I’ve been asked to take you through about how I got into carnival, how I then worked at Notting Hill, setting up my own business, and celebrating women that have been very much part of the collaboration that’s been going on for nearly 30 years.
Before I celebrate the women I’d like to also thank a few men that have been very influential in my life and then we’ll concentrate on the women. One is Habib Tanvir, who’s no longer alive, he was a theatre director in India; another is Peter Minshall, who we all know is the mecca designer in Trinidad; and there are two others in this room, John Fox, who we’re going to hear from later, and Pax who’s been a supporter of my work for nearly 20 years.
I’m now going to move on to the many women that have also been my influence.
I’m the Artistic Director of Kinetika, based in East London. We’re currently two women Edwina Rigby and I who run the company, but we have a large array of artists we can draw on.
You probably know that I specialise in large scale silk painting, that’s my signature, and that’s 900 metres of it in the Mall, but at the same time we work with lots of different and diverse communities. It’s been a very long time I’ve been doing this, to get me to this journey and this position in my life.
In that photo over there [ slide ] is Habib Tanvir in India in 1985 and Elizabeth Lynch. I wanted to say a big up to Elizabeth Lynch who was my first female inspirer.
I was about 20 / 22, very hot under the collar, I wanted to change the world, so I was in India looking for ways in which I could get involved with women’s development, and Elizabeth and Habib said, ‘actually Ali the best thing you can do is empower people through working through the arts.’ I was like, aha, I wonder how I’m going to that. Elizabeth said, ‘well when you get back to the UK perhaps you ought to go and see John Fox at Welfare State, so that’s how I ended up from India going to the Welfare State Summer School, which for many people of my generation was the beginning of their journey. It’s important for me to take you through that journey, because from Welfare State International there are a lot of other companies that exist now, like Walk the Plank and Strange Cargo, who have really been forerunners in participatory arts in this country.
I also have another strand of influence, which is my carnival influence. Not happy with us being here in Hackney I then met some Trinidadians who said, ‘you’ve got to go to Trinidad and you’ve got to experience carnival.’ What I was looking to do at that time was to tell a story on the streets, tell it with as many people as possible to as many people as possible. I also happened to see Peter Minshall’s exhibition at the Riverside Studios, and I was like, I want to go and work with that man, I’m on a plane to Trinidad.
I went and stayed with Bernadette Nualoo [? 2:55], another big woman in my life, in St James. I got to work with Peter Minshall in 1989, and then later on, via working with Clary Salandy, another major woman in carnival, I got to go and paint Mr Minshall’s Queen, so that’s painting Mr Minshall’s Queen in 1985.That Queen could only come to life with a beautiful performance of Alison Brown, who is an amazing performer, animator, carnival designer in her own right.
That took me back to Notting Hill, once I’d worked for Minshall everyone was like, oh there’s that little English girl she does carnival, let’s have her Notting Hill, so I went and worked with South Connections, which is run by two more amazing women, Joan Francis and Avion Mookram, and I designed a couple of bands quite successfully there.
This is ‘Flight’ [ slide ] and here I was working with Ray Mahabir that some of you know, and that’s us working out how we’re going to run this big production, and there’s me designing a costume.
I worked with Sophie Layton who’s a fantastic female artist, she does sculpting and masks and puppetry.
As you know the majority of performers in carnival are women, so these [ slide ] are some of the women that were in that band, and there is Malika Booker, who’s an amazing performance poet. I have always collaborated with other artists and other art forms, and she wrote a poem that she presented as we went across a judging point in Notting Hill.
I then decided to leave Notting Hill, in terms of my main focus, because I wanted to use carnival as a broader tool for education and engagement.
The next commission I got was from the South African High Commission to unpack the South African suitcase, to work with young people in London to think about what it meant to be in Johannesburg and compare it to their life in Brixton, so these are my very own Norwood Girls [ slide ]. We worked at Norwood Girls’ School for several years running in our ‘Celebrate South Africa, People on the Move’, project that culminated in the Thames Festival, which I’ve heard has actually been cancelled this year.
This was in 2001 [ slide ] this is a male and female pair of puppets, and we then went on to do a whole series of projects that kind of unpacked the different cultural journeys into the UK, that then came back and created carnival as it is in the UK.
This is in Norwood Girls’ School [ slide ] again, second year running, and it was doing a project called, ‘Yemanja, who is a phenomenal Orisha Goddess. We went to Brazil to find out all about her and her powers, and this band was all about giving and receiving, and so the Norwood Girls’ School were doing the giving dance.
We also worked on the Isle of Wight. This was the beginning of our national model, where we worked in different regions around the UK and brought those different chapters, different sections of the carnival band together to tour together. We made some very large puppets of the Orisha Gods, and this one in the blue is the Yemanja; Yemanja had lots of children so those are all her little girl children.
In that procession we also had the [??? 6:25]. As all of you are aware, in Brazil the more mature women get to be the [???] and wear the very special big skirts, so the ladies of the Isle of Wight were our [???] in that Yemanja procession, which was really great.
We did another project, which was unpacking the history of carnival from Africa to the Caribbean to the UK, and it was celebrating and looking at emancipation and freedom, working with lots of different schools and lots of different people. Our three people here who I want to credit who were part of that [ slide ], there’s Lucille, who was with me from 1998 all the way into Kinetika based in Brixton, and on the left is Tamzyn French, who is now the Kinetika Bloco Project Manager, and Nicola Griffiths, who is our screen printer, so we’ve built a very strong core team of women that deliver our work.
Here is our band in Notting Hill Carnival [ slide ], and some more young women from Paddington Arts there.
One of the biggest projects we did, and most special to me, was called ‘Din Shuru’ and it traced the journey from India to Trinidad to the UK, and I wanted to celebrate the Indian influence on carnival, and it was very hot in the middle of carnival politics.
[ slide ] this was our third year in Norwood Girls’ School, and we were creating a dance section which was celebrating the Festival of Holi, but also Phagwah, in Trinidad. This project started in the UK, well actually I researched in Calcutta, where the boats left from India to Trinidad, and we worked with two amazing artists from India to develop the work. One of them is Tanya [??? 8:16], who I really wanted to credit. This was a very big collaboration between me and Tanya, who’s a much respected, well-known choreographer in Calcutta. She’d never done carnival before and outdoor dance, and she really threw herself into choreographing sections, and we created this very special journey. In the UK we worked in Leicester, Isle of Wight, London and Canterbury, and then we were invited to take it back to India.
This is Helen Davenport [ slide ] who was part of this project, another amazing woman who started with me on the Isle of Wight in 2000. She’s been one of our core artists, she came to India with us and now she runs her own company, just to show you how the legacy of these projects work.
That is our section in Calcutta [ slide ] where we had about 1,000 people on the road. One of the things I loved about this, which is going back into archive and heritage, is this journey. I researched it in India and it literally followed the journey of the indentured labourers to Trinidad, migration from Trinidad to the UK, and we got to take it back to Calcutta, and we got to perform this right outside the Hooghly, which is where the boats left, and on the final moment of the procession we performed at sunset in front of the Victoria Memorial building, which is basically the head of the Empire. We had [??? 9:40], which means ‘day breaks’, but the end of the procession was called [??? 9:42], ‘the sun sets on the Empire’, so it was really about how you make history come alive.
Since then we’ve been doing a whole set of projects, and one of the things we did, which was also fantastic, was we got the opportunity to go to Beijing. Here we are [ slide ], I think that’s even me doing some sewing, but there’s Lesley Anne Halls and Iola Weir and we’re doing last minute sewing before we pack up and go off to Beijing.
There’s Lesley Anne and Helen [ slides ] having a to-do the Mas camp, and Carolyn Ebanks and our Beijing Mas camp before we went to China, and Edwina Rigby, who’s now my Project Manager, is a girl who likes her tools, you can see she’s got her toolkit on and she’s got her drill there, nothing fazes Edwina.
We then took a whole load of young people, including quite a lot of girls, to Beijing with the Kinetika Bloco. I love these moments when you get history back on itself; here we are and these are, as you can see [ slide ], predominantly Caribbean or African heritage women performing for Britain, they were representing Great Britain, on the Great Wall of China. For me that was a fantastic historical moment as well.
We’ve done work at home. We’re based in East London and this was the Baishakhi Mela [ slide ], the Royal Bengal Tiger down in Brick Lane, which is another big make, and up there you have Iola Weir, very small, working on this very big tiger, and in the corner there, Wen Wu, who’s a Chinese artist from Beijing who came to work with us on that project. This is more of our making process, and young Asian women performing in the Baishakhi Mela, and if anybody would like to ask about the story of those costumes at some point I have an interesting story to tell.
[ slide ] this is working with schools. In the days of creative partnerships we got to do some very substantial, very deep work in schools, and one of the women I’ve worked with, who has supported me for a very long time, is Carol Morrison, and I want to shout it out for Carol Morrison who’s made a massive contribution to carnival in this country. She worked with me in Fulham Primary School, we worked with 360 children with, I can’t remember how many hundreds of different languages, in that school to do a whole year project. The Head Teacher is Azita, and, you can’t see, but Azita is on the top of that tower costume and she is the mother of imagination, and we did this whole project, which was really phenomenal in the way it transformed that school.
More recently we’re doing commercial international global stage events. This is the opening ceremony for the FIFA World Championships [ slide ], and again we worked with an amazing team of 25 people in East London to produce this set of costumes that went to Abu Dhabi, and that’s the performance of some of those costumes in the opening ceremony there.
More recently we’ve also done some things in the UK, and this < side > is the Team GB parade, where we were commissioned to create the two lions that went up the Mall. We performed with the Kinetika Bloco and it was a very proud moment that we were there, that our kids were there.
There’s a little picture there [ slide ] of Edwina, and I’m now going to credit a couple of men who were very important to us as well in Kinetika.
You can’t see Mr Tony Mason, but Tony Mason is one of the UK’s best kept secrets, because he doesn’t have a website, Facebook or anything so you can’t find him. He’s a phenomenal artist and has created those lions. He’s just a fantastic structural engineer so I need to credit him.
The other man I must credit is Mike Patterson, who I worked with on the closing of the Paralympic ceremonies, and that’s me and Mike [ slide ] just before we went into the stadium at the end of the last ceremony of the Olympics in London, so that’s my story.
No surprise therefore that Ali’s archive is being collected by the V&A and is going to be launched in April I believe?
They’re working at their pace. I’m actually trying to move into different areas beyond carnival, but before I decided to move on I wanted to make sure I’ve got drawings that go back all the way to the early 90s, so at the moment the V&A have got all of my drawings, as many photographs, and quite a lot of text around of all that, so that’s accessible in Olympia. They’re going to allow me to have 20 drawings online, which means I can write quite a lot about them online, that will be accessible, so that’s a way they can be globally reached.
What I feel about that archive, which is kind of what I’ve just told you, is that even though it’s supposed to me my archive it tells the story of hundreds of thousands of people. I will write as much as I can, remember now. It will be a way in which people can be directed out to all these different people and organisations that have influenced my work.
Thank you Ali. Isn’t it fantastic to hear those female names just rolling one after another, and that’s not something we do, it’s not just about carnival, but to actually really hear those stories and actually see the woman that have contributed not behind the scenes but right there out front.
Ali you’ve been involved as Director of Kinetika for a number of years, and there must be a lot of challenges in that, because you’re both the artist, you’re the Director, and you’re the person that goes out and signs all the deals as well. How have you managed to juggle that role and maintain the creativity?
It has been very demanding. It’s all been a bit by coincidence. I paint silk because I went to an evening class and learnt how to paint silk, and then I was like, oh I can do this really big, so that got me in as a designer, and then I thought, oh if I set up my own company I won’t have to work for all these other people, I can set my own agenda, so I did that. It kind of took off much faster than I thought it did, by 2007 we were turning over £500,000, and I was like, god I better have an accountant, better get VAT registered, how do you do this, can someone tell me how to run a business.
By about 2007 I really felt I had too many staff, I was managing staff, just going to all these networking meetings, and I always say to my mum, ‘if I’m too long without a paintbrush in my hand there’s something wrong.’ Very recently I’ve cut Kinetika right back, it’s just two of us, Bloco is independent. The way in which I keep thinking about it is, am I doing what I really want to do, and, am I creative, and as soon as I don’t feel I’m creative as an artist then I get depressed so I have to pick up the paintbrush again.
Any questions for Ali?
What’s the funny story?
Well it’s a story I feel I can now tell. It was in 2009, and I did ask Pax if he could find the photographs but probably they’ve been locked up somewhere because they’re so controversial. Anyway I was doing this section and originally it was called, ‘Bandit Queen’, I don’t know if anybody knows about Bandit Queen in India, but that’s a little bit too radical, so I called it, ‘Bangla Queen.’ It was about celebrating Asian heroines in carnival.
Working with Bengalis in Brick Lane we selected 10 women who we were going to print on the skirts, so we did that, they came here and everybody loved them, and people asked me who they were, one of them was Monica Ali, and another one was Taslima Nasrin, and by the time the next week happened that story had leaked out, that I had these very radical women on the skirts.
I got a phone call when I was in Liverpool at an Artichoke Conference from Tower Hamlets Council saying, ‘there’s going to be a riot in Brick Lane because of your costumes’, and so I was like, ‘why?’, and they said, ‘well you are printing Monica Ali’, and I was like, ‘yes, she’s just one a Booker Prize, what’s wrong with that?’, ‘well the Bengali community won’t have those images in Brick Lane, and you have to cover them up’, s the skirts that you saw those women that are underneath those stars, and another one of those women was Shami Chakrabarti, who’s the head of Liberty.
I think there’s still an element there, and that was in 2009, that you can’t celebrate these women that have done so much, so it was quite interesting. Somebody said to me, ‘those are now the political costumes you’ve ever made Ali, because you are women who are being silenced and women who have also been silenced.’ I’d say that there’s still work to be done there, and that was a very hard thing for me to do.
You’ve been on an incredible journey, and I’m guessing you didn’t know where it would end, to this point. Did you just commit yourself from the beginning, was it intuitive, or was there a master plan, how did you get there?
There was never a master plan. I committed myself because I went to South Africa when I was 18. By mistake I went to South Africa and realised I was in the middle of Apartheid, and I got really very angry, and I think it’s that anger at the injustice that has driven me all the way through, and sometimes that’s quite hard. I think it’s fuelled me and I just do it because I believe in it. When I work with these people, even this morning when I was uploading of all the women I’ve worked with I felt, wow we’ve had some really amazing times. I mean the connections you make through this kind of work are amazing, and I do fully believe that they empower peoples’ lives in many different ways, and when that happens that empowers me to keep going.