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‘More than UB40 and heavy metal’: Birmingham’s alternative arts and entertainment

The Commonwealth Games has kickstarted an explosion of culture in England’s second city, with loads to look at and listen to, as well as eat and drink

The last time Birmingham hosted a major international event – Eurovision and Bill Clinton’s visit for the G8 summit, both in May 1998 – the powers that be prepared by painting the scabby grass verge lining roads from the airport a vivid green. For the 2022 Commonwealth Games, there has been a similar sweeping under the municipal carpet: unloved buildings draped with huge colourful graphics featuring the mascot (Perry, a patchwork bull) and a desperate rush to get the trams running again. But this time the city really does seem to be getting something tangible, as well as a hope that the attention will last longer than the time it takes for a US president to drink a pint of mild.

Alongside the additions of some transport infrastructure and the venues, there has been an explosion of culture covering the city. In some cases that’s literal: Guyanese-British artist Hew Locke’s Foreign Exchange takes liberties with the statue of Queen Victoria in the square named for her. She will not, of course, be amused that she is crated and placed in a boat with five smaller clones. Locke says he has placed the monarch “as if she is about to be shipped off, like so many of these Victoria statues sent all round the world”.

The Birmingham 2022 festival has created, co-opted and repackaged a huge variety of what Brum has to offer culturally this summer. One such exhibition is In the Que (Gas Hall, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, every day until ​​30 October, free). Described as “a sensory celebration of one of the UK’s greatest music venues”, this exhibition is a heartfelt homage to a uniquely Brummie nightlife legend. With its home the gothic Grade II-listed Methodist Central Hall for many years, the Que Club was a live music venue, hosting acts such as Pulp and Primal Scream. Possibly more importantly, it was the home of rave and dance culture, with club nights such as House of God. Birmingham, this exhibition says, is more than UB40 and heavy metal.

To catch the vibe in the city centre, visit the Commonwealth Games festival park in the nearby Jewellery Quarter (Great Hampton Row, free). King Kong Park will bring back a long-lost King Kong statue (last glimpsed in Stewart Lee’s recent hit documentary King Rocker, about local lad Robert Lloyd and his band the Nightingales). If you trust the online chatter there’s nothing Brummies are more excited about. The plan is for the giant ape (a replica of Nicholas Monro’s 1970s original) to remain in town after the games have moved on, and an exhibition all about him is open at the new Great Hampton Street art space.

This time the city really does seem to be getting something tangible, as well as a hope that the attention will last longer

Often called a “Brum Banksy”, but more edgy and more direct, Foka Wolf will no doubt have something planned for the summer. He is after all the one who branded Birmingham’s flagship Primark store (the world’s biggest) as “Europe’s Biggest Jumble Sale” on the hoardings as it was being built. He’s notorious for taking aim at politicians and corporations, so it will be a surprise if he doesn’t strike somewhere again. He’s already part of the “Don’t forget the real ones” project and says: “We wanted to highlight the rich talent the north of Birmingham has and how a lot of it has been overlooked by the 2022 Commonwealth Games”.

In northern Birmingham (where the athletics events will take place), ex-KLF hitmaker and artist Bill Drummond often refreshes his artwork by the canal underneath Spaghetti Junction. Visitors will need to get out of the centre to find the places where alternative culture has not been covered up, as well as seeing some of the games which are spread around the region. The best finds are mostly outside the inner ring road in Digbeth, or slightly further out in suburbs such as Kings Heath or newly trendy Stirchley.