• The Big Interview

Ali Pretty, founder and artistic director of Kinetika

Our friends on the Production Park

High House Production Park © HHPP 2020

From the silk roads of India, to the rustic shores of Essex, Ali Pretty has brought her work to Thurrock, moving her company Kinetika, from East London to Purfleet-on-Thames.

Kinetika arrived in Purfleet in 2014, lured to High House Production Park, home to the Royal Opera House Scenic Construction and Costume Construction buildings, The Backstage Centre, South Essex College and Thurrock Music Services. It is also the residence for a community of artists at ACME studios.

Ali founded Kinetika in 1998 and it is now based in the Acme Studios where local artists are employed to deliver large-scale hand-painted silk commissions in a spacious studio that has enabled Kinetika to build on its international reputation and increase production capacity.

The move onto the park led to a major commission for the Royal Opera House in 2015. Ali was commissioned to create 12 large-scale silks that hung in the ROH Paul Hamlyn Hall during the Deloitte Ignite Festival. An example of how partners on site can work together to create new work.

In recent years Ali has been developing her practice to develop transformational walking arts projects with diverse communities. This is driven by Ali’s passion for bringing people together through walking, talking and making to empower communities to have a voice in local placemaking initiatives, vital during this moment in Thurrock’s history when it is on the brink of significant regeneration.

Ali Pretty © Sarah Hickson

Soon after arriving, Ali was approached by head of Public Health, Debbie Maynard, to develop a walking arts festival for the Thurrock area.

At the time, local authorities were part of a national campaign to address the rise in obesity across generations, and the startling statistics emerging around the sedentary lives for young people. Thurrock Council’s JointStrategic Needs Assessment: Whole systems obesity, September 2017, indicatedgrowing evidence supported a view that doing The Daily Mile is a simple, fun and effective way to improve children’s wider health and wellbeing, in addition to their physical fitness.”

The Thurrock 100 festival emerged in 2015. The ambition was to walk 10 miles every day for 10 days. “Every day for 10 days we walked 10 miles through fields of potatoes, along the banks of the Mardyke, across rail tracks, clambering down gorges, trampling the concrete path by the side of the seawall and past a mile of graffiti, a drove of wild horses, two ancient forts and more. 100 miles later, we had discovered that Thurrock is jam-packed with hidden stories.” Says Ali.

In 2016 it was the stories told along the walks, from the RSPB Rainham marshes to Coalhouse Fort that triggered an interest in creating a legacy event that could continue, and to this day it has. “We listened in to conversations, we worked with adults and children to gather words, to write, to draw and to paint each story into a silk flag. These 100 flags were choreographed into a spectacular finale at one of Thurrock’s fantastic, but lesser known, locations, Coalhouse Fort.”

T100 Flags © Kinetika

Thurrock 100 Stories are a published documentation of this landmark event.

T100 Bollywood Picnic, East Beach – 2018 © Kinetika 2015 Photo by Mike Johnston

The T100 festival has opened up Thurrock as an area sitting at the dawn of its riverside, industrial, urban and rural alliance, which is continuing to embrace its creative outreach.

QEII Dartford Crossing © HHPP 2020

If you ask what creative opportunities exist in the region, many would be able to recall the names of the Thameside Theatre in Grays, the Circus Tavern in Purfleet and Lakeside for cinema. If you are surprised to know that alongside the long-standing institutions are a community of artists bringing extraordinary work and opportunities for the good folk of Thurrock, East London, North Kent and beyond, then now is the time to get involved.

ACME Artist Studios © HHPP

Thurrock is a recent chapter in Ali’s long career as a committed activist artist.

Ali founded Kinetika in 1997 after an established career in carnival arts and a growing commitment to community engagement, Ali has collaborated with, and led teams of artists to deliver large-scale events to diverse audiences all over the world, such as WOMAD (1985 – 1991), Atlanta Olympics 1996, FIFA CWC World Cup (2009), the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Her artistic direction and her hand-painted silk designs are renowned for their quality, both in their individual style as well as their ability to engage and leave lasting legacies in communities and individuals alike.

Links to India and the Caribbean are a unifying influence on Ali’s early work, and the influencers who have been met along the way form an impressive gallery of talent across the creative sector. One of Ali’s key mentors is world famous carnival designer, Peter Minshall. Minshall was born in Guyana but moved to Trinidad as a small child and was exposed to Carnival from a young age. He made his first costume at the age of 13, later in life to study Theatre Design at the Central School of Art and Design in London.

Peter Minshall’s ‘Callaloo Company’ © Peter Minshall/Callaloo

Ali worked with Peter Minshall between 1995-97 bringing her silk painting to carnival design for The Callaloo Company. In 1996 she painted 42 silk butterfly costumes for Peter Minshall to be part of The Atlanta Olympics Opening Ceremonies.

Ali’s silk painting for carnival has since taken her all over the world creating commissions for Parade of the Circle with The Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio; The Carnival of Human Rights in Johannesburg; Kumasi Carnival, Ghana, The Solstice Parade in Seattle, and working with Cortejo Afro for Salvador Carnival, Brazil.

Back in the UK, Ali  designed three winning bands for Notting Hill Carnival in 1998, 1999 and 2004, as well as designing costumes for The Millennium Dome Opening Ceremonies.

Notting Hill © Huffington Post 2019

Ali believes that these experiences of large-scale, long term participatory arts projects can change lives, and she is exceptionally proud of one of her lasting legacies the Kinetika Bloco.

Kinetika Bloco © Kinetika Bloco 2019

The Kinetika Bloco was established as a charity in June 2010 but has been in existence since 2000 when it was first established as a project within Kinetika Art Links International under the steer of Mat Fox.

Mat Fox was a multi-instrumentalist, and the hammer dulcimerist of his eclectic world-folk acoustic combo, the Barely Works. Later associations developed with the saxophonist Gail Thompson’s Musicworks big band and then, in 2000, working closely with Ali Pretty he created Kinetika Bloco as the music section for Kinetika’s carnival productions.

“The groove was what he cared about, for the fun of it and for the way it speaks. My dad lived for bringing people together, and he was proud that the Bloco were a completely eclectic operation, involving people from every area of society.”, Ruben Fox, Mat’s son, recalls.

Mat Fox, who died of a heart attack aged 57, was a musician, bandleader, teacher and bridge builder that Ali recognised as a key collaborator for the development of Kinetika’s work with young people in London.

So how did this all begin? What was it that drove Ali to commit her life to working on the ground with communities, often in very challenging circumstances, to create these complex, layered and place-based initiatives?

Ali says: “As a graduate in Sociology and Politics, I was looking for a direction in my life that would enable me to work with people and make a difference. I was fortunate to find myself working on a theatre project with Indian Theatre Director, Habib Tanvir.

“If you want to change the world, Ali,’ He told me, “you need to be an artist.” That’s exactly what I wanted to do.

We were in India.  1985.  I was sewing silk saris together making a river for the show that opened the next day. “If you want to learn about art and politics,” he continued. “Come with me to Kolkata.” So, I did.

Since then, I have been working through the arts to empower communities to tell their own stories always combining art forms and collaborating with a wide range of artists.

Now through T100, I have devised an evolving model of participation in response to changing social, political, economic and environmental circumstances in the UK.”

Silk River, Victoria Memorial Kolkata 2017 © Kinetika, Photo by Mike Johnston

The T100 model was scaled up in 2017 for Silk River,  an ambitious project for the UK/India Year of Culture, which explored an artistic exchange between communities along the Thames Estuary and India’s Hooghly River. Working with associate Artistic Director Ruchira Das (Think Arts, India) and an international team of artists, writers and photographers, the project captured and interpreted the experience of journeying along these two mighty rivers.

Working in twenty locations from Murshidabad to Batanagar (Hooghly) and Kew Gardens to Southend (Thames) to reinterpret a shared heritage, Kinetika’s Silk River raised cultural awareness of the Indo-British relationship through engaging diaspora communities who live alongside both rivers.

How have Kinetika and the communities that Ali works with been impacted by COVID 19?

In 2020, the national lockdown and subsequent battles faced by the creative sector as the challenge for maintaining and creating art was subject to a vast reduction in access, yet the Kinetika team continued with their work and reinvented how these could be achieved under the ever-changing landscape emerging from the government.

T100 Calling 2020, did just that, called communities to action to come together in a time of crisis and ask, “How can we creatively re-imagine our future?”

As we emerge now out of COVID blinking into the sunlight, Kinetika launches perhaps Ali’s most ambitious project to date; Beach of Dreams, a collaborative 500-mile walk from Lowestoft to Tilbury. This is an epic journey to discover the hidden gems of the East Coast of England, inviting collaboration from communities and artists along the way in Suffolk, Essex, Southend, and Thurrock.

Ali, and Guardian journalist Kevin Rushby are walking the entire route, joined by artists, writers, scientists, and local residents.  Together they will lead a conversation guided by strong environmental themes to take time to reflect on the challenges of our current time.

Beach of Dreams will travel through Thurrock as part of T100 and culminate at Tilbury Fort on 1st August with a performance of a new song by The Kinetika Bloco and young people from Thurrock.

We would like to thank Ali for her insight, inspiration and amazing talent that has brought us all together as we plan events and projects with all our partners on the Park, the students from University Centre South Essex, South Essex College, The National College for Creative Industries, and for all the people in our communities.

You can discover more about Kinetika’s projects by clicking the links below.

T100

T100 is an annual walking, talking and making festival that encourages multiple stories to surface in Thurrock and the surrounding areas.

PURFLEET FLAGS – PLACE MAKING PROJECTS

Kinetika’s hometown, Purfleet-on-Thames, is on the cusp of extensive redevelopment and working with developer Purfleet Centre Regeneration, a series of silk flags was created to celebrate and connect the many groups and organisations who live and work there.

LAND OF THE FANNS- PLACE MAKING PROJECTS

100 Stories Project

Land of the Fanns was a complex community mapping project to identify and gather 100 stories from across the area to highlight its treasures.

Ali Pretty spoke to Brian Warrens, Director of The Backstage Centre in March 2021.

© The Backstage Centre 2021

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The Backstage Centre, High House Production Park, Vellacott Close Off London Road, Purfleet-on-Thames, Essex RM19 1RJ

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