“We can make mistakes but we can change as well”
These were the final words spoken by AK, who told us what it was like to be involved in The Experiment, an art collaboration created as part of the All We Are project run by Maslaha in partnership with the Mile End Community Project (MCP). The All We Are project aims to tackle the root causes of offending among young Muslims. I had been invited to speak on the panel at its launch event at the Whitechapel Gallery as part of the Unusual Suspects Festival of Innovation, but I was far more interested in hearing what AK and the other participants had to say.
In 'The Experiment', artist Hannah Habibi worked with a group of young Muslim ex-offenders, visiting art galleries and discussing self-portraiture and how we constantly portray ourselves, especially through taking selfies. They explored what the art works meant and how they could subvert or challenge preconceptions, eventually choosing one piece of art to reconfigure and recreate.
The piece they chose was Joseph Wright's 'An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump', a 1768 painting which shows a travelling scientist demonstrating the formation of a vacuum by withdrawing air from a flask containing a white cockatoo. AK, the other participants and the artist Hannah explained to me how the experience of the bird - its captivity and uncertain fate - resonated with them. In the recreated work the participants each ‘play’ a figure from the original painting and the bird is replaced by a central figure taking a photo of himself. The figures in the photograph, the project participants, are themselves 'The Experiment'; the subject of policy interventions and various services and anticipated outcomes. When looking at the picture the viewer is left to ponder the possibilities and outcomes for these young men.
The project and this powerful image provided an excellent starting point for one of the most engaging panel discussions I’ve had the privilege to be part of. There were a wide range of speakers including myself, Simon Fulford from Khulisa, Nurull from the Mile End Community Project and AK, as well as other project participants who chipped in throughout. What was clear from this range of speakers was the importance of making sure that all of our work, from policy to practice, connects with and involves those based in the community, as this is where resettlement ultimately takes place.
We discussed a wide range of topics but two things particularly stood out for me. The first was how important identity was for these young men including how their identities are stereotyped in society. The importance of faith for the young men in providing resilience and alternative options was clear, as was how much this contrasts with the debates we regularly hear about radicalisation and extremism. This meant the participants wanted to challenge both how they were understood in society as ex- offenders, young people and Muslims.
The second was the importance of having new opportunities to try new things. None of the guys had ever been to the National Gallery or the National Portrait Gallery before, and just travelling to Central London on their own was an achievement for many of them. But the impact was tangible and they clearly had an eagerness and confidence to try other new experiences.
The All We Are project has provided these young men with the opportunity to do something different, which has helped them to view themselves in a more positive way. Of course it wasn’t just this project that has had such an impact. MCP has been working with many of them for several years, and it is this long term, community based support that has helped them to change.
The project does not end here either. Maslaha are continuing to work with MCP and with local schools to look at how education and employment outcomes for young Muslims can be improved to stop them entering the Criminal Justice System in the first place. AK has also set up his own website and is project planning and designing campaigns to raise awareness of issues that are important to young people. You can find out more at allweare.org.uk and hear a radio interview with me, Raheel Mohammed from Maslaha and AK here...
Audio: BBC Asian Network
Image: The Experiment ©Hannah Habibi