Exhibition Review: “Stuff Happens” – May Ayres

by Hamja Ahsan 

Theresa May gave her first obligatory Eid address as Prime Minister this month to Muslims living in Britain and worldwide. In the broadcast, she spoke of the “spirit of togetherness” and “the way people are brought together with those around the world through the strong bonds of shared history, family relationships, and concern for those suffering and in pain”. This was the same MP who, as the former Home Secretary, was directly responsible for ripping my family apart when extraditing my older brother Talha to indefinite solitary confinement in a supermax death row prison.

I felt the deepest sense of sickness watching her stilted words in my social media feed, as did many thousands of others who supported our family campaign through public vigils, petitioning and standing by us through eight years of my brother Talha Ahsan’s ordeal of extradition and detention without trial. I will never forget the tears in my elderly father’s eyes during our final family visit at HM Prison Long Lartin. I will also never forget the howls of pain of my mother who lived with the understanding that she was likely never to see her son again. Theresa May boasted “Wasn’t it great to say goodbye…” after my brother was put on a plane to his brutal fate, as her opening gambit at the Conservative Party conference. This political moment forms the centerpiece of May Ayres’ new exhibition “Stuff Happens” which recreates life-size sculpture of Theresa May with Talha’s award-winning prison poetry etched into the clay.

May Ayres first started making clay sculptures after the invasion of Iraq. She found in the medium of fired-up clay a means of channelling her anger. Ayres’ concern for prisoners’ welfare runs deep. An earlier sculpture in her career, Zero Tolerance (2005), commemorates Joseph Scoles who hanged himself from his cell at the age of 16 in Stoke Newington’s Young Offender Institution, just 9 months into his 2 year sentence for street robbery.  Ayres work has deeper resonances with recent events. After Chris Grayling’s ministerial post under the last Conservative government, prison suicides increased by 64% as noted by the #Graylingmustgo campaign.

The two faces of Tony Blair in the sculpture ‘And by the way, God bless you all’ was originally conceived for an earlier exhibition God War’s (2011). It became even more prescient after the Chilcot report. In the current National Portrait Gallery, hangs a portrait of Tony Blair painted in his home of Buckingshire in 2011. The caption simply presents him as a dignitary of the Establishment, and entirely ducks the legacy of destruction he has beset upon the world. Hence Ayres records the underlying dark reality of our times whitewashed willingly in our national museums.

Hamja Ahsan standing face-to-face with Theresa May for the first time
Hamja Ahsan standing face-to-face with Theresa May for the first time

The sculpture of Theresa May conceived before she became Prime Minister took Ayres over 6 months to prepare . The level of care taken can be seen close-up in the textures, carving and surfaces of each figure. Carved into the sculpture are two poems written by Talha, written whilst detained without trial in HM Prison Long Lartin in group isolation. Entitled This be the Answer and the sestina Extradition, the two poems were featured in the campaign Extradition which toured the UK in 2012. The Free Talha campaign was shortlisted for a Liberty Human Rights award for its creative use of art, film and poetry. I integrated my own creative skills as a curator and artist to activate this aspect of the campaign.


Ayres started as a student of illustration at Royal College of Art. Her sculptural works are like an extension of her satirical drawings. The family of sculptures echo the Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell’s work conceived during the war on terror put into three dimensions, with weight texture and form and echoes of 1980s TV satirical puppet show Spitting image. The characters in May Ayres exhibition seem like lost creatures from the world of George Grosz, Paula Rego and Quentin Blake, as if they were dragged through the battle-fields of Iraq and Afghanistan. In the works Ayres also depicts the apathy, shallowness and indifference of the British commuters, plugged into their iPhones in the midst of this ongoing horror in a series of sculptures named after Theresa May’s buzz phrase “British Values”.

In the exhibition pamphlet, Ayres describes Talha’s extradition as a “national disgrace” and “breathtaking double-standards” – a stance supported by numerous human rights groups. Talha had Asperger’s syndrome and the same diagnosed risks as another British citizen, Gary Mckinnon, who was saved from extradition on the basis of the human rights act by the Home Secretary just a few days after Talha.

The Background

Talha’s simple request was to have a UK trial if he had done anything wrong. 149,000 British citizens supported this request by signing a government e-petition led by his co-defendant family-run campaign. This received support across the political spectrum, from Boris Johnson to Noam Chomsky. At the time, the Daily Mail ran a campaign called British Justice for British Citizens – supporting the right of British citizens to a UK trial. The same newspaper referred to British-born citizens Talha Ahsan and Babar Ahmed as “other unwanted guests”.

Artist May Ayre meeting Talha as a freeman
Artist May Ayres meeting Talha as a freeman

“No Government of the Day wants to be on the wrong side of the Daily Mail”, noted my brother cynically during our family prison visits just prior to his imminent extradition. He had never set foot before in the United States prior to his extradition. He was indicted in the state of Connecticut under the War on Terror for marginal association with a series of obsolete websites, which went offline four years prior to his arrest. The defunct websites dealt primarily with conflicts in Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan – due to an alleged temporary server hosted for a few months – a website that the US government’s own statement of facts produced in court showed that he neither edited, contributed or posted on. In the end, Talha was trapped into a position of taking a plea-deal for a time served verdict to get home to his family. 50% of suicide attempts in US prisons occur in solitary confinement. The United Nations special rapporteur on torture Juan Mendez had sought to ban the practice – noting that after 14 days it causes irreversible psychological damage. Not the place to send a vulnerable British citizen or indeed any human being.

The Exhibition

The setting of the sculptures in the Belfry of St. John Church brings a special atmosphere that demands you experience it in this space. We are led to the main gallery via a large curved staircase. The gallery space feels like somewhere between a childhood attic and War-time bunker. Theresa May, Condeleezza Rice and Tony Blair appear as if she just appeared beneath the floorboards of Bethnal Green’s Museum of Childhood just adjacent to the gallery. During the private view the bell will strike – with each rung adding a dimension of solemnity to the reality of death under the war on terror. The sculptures blend into the grand Church setting like biblical friezes. gargoyles and saints. We see iconic images of Pakistani prisoner neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui as a frieze. We meet Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi – the 14-year-old gang-raped and murdered in her family home by US soldiers in Iraq – reimagined as a grown-up armed insurgent.

We should not take for granted the gesture of solidarity in seeing an English church devote an entire space to the suffering inflicted on Muslims under unjust detention and military occupation. Such cross-faith gestures of humanity marked my years of our family campaign: Bruce Kent was one of the people who would visit my brother in prison, the late Jewish journalist Mike Marqusee wrote to Talha in isolation whilst in a hospital dying of terminal cancer. Perhaps this solid standing of solidarity, rather than the hollow rhetoric of our Prime Minister should form the foundation for the real “spirit of togetherness” that we as a nation should be aspiring towards.

Exhibition runs 1st September – 6th October 2016

St. John’s Church – Bethnal Green. Further details here

Talha Ahsan poetry reading 6pm – 9pm on final day of exhibition

To find out more about May Ayres work: www.mayayres.com

To buy a piece of work or to make a donation contact: Contact: may@mayayres.com

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Hamja Ahsan is an activist, artist and curator. He co-founded the DIY Cultures festival and the Other Asias collective. He was shortlisted for a Liberty Human Rights award for the Free Talha Ahsan campaign. His book Shy Radicals: The Antisystemic Politics of the Introvert Militant (Bookworks) is due out in 2016.

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4 thoughts on “The War on Terror in Clay

  1. Hamja writes so beautifully about this exhibition, both from the perspective of a brother, whose personal connection to this narrative runs so deep it is palpable the writing, and from the perspective of an excellent visual art theorist, which he is. This is a very rare review – Hamja stands close up, yet sees the the detail in the big picture.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hamja Ahsan’s sensitive review not only explains the background to his brother’s case and its blatant injustice but draws attention to the way these sculptures expose underlying truths which have the potential to change the world.

    Liked by 1 person

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