Artist and Curator Diana Ali on Her Role as Mentor on BBC's The Big Painting Challenge

Words: Sajidah Ahmad
Saturday 09 March 2019
reading time: min, words

This month sees The Big Painting Challenge back on our screens for a third series. We caught up with artist, curator and Nottingham resident Diana Ali to talk about her career and role as a mentor on the BBC One show…


Early on in our conversation, Diana Ali recounts an interesting story about an experience she had while travelling to Israel. Ironically, as she prepared to curate an exhibition on the theme of entrapment, Diana found herself being held in custody by law enforcement agents on arrival in Tel Aviv. Her passport confiscated, she was held in a cell for several hours. On being interviewed for a second time, she began to build a rapport with one of the officers following a discussion centred on a painting hanging on the wall. They eventually released her without apology or explanation. She speaks of the incident with a characteristic matter of fact-ness, and without judgement or anger.

This ability to adapt to difficult situations is one that stemmed from the necessity to do so during her childhood. Although born in the UK, Diana’s family moved to their native Sylhet in Bangladesh, returning to Eccles, Greater Manchester, when Diana was just six years old.

She recalls her anger and frustration at being unable to communicate during an art class at the school she arrived at speaking no English. As you would expect, the other children set about painting houses and rainbows. ‘’I had no idea what an English house looked like, so I just smeared black paint all over the paper with my hands,’’ which resulted in a serious telling off from the teacher. But Diana remembers the experience as a positive one,‘’I remember loving the feeling of paint in my hands, even though I didn’t understand what the paint brushes were for.’’

As well as making her first work of art that day, Diana regards this as the first time she used her art as a means of communication, ‘’art for me is that voice…the things that you can’t say out loud.’’ She was also doing something that would go on to become a theme of her art - subverting material - using art media in ways that were different to the norm.

After school, she went on to college in Salford and later secured a coveted place on an art foundation course at the prestigious Manchester Metropolitan University. It was after completing this that she left the city to study Fine Art at Nottingham Trent University. It was during her early years in Nottingham that Diana was first free to live and do as she pleased, far from the restrictions of her family home.

Although her parents disapproved of the subject choice, Diana’s father was eventually supportive of her decision to leave home and head off to study art, because of the value he put on education, while mum continued to remain perplexed by her daughter’s choice of career path.

Struggling for money to pay for expensive art materials, she found herself using what was available – including mud and spices, mixed with everyday household items like soy sauce, glue and oil. “You become inventive when you don’t have much,” she explains. This also added an extra dimension to her work – “a smell, an essence” that others noticed. Diana embraced this, “I felt I was really engaging with my audience’ in a way that others who just focused on the visual weren’t.”

There are so many artists out there who think they can’t do it and end up going into other careers and regretting it later

One of her installations, Aftermath, creates what looks like a domestic murder scene complete with a ‘blood’ drenched table cloth which, on closer inspection, turns out to be copious amounts of jam – another example of subverting media as well as meaning.

Diana sees her work as a curator as an extension of her artwork. “I hate the word ‘curator’ – it sounds like your managing other people. Curating is about connecting with other people. I collaborate with them … to get artwork into a space.’’ Many of Diana’s curatorial projects involve large numbers of artists with whom she works closely, sometimes creating pieces in conjunction with artists and non-artists, such as Correspondence, a project wherein she writes to members of the public and responds to junk mail.

In 2005, Diana’s first exhibition, The Voices at City Arts centred on a recurrent theme of her work: communicating through art. This and many of her other exhibitions, here in the UK and abroad, have been secured through sending speculative proposals to galleries.

“You’ve got to get out there” says Ali, of her tenacious method, which also serves as advice to other artists. “Make those calls, send emails, connect with other artists…get ideas going.” The result of all her hard work? She has now had exhibitions of her own work or curated shows in Europe, the USA, Asia and Australia, making her a truly global and entirely self-made success.

She has also held workshops for people from underprivileged backgrounds, including travellers, men and women who have experienced domestic violence and children who have been excluded from school. Through these workshops, Diana says she has cemented her belief in the power of art to improve people's’ lives. She would like to do more art outreach work, but says that funding for art related education is constantly being cut as governments generally don’t value the positive impact it can have on people's’ lives.

So, what of her work on the BBC show, The Big Painting Challenge? When a BBC producer called to ask her to participate in the programme she said yes immediately and, after a couple of series getting used to the cameras, she takes delight in being part of a show that brings art into ordinary people’s homes, ‘’I’ve had builders come up to me saying ‘I’ve got the acrylics that I got for Christmas out and I’m having a go,’ because of the show.’’

She hopes the programme will make the subject seem within reach to those who want to pursue it, as well as bringing art to audiences who wouldn’t otherwise have access to it, ‘’There are so many artists out there who think they can’t do it and end up going into other careers and regretting it later.’’ Being seen on the programme has also led to new opportunities and she is now collaborating on an exhibition, Change the Script, which gives voice to the stories of Muslim women from around the world.

Diana admits to feeling emotional and excited at her own success these days. After all the years of plugging away to create opportunities, and living through the lean times, she is revelling in her achievements. There’s also an added bonus of being on the telly, which makes her efforts all the more worthwhile. "My mum finally thinks I’ve got a proper job!”

Diana Ali website

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