Since moving to study Fine Art at Nottingham Trent University, Diana Ali has established herself as a key figure in the city’s art scene - and has also featured in TV shows including the BBC’s Big Painting Challenge and Inside Museums, which she wrote and presented. We hear from the artist, curator, lecturer and mentor about her time at Trent, promoting the arts on TV, and why she’s hoping to have a strong word with the Government…
You studied Fine Art at Nottingham Trent University. What attracted you to the city and the university?
I’m from Manchester originally, and it felt a bit crowded for me, so I wanted somewhere a bit calmer and a bit quieter. At the time, Fine Art at Trent was quite high on the league tables, so it was my first choice. And I was right to choose it, because I found it to be much more close-knit here. I still call it a really big village because you can pretty much always connect with somebody through someone else that you know!
How did you find your time at NTU once you arrived?
I found it all really exciting. When I came to Nottingham, it was my first time away from home and I had to grow up very quickly. I remember on my first day here, I just walked around and got lost in the city for about three hours, finding my feet. I think that’s a nice thing to do in a new city. I really enjoyed being at Trent, especially because of the tutors and getting the chance to meet new people. I also found the buildings great in terms of studio space and getting the chance to do what I wanted.
You won an Outstanding Alumni award from Trent back in 2020 - how did that feel, and do you still have a close relationship with the uni?
To be honest, I didn’t do that great in terms of my grades at the time. But because of that I almost went, ‘Right, I’m going to do better afterwards.’ It gave me that push to realise that not everything is going to be successful in life, but you can still achieve really positive things. To get recognised for what I’ve done since graduating was brilliant. Going back and seeing new students and letting them know that things aren’t always going to work out as you thought, but that that’s not always a bad thing, was an honour.
Nottingham has given me so much, and I just want to give back
You’re now a really prominent figure in the city, and regularly get involved with projects like the Nottingham Women’s Centre. Why was that important to you?
Manchester will always be my original home, but Nottingham has given me so much, and I just wanted to give back. The more I got into the arts here, the more I wanted to venture into different fields and work with different organisations, and that’s how I came across the Nottingham Women’s Centre. I’ve lived in Hyson Green and I saw the work that they do, especially for Asian women, and I wanted to help out with that - and that’s how I ended up on the board. Rather than just being a visitor here, I’ve managed to be an active part of positive change, which has been a real privilege.
Many people will know you for your time on The Big Painting Challenge. How did you find the audience reaction to the show?
It was really nice. I get people coming up to me who might not have dabbled in art for years, but watching that programme gave them the encouragement to try it out again. It’s been great to encourage people to try their hand at new things through mainstream TV. There are loads of cooking programmes, but not that many on art, and I think that needs to change. There needs to be more access to the fact that anyone can express themselves through the arts, and hopefully this show helped to do that.
One of the main things I want to do is go to Parliament and kick off about arts education. Music has gone from many students’ school life, and art could be next. And I think it’s disgusting
What would be your advice and guidance to students who are looking to make it in the creative industry?
It’s all about that cold-calling mentality. Approach organisations, write a proposal, tell them who you are. What’s the worst that can happen? They might say no thanks, but that rejection is still recognition. It’s about making your own opportunities, as no one else can really do that for you. Have patience, take your time and it will happen.
Finally, what’s next for you?
One of the main things I want to do is go to Parliament and kick off about arts education. Music has gone from many students’ school life, and art could be next. And I think it’s disgusting. We’re going to have a generation who aren’t going to have critical thinking, who won’t be able to think creatively or alternatively, and I’d like to get greater access to the policymaking process so I can contest these decisions.
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