Alex Billingham, Fluid Bodies Experiment. Photo by Alex Billingham and Vicky Roden
Artists' Studio

Belonging / Disbelonging residencies

The New Art Gallery Walsall and Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture (IVS), Karachi in collaboration with curator Aziz Sohail are delighted to announce the selected artists who will be in residence in Walsall and Karachi from 3 October 2022 – 8 January 2023. We are delighted to be working in Walsall, with Alex Billingham and in Karachi, with Sophia-Layla Afsar.

The residencies are intended to connect trans and queer art practices in the UK and Pakistan, facilitating dialogue, debate and conversation across communities in Karachi and the West Midlands with a focus on inclusivity, care and kindness.

Introducing Alex Billingham

The New Art Gallery Walsall is thrilled to be hosting artist Alex Billingham, a trans fem disabled artist who was born in the Black Country and trained at Cumbria Institute of the Arts before returning to the Midlands. Alex focuses on live art and its intersection with experimental theatre and film. She has performed nationally at Tate St Ives; }performancespace{, Folkestone; Little Wolf Parade, Nottingham; Camden People’s Theatre, London; Fierce Festival, Birmingham; Word of Warning, Manchester; Edited Arts, London; SHOUT, Birmingham; The Swan Theatre, Worcester; Midlands Art Centre, Birmingham; Birmingham Hippodrome and Eastside Projects, Birmingham.

She notes that “survival underpins my work” and that it is important for them to “find better ways for us all to survive into the future”.  In their work, they explore how genderqueer, trans and disabled identities collide and intermingle. Alex is “intrigued by the points where nuclear technology and our fear of it meet, with a particular fascination with the fetishization of nuclear dread in western media”.  Currently they are interested in “revisiting how we connect with it through a queer perspective while nurturing an obsession with outdated hopes for the future.” They “enjoy an analogue approach to manipulating digital technology that allows me to realise a low-fi visual style, binding grime with glitter to make beautifully dirty work. “

Alex proposes to make work which is a celebration of the joy of being trans/queer. She will create film works based on performance using costumes, sets and props. The outcome will be fun and accessible, while acknowledging the privilege of UK legal protection and the pain that shadows queer existence. She is interested in the idea of transuranic elements which are synthetic, unstable and decaying but are also fantastic elements that enrich and save our lives.  She regards this as a fabulous trans allegory!

Introducing Sophia-Layla Afsar

In Karachi, we are delighted to be supporting artist Sophia-Layla Afsar who describes her practice as “multidisciplinary, blending trans and neurodivergent advocacy, emotional care, and play.” Layla has worked with a range of mediums including poetry, prose, situation art and film. She has explored themes including isolation, opacity and nondisclosure of personal information by trans persons, objectification of trans bodies and narratives, utilisation behaviour by neurodivergent people and motionful stillness by autistic folks.

Layla had her first exhibition at the IVS Gallery in 2021 as part of the House of Kal residences where she used playful props and interactive situations to highlight how expectations of personal disclosure and emotional labour are means of exploitation of trans and neurodivergent folks. Her short film Anjaam (Consequence) displayed at Canvas Gallery, Karachi in 2022, used fruit indigenous to Pakistan to represent each of the twenty trans women reported murdered in 2021 in the country.  It interspersed shots of men grotesquely eating the fruit with screenshots of transphobic social media messages that she received.

Layla explored themes of motionful stillness via self-stimulatory behaviour (stimming) by autistic folks during her residency at Tasweer Ghar, Lahore in 2022.  She demonstrated how movement is calming for autistic folks, with calm being akin to mental stillness. Her practice prioritises emotional care, with a focus on co-nurturing psychological safety as a necessity for creative expression.

During her residency, Layla plans to collaborate with local minoritised creatives. So far, she has focused much of her creative attention on marginalisation at a community level or the broader liminality of gender transition. She now wishes to focus on more individual experiences, offering a window into how (dis)belonging is punctuated by micro moments of inclusion and exclusion. For her, it is the sum of such micro moments that determine neuro and gender minority, experiences of psychological safety, taking up space and contribution to civic life. As the current moral panic around transness (and its response) maps a predominantly gloomy presence, capturing and creating experiences of authentic joy and emotional care is a priority to offer a counterbalance to these narratives.

Both artists will be having a showcase exhibition at the IVS Gallery in February 2023 curated by Aziz Sohail.

We are looking forward to working with Alex, Layla and our partners over the coming months and are excited to see what transpires.

The Belonging/Disbelonging residences are funded by the British Council International Collaboration Grants, which are designed to support the UK and overseas organisations to collaborate on international art projects.