Amahra Spence and Amber Caldwell are the co-founders of MAIA an arts & social justice organisation …

MAIA provides a platform for creative practice, critical thinking, and social change. In 2020 the organisation was busy leading the West Midlands Coronavirus Impact Fund which helped to raise and redistribute money to local artists falling between the gaps of state support.

Last month YARD Arthouse was launched, MAIA’s flagship venue for artists from Black and under-represented communities. The venue will be situated within a large three-storey townhouse in North Birmingham’s Ladywood area. Facilities across the three floors will include a community kitchen, podcast facilities, a soundproof recording studio, rehearsal space, and a flexible space for exhibitions, scratch night performances, and screenings. Along with two large en-suite rooms where artists can stay while in residence.

We spoke to Amahra Spence to find out more about YARD Arthouse and her thoughts on how creative arts can support social justice work …

Please introduce yourself?

I’m Amahra Spence. Of proud Caribbean lineage, living in Birmingham, UK. I describe myself as an artist, cultural producer, organiser, designer for social justice movements and spatial practitioner. I exercise this in a number of contexts; partly as the founder of arts and social justice organisation MAIA, partly as the organiser behind the Black Land and Spatial Justice Project and in my independent practice. No matter the title, I think about my work in relation to community and liberation, particularly how that relates to place, space and the redistribution of resources.

Please share a word or sentence which best describes your life right now ...

My life is a mixture of mothering two incredible young Black boys while navigating the joy, chaos, love, exhaustion, graft, and accountability that comes with being deeply embedded in community-rooted work.

You co-founded MAIA in 2013 with Amber Caldwell how far do you feel that you have achieved the initial goals that you set for the organisation?

We started MAIA to find ways of supporting creative artists and practitioners to do what they love for a living, sustainably. Realising we were operating within industries that love Black culture but don’t care for Black people, we wanted to find ways of ensuring that our communities are no longer being harmed by extraction, harm, and disinvestment. Rather, how do we hold onto the value of our creations, knowledge, labour, visions, and ideas and build life-affirming spaces for each other? Our work is both focused on the systemic challenges we face and the radical imagination to explore and build alternative possibilities for our present and future. In many ways, it feels like we have evolved and are really living in our purpose.

MAIA is named after the ancient goddess of nurturing and growth – how did you first come across the goddess Maia, and why did you choose to name your organisation after her?

It was quite instinctive for us. We thought about how we wanted the name to serve as a metaphor for the spirit that we wanted to lead this work with. In many cultures and ancient mythologies – including Mayan, Roman, and Greek, MAIA spoke to nurturing and growth. We were thinking of what we wanted our organisation to embody and how people will be in relation to it. We saw so many entities that weren’t facilitating that, that weren’t leading with care. We aspired to be part of an ecosystem that was grounding possibilities in nurturing

YARD Art-House in Port Loop Birmingham

MAIA was launched simultaneously to questioning how you both might maintain careers outside of cultural centres like London. How serious is the regional disparity between access to and funding for arts?

COVID has exacerbated many of the challenges that existed. We still live in a society where resources, opportunity, and investment is centralised – it circulates around the capital first and the rest of the country is expected to go head to head on whatever is left. And then, within towns and cities outside of London, that fallout goes to large institutions and bricks and mortar first. Grassroots organisations, small art collectives, and community groups who are most proximate to transformative action are the most disconnected from resources needed to make change happen. That doesn’t lend itself to a healthy ecology, or social change. It seeds this toxic, competitive spirit where folks think their survival is dependent on the failure of others.

So, let’s talk about the upcoming launch of YARD Arthouse. You actually grew up in Ladywood on the same road where YARD arthouse is now located. What is your personal relationship to Ladywood and is it particularly important to you that this cultural hub is built in the area you grew up in?

People who have the most passion. I’ve grown up all over North and West Birmingham, in neighbourhoods that have long faced systemic disinvestment and disparity by design. Birmingham is an incredibly centralised city – all resources flow through the centre and trickle back outwardly in some directions, but not all. Gentrification is happening at a rapid pace in my city and no one cared about the ends until big placemaking initiatives started cropping up in places where the rent was cheap. We always knew we wanted to build in the hood, before anyone. could come and tell us what value is. I couldn’t think of a better neighbourhood to start that journey than one I have a deep connection and memory in.

You’ve spoken about the way in which decades of austerity have led to the closure of community spaces. Why do you think cultural investment and the development of community arts and culture are so important?

Community infrastructure of many different kinds is crucial for our neighbourhoods to thrive. Arts and culture is a space where the radical imagination is really nurtured and we need to know this is one of the most powerful tools we hold to transform from where we are to where we’re dreaming about. Art and culture do more than just make people feel good – it pushes us to think beyond our current paradigms, express what needs healing along the way, and imagine strategies for alternatives. It is no surprise disinvestment comes to community spaces and other sites of resistance.

MAIA states that its mission is to create, ‘a sustainable creative ecosystem’. What exactly do you mean by this and how far does YARD Arthouse contribute to its creation?

Our original mission used that terminology. We’ve been working with Hanna Thomas Uose, an incredible organisational design consultant, who has supported us in articulating a vision and mission that feels more aligned with our current practice. Our evolved mission is to redefine what it means to be an artist, challenge who gets to make their dreams real, and invest in the transformative possibilities of the Black imagination.

YARD feels like an exercise of the Black imagination, knowing it has emerged from the spirit of our ancestors and the safe, joyful, multi-form spaces they created for multiple generations. Spaces where everybody’s children were cared for, where a kitchen could be a community centre, where conflict could be sorted at a dinner table, where a living room could turn into a shubeen. It’s in this spirit we organise, knowing we are accountable to each other and ourselves, acknowledging our imaginations can birth the transformation we really want to see in the world.

YARD Art-House Team

April saw the online launch of YARD Arthouse’s first-ever season of programmed work, Imagination SZN. What’s it been like programming a season of work in a national lockdown?

It has been nuts, I can’t lie. COVID pulled the rug from under us in every possible way. Everything changed and on top of that, our team had grown really quickly, which is a huge thing to adjust to at the best of times. Imagination Szn felt like a dope way of being intentional about the direction we’re heading in. We know that it has been an extremely challenging time for our community. Even before COVID, we were facing multiple crises.
Imagination Szn asks us to not only think about the world we want to see but how do we want to see it.

Which parts of Imagination SZN are you particularly excited about?
All of it. Especially the ABUELOS Ideas Lab. We’re coming together with a lot of dope folks, to put together strategies, intentions, and designs for a hotel that redistributes the cultural sector’s hospitality spend into local artists, entrepreneurs, and communities.

Have you got any other projects on the horizon that you’re excited about?

MAIA will be focusing on YARD as we emerge through COVID and bringing our community together to co-design ABUELOS, an artist-led hotel, built in the spirit of our Grandparents’ homes. The Black Land and Spatial Justice Project have been through a period of organisational design and we will be launching our first public programme in 2022, which I am so gassed about. And I’m also working with Black Country Touring to birth a podcast which I’m really excited about. It’s called Auntie Wisdom, a conversation series of intergenerational, Indigenous, and embodied wisdoms, exploring how we heal ourselves and heal the land.

GETTING TO KNOW YOU…

  • A book you have to have in your collection? – Everywhere I go, I recommend Craig L Wilkin’s book, The Aesthetics of Equity: Notes on Race, Space, Architecture, and Music. It’s dope!
  • A song/album that defines the soundtrack of your life to date? – As a child of the grime era, I’m going to have to say Dizzee – Boy In Da Corner
  • A film / TV show that you can watch repeatedly?Boyz N The Hood gave me the license to think critically about space and was the first time I heard the word gentrification. Plus, it’s just a classic.
  • The first stage production you saw and what it meant to you? – The first one that made me think “this is what I want to do” was Little Sweet Thing by Roy Williams.
  • What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? Sad – Running out of sea moss. Mad – The fact that 20 women, journalists of a national newspaper, and multiple witnesses had to risk their safety in order to hold Noel Clarke to account for his violations. Glad – Seeing the MAIA team thriving, stepping into their power, trusting their intuition, taking opportunities, and doing it all with such love.

Imagination SZN is available online now. For more info visit YARD