For those of you unfortunate enough not to live in or around Birmingham, you may have never heard of Bearwood.
Bearwood, like lots of places in greater Birmingham, isn’t really a town, it’s not really a village, but it’s ‘a bit’ of Smethwick, which in itself is a town in Sandwell, which isn’t really in Birmingham, but kind of is as well. Does that make it clear? Keep reading, I’m sure it’ll come together.
Josh Whitehouse, an active part of Sputnik and an immensely talented illustrator, is a resident of Bearwood and is putting on a new exhibition in his hometown (village? district? bit?) and it’s all about Bearwood itself. He has teamed up with a local historian and has created a series of images about the history and culture of his local area. I’ve included one of these above, which may strike you as slightly enigmatic if you’ve never come across Josh’s work before. To find out what it means and how it relates to the history and culture of Bearwood (you’d be right to suppose that Bearwood wasn’t once populated by living teddies and bipedal grasshoppers) I guess you’ll need to visit the exhibition.
While I would strongly encourage anyone in the vicinity to come along (it’s on from 3rd-10th October, at Ooops Artisan Gallery and Gifts on Sandon Road, Bearwood. Click here for more details) I think that the simple focus of this exhibition is a provocation and challenge to us as artists and Christians.
I have been struck talking with Josh about this project that his passion for where he lives is very rare. At least in the Christian world. It is obviously a pretty routine gripe that community is not what is was and that people are increasingly disconnected from their neighbours, and I’ve often glibly thrown out such shrugging cliches. So it was quite some surprise to discover recently that, while I’ve been gnashing my teeth at the evils of modernity in regard to a sense of local geographical solidarity, my own area does actually have a strong sense of common identity and pride. It was just that I hadn’t chosen to be a part of it. I wonder if yours is similar.
As a non-native Brummy, I once exercised a patronising affection towards my newfound home, that I think is fairly typical of ex-pats, that said ‘I like the idea of being identified with this place in general, I just don’t want its culture to rub off on me.’ I imagined that I could affect Birmingham, I just didn’t want it to overly affect me. However, I have been challenged on this for a number of years now, and have actively sought to change. We are called, as Christians, to love our local communities. Take, for example, God’s instructions to Jeremiah about Babylon in Jeremiah 29:7, or perhaps more poignantly, Jesus’ deep feeling towards Jerusalem (Luke 13:34). We are not to stand aloof, superior and judgemental, but we need to get involved in our communities for the good of those communities, especially if we want to have a good influence on them.
As artists, I wonder if we have a special opportunity to model this to the rest of our churches. Arts groups and forums are often at the heart of local communities and involvement in these groups and the projects that they undertake is often a very practical way of doing good to our localities. What I love about Josh’s project is that he is someone who values and cares for the place in which he has grown up and has infused that passion into his work for the good of his community. I find this challenging to me as a Christian and as an artist.
So whether you live in a town, a city, or ‘a bit’ of a bigger place, don’t despise your community. Is your art a way that you can do good to the place you live?
Jonny Mellor is a rapper, a writer, and the director of Sputnik.