as Curley and Wiliam Young as Lennie. Brummie Tom McCall said; “Having done most of my growing up in Birmingham, The Rep has been a theatre that I’ve always aspired to work in. The fact that my debut is playing George... is a dream come true.”
Of Mice and Men is directed by Rep Associate Director, Iqbal Khan, who directed that Opening Ceremony for the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games and whose productions of Tartuffe and East is East have played at The Rep to audience and critical acclaim. Tartuffe, by the way, will be broadcast on BBC Four on Sunday (March 12) at 9pm.
To book Of Mice and Men (tickets from £15.50) head here or call 0121 236 4455.
"Not long ago you weren’t able to WhatsApp your mates on the bus into town to find out when and where you were meeting," says Brum designer Stacey Barnfield. "This pre-tech conundrum meant you needed a foolproof way of ensuring everyone assembled on time. So, to keep life simple, you met at The Ramp. Not in the pub. At The Ramp. A Ramp rendezvous gave you a moment to prep for the night ahead and finalise plans with everyone present and correct (except for Dave. Dave was always late. Still is). It’s a legendary location that deserves its own vintage railways holiday poster!" Created as part of Stacey's ongoing Draw My City, an online arty homage to Brum, it's one of a plethora of sketches and designs he's conjured. Buy any print, including The Ramp, and a donation is made to the brilliant SIFA Fireside, too. £19
Hot off the back of a juicy feature on BBC1's Saturday Kitchen last weekend, Spirit of Birmingham are one of 30+ traders pioneering a new market on York Road on Sunday (March 12), 10am to 4pm. Again the work of one-woman market machine, Pip Bradley (of Pip's Hot Sauce fame) the trader list reads like a who's who of Brum's best and Pip promises a rotating roster when the market appears on the second Sunday of every month, from now until December. "I love Kings Heath, I'm fiercely proud of the area." says Pip "And I love some of the amazing micro indies I've met along the way with Pip's Hot Sauce. As York Road has become the social hub of the Heath over the last ten years, and that's been cemented by the semi pedestrianisation, it makes perfect sense for me to bring the two together. More
If you're thinking these are beautiful, you'd be bang right. It's the work of Selly Oak artist, Karoline Rerrie, whose colourful prints will bring life to any wall you need them to.
Karoline originally did a degree in graphic design and her work was often a combination of hand drawn lettering and illustration. "It's always been colourful," she says. "My art teacher at school didn’t approve, he wanted everything to be different shades of mud. So I have stuck with bright colours ever since! I’ve always liked the patterns, motifs and bright colours of folk art. And I'm a fan of Soviet bloc graphic design and illustration, especially stamps and match box labels. So maybe my style is a combination of all those influences. It’s decorative like folk art but with bold outlines and block colours.
"My prints start as small sketches which I enlarge and trace to create finished hand drawn black and white artwork, on actual paper. Then I decide on the different colours and create a separate layer for each one. Luckily I work with a limited number of colours so it doesn’t take too long. The next stage is to make a stencil for each layer and then screen print them onto paper to create the finished prints. It sounds like a long process but compared to how long it can take to get artwork commercially printed or published, screen printing is quite quick." And bloody beautiful, to boot.
I ask Karoline about her thoughts on the Brum art world. "If there’s an opportunity for Birmingham to embrace its creatives, then I think it does. But it’s those opportunities that are often missing. There’s no Artsfest anymore and Birmingham doesn’t have a regular open exhibition, which is such a shame. I feel that the bigger organisations and venues could do more — it would be great if there were opportunities for Brum-based creatives to showcase their work in those places. That said we are lucky that there are individuals, smaller organisations and local events that are very supportive. This year I’m taking part in Stirchley Community Market, Harborne Handmade, MAC Arts Market and Birmingham Open Studios, to name but a few."
Sinatra: The Musical will premiere at The Rep on September 23, producers have confirmed. The production sees writer Joe DiPietro (What's New Pussycat?, Memphis) join forces with fellow Tony-Award-winning director Kathleen Marshall (Anything Goes, The Pajama Game). More —
Tickets for Wicked at the Hippodrome, in 2024, go on general sale today (March 9) at 11am. Mother's day sorted — more details here. There are still seats available, by the way, at the Hippodrome for Dinosaur World Live (March 24 to 26) if you need something to please the kids. —
A La Mexicana, Bearwood's quite brilliant taco den run by The Nicest People on Earth™ will be popping up and doing their thang for one day only, at Ju Ju's Cafe near Brindleyplace on Sunday, April 23. Details —
Speaking of tacos, a full festival dedicated to the tasty little bastards is heading for Digbeth's The Bond, on bank holiday weekend, Sunday, May 7. Which may or may not be my birthday, nudge-nudge, Mrs I Choose. Tickets —
Comedian, Twit-hit and BBC Radio 4 regular, Sooz Kempner, is touring her show PlayStation — which is a nostalgic look back about growing up through the 90’s — and it lands at the Glee Club, April 7. £14 —
Fried chicken elysium, Bonehead, is the venue for what looks like an evening of pure noise: A one-off dining experience with a Blade-themed set menu in a decked out venue with strobing. Yep, the Wesley Snipes vampire movie, Blade. £25 — The Myth Of Serial Killer Profiling looks like a grim but compelling talk at MAC Birmingham, March 16. £21.50 —
Digbeth Dining Club are taking over Luna Springs (Digbeth) for a special St Patrick's weekend celebration, March 17 to 18. Expect street food, Irish bands, DJs, bottomless brunch, Six Nations screenings and more.
WORDS: Tom Cullen
PICS: Foka Wolf, Why Are We Stuck in Hospital? (2023). Image courtesy Ikon. Photo: Tegen Kimbley.
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