Ali Pretty

Ali Pretty by Kinetika by Kinetika
by Kinetika
by Kinetika

Ali Pretty is a visual artist who designs for large-scale outdoor events. She founded her own company Kinetika in 1997 and since then has worked on events ranging from the Notting Hill Carnival and the Making’s annual World Party to the Kolkata Carnival in India and the Carnival of Human Rights in Johannesburg. She has a strong sense of purpose, and was initially attracted to the arts because she sees them as a powerful force for good. She says, ‘My drivers are social and political and I want to use the arts as a tool for change and to empower people.’


Why did you originally decide to work in the arts?

I have no formal art training at all - in fact I have a degree in sociology from Bristol University, but I was always interested in performance and did quite a lot of street theatre and circus when I was a student. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my degree, but I knew I wanted to do something that would change people’s lives and that would make a difference. When I left university I went off to India and worked there with the theatre director Habib Tanvir of the Naya Theatre. He was a huge influence as he told me that the most effective way to empower people was to work in the arts rather than a development agency or a political party and, watching him in action, I was convinced he was right.

How did you end up specialising in carnival?

When I came back to the UK I wanted to work in community arts and I worked for the Welfare State International, an arts organisation specialising in large-scale, outdoor community arts projects. I then spent a stint working with Peter Minshall [the influential carnival designer and producer] in Trinidad. I was very lucky to experience carnival in Trinidad before experiencing it in London. I also worked as volunteer for Clary Salandy [another influential carnival designer - see Maker of the Month October 2011]. In 1996 I worked with Peter on the opening ceremony for the Atlanta Olympic Games, this gave me the confidence to design my own bands and I then set up my own company, Kinetika, in 1997. Since then I’ve worked on the Notting Hill Carnival as well as several music festivals (particularly WOMAD which I was involved in from 1985-91), costumes for the opening of the Millennium Dome and more recently the opening and closing ceremonies at the FIFA World Cup in Abu Dhabi in 2009.

How did Kinetika develop?

It was set up as a design company, but soon we started working on creating big performances, employing choreographers, musicians and dancers for large-scale outdoor events. I wanted to explore carnival as an art form and take it out of the carnival arena and not just use it once a year at Notting Hill. We had some fantastic years of national and international touring. Recently we have scaled the company back down and it’s now design-led again and we concentrate on making textiles (banners and costumes) rather than organising the whole event. We are now back doing the thing we are best at - designing and making textiles for large-scale outdoor events.

What aspect of your work do you find the most exciting?

I love the very beginning of the process, working out how you translate ideas into reality. I spend a lot of time drawing the designs, and for me the most creative part of the whole process is making your mind up about how you are going to realise them. It’s also exciting when you start work on a new theme – I’ve recently been working on costumes for the Dante Alighieri Society based on the Divine Comedy which was something I didn’t know much about so it was great to learn something about Dante and his writing.

How important is the narrative element of carnival in your work?

Narrative and story-telling is very important in my work – the making process brings people together, but the actual story the band tells is more important. The broad narrative theme behind a lot of my work has been unpacking the UK carnival suitcase, exploring the journey carnival has taken from West Africa to Trinidad and then onto the UK, as well as the journey from India to the UK, via Trinidad.

How important is the multi-cultural nature of carnival to you?

Very. For me it is essential to include multi-cultural references in my work. I went to South Africa and Zimbabwe when I was 18 and was so upset by the apartheid system that I have been fired up by racial injustice ever since.

What type of projects are you working on at the moment?

Recently we did a project for Dress the World, a series of three exhibitions held in museums in Leicester, Northampton and Nottingham exploring global influences on British costumes. I was asked to make a set of costumes which would be worn by dancers performing in public spaces to publicise the exhibitions. I wanted to make pieces which reflected the exhibitions and so discussed the exhibitions with groups of young people to get some initial ideas. I then translated these ideas into designs intended to give a really strong flavour of the exhibitions; for example I designed some tops based on Gujarati styles and looked at the paisley pattern (originally an Indian motif). I knew that the costumes would be worn in places like shopping centres so they needed to be bright to make an impact, but also as they would be seen quite close up, I was able to incorporate lots of detail.

How involved is Kinetika with the local community?

I’m particularly interested in working with young artists from our local East London community, and making work which reflects our diverse community. I want to empower and train local artists, helping the people we employ become a community themselves – and I like the idea of using local artists to make work for international events. We run a lot of training programmes and workshops as part of our ethos is to train and develop emerging artists. In fact, most of the people who are currently working with Kinetika started by doing one of our training courses.

What are your plans for the future?

I would like to join forces with some emerging textile designers who work with digital technology. At the moment we print (batik and screen-printing) all our textiles by hand which is really time-consuming and expensive, so I want to work out a way in which we could use digital printing techniques but without losing the quality of our textiles. It would be a way of becoming more commercial.

Kinetika and the World Party in the Park

Kinetika has worked this year and last on The Making's World Party in the Park event - running silk batik workshops in the schools to make mobiles - and also providing some of their spectacular costumes and flags for the Children's Parade.

Interview by Diana Woolf