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Woman crouching in front of graffiti

Linett Kamala

Written by Maria Ryan
Published date 12 September 2020
 Linett, credit Graham Fudger
Linett, credit Graham Fudger

Linett Kamala studied BA (Hons) Graphic Design at London College of Printing, graduating in 1991. Since then, she has gone on to have an inspiring career, working as a multi-disciplinary artist, whilst rising to the top of the education profession. To add to her list of achievements, she now works as an associate lecturer at UAL, is on the Board for, and runs the Disya Jeneration sound-system at Notting Hill Carnival, established Lin Kam Art, which runs events, residencies and programmes working with and inspiring young people through her art. Linett is also the President of the UAL Alumni of Colour Association.

London College of Printing

I got on to the BA in Graphic Design (it was called London College of Printing back then, now London College of Communication, LCC), which was a big deal back then because being selected to go to Art College was considered something special. At the time, there were very few courses, and the Graphic Design course was THE course to do, and that was because Neville Brody (also a UAL alumnus), a huge graphic designer had been a graduate from there.

I was one of the few Londoners on the course – the others were from the rest of the UK and abroad.  It was a very interesting time politically within the industry, with the Wapping strikes going on, and lots of turbulence with moving from paper to digital, which was really felt within the campus. I had a tough time when I was there – firstly with representation – there weren’t many black students, and there was also a bit of a class thing going on too – with some of the other students who were from wealthier backgrounds being unkind. That being said, there was a very vibrant students union scene - I set up a Black Student Union group while I was there.

I became homeless in the second year of my degree course and nearly lost my place because of it, so I felt like I had to really prove myself. Despite all of this, I went on to graduate with a 2.1 because I remained really focused. This really helped shape me in terms of having determination, a ‘can-do’ attitude and a strong work ethic. I felt lucky to have got on to the course and I didn’t want to waste that opportunity. I was very entrepreneurial and was working all the time; I was working on a documentary film, designed flyers advertising raves and did concept artwork for the group Soul II Soul’s 2nd album. I was fortunate enough to have a grant and worked as much as I could to get money and so although money was tight, I didn’t take out any loans.

My time at London College of Printing had its challenges, but I do really value having attended a world-renowned art college.

Success School Hanover Jamaica VR workshop with Linett Kamala Linett Kamala 2020
Success School Hanover Jamaica VR workshop with Linett Kamala Linett Kamala 2020

Education

I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, but I felt like I needed to gain experience in other sectors first.  I graduated from LCP during the Gulf War recession and so there were very few jobs around. I got a job as a Business Machine Sales Consultant, which included installing computers for Harley Street doctors. Nearly two years later, I saw the advert for teaching and felt more ready. I trained to be an art teacher, and loved it from the beginning. I have never stopped working as a teacher and still refer to myself as an artist/educator, because I have always kept up the educational side of my practice.

After completing my teacher training I moved very quickly into leadership – I was head of department within the first two years. At the same time I set up my own company, Kamala Arts, running graffiti workshops for young people. This was pre-Banksy, where people didn’t want to pay street artists – but I always regarded them as professional artists, which was ground-breaking at the time. I also noticed that my students were literally risking their lives by going on to train tracks to find places to spray paint. The workshop provided a space where young people could work safely, be provided with materials and make sure their work would be seen. Wembley was being developed at the time so I approached the council and I got permission to create a huge work of art across several shopfront hoardings – people had never seen anything like it – for five years there was not even a single tag painted over it, it was that loved by the community.  This set a model, and since then loads of people started doing these workshops for young people and treating graffiti artists as professionals.

I rose quickly within educational leadership and I eventually became a Headteacher and was at one point running five schools. I had reached the executive level in education and had done a lifetime’s work condensed into 20 years. But I was finding it extremely tough. I was turning around some of the most challenging educational establishments there were, and I became renowned for being very good at fixing them. That really took its toll on me. I also encountered a huge amount of institutional racism – being a black female at that level. My wellbeing suffered, and I didn’t feel like I was utilising my creativity. I’ve had a positive impact on the education system in the UK – I've trained hundreds of Head Teachers, set up the Chelsea Academy and have constantly been of the mindset to bring about the best opportunities for all young people. However working at that intense level comes at a price - it’s not sustainable.

So, four years ago, I decided to hang up the grey suits and return to my love of art. I went part-time teaching in schools a few days a week, which freed up my mind and energy to work on art projects.

I have always been of the mindset that your background, financial status or gender shouldn’t make a difference – everyone should be entitled to have an amazing education. I believed that every student could achieve if you didn’t discriminate and adapted things for the learner. And I found that having this mindset achieved the best outcomes for all. The same goes for developing staff – someone could be the perfect person for the job but then you don’t hire them because they don’t look like you, or they don’t talk about football - that’s ridiculous!

The Norwood School students, London U.K. Linett Kamala 2020
The Norwood School students, London U.K. Linett Kamala 2020

Creative Practice

My art is about regaining my voice – I have felt voiceless and invisible over the years in education – even when I was at the top of the organisation I didn’t feel I could be my authentic self.

If you are really going to be serious about addressing deep-rooted issues in education then you run the risk of putting yourself in the firing line, and often that unfortunately means it’s very hard to sustain your position. My creative practice was a way for me to deal with that. 

My first project was called ‘State of Education’ because I was feeling silenced, I needed to communicate what was going on in education. One of the first things I tackled in the exhibition was wellbeing and mental health, because it wasn’t being spoken about – I had seen first-hand the impact in schools for myself and the children I was working with – with this relentless culture of assessments – they didn’t even have space to think, to breathe. So, I put it all into a work of art, making two paintings, one called ‘Courage’ and one called ‘Resilience’. They are currently in Lambeth Town Hall as part of my exhibition 'My heart will always be in Brixton - an artistic response to the activism of Olive Morris'.

It's important to me develop the next generation of creatives, which is why I have always had an educational programme attached to my work, such as an artist talk, or practical workshop for young people.

I find so much joy working with young people through my company Lin Kam Art and set it up as a way to give back. I wanted to put together quality programmes working with inspirational people. I have also used the leadership and management skills I picked up in my career in education.

AoCA Committee, credit Adam Razvi
The AoCA Committee at the 2019 Winter Showcase event in London, credit Adam Razvi

Alumni of Colour Association (AoCA)

I am also the President of the UAL Alumni of Colour Association (voluntary role), which is a network to enhance the opportunities of alumni of colour, within the creative industries. We hold a number of social and networking events each year to support our identifying alumni, and that network is constantly expanding and enriching.

I know that alumni might be juggling so many things and think that they don’t have time to connect, but that is the joy of the AoCA - you can join this already strong network of multi-generational alumni of colour, but you don’t necessarily have to commit time to it. You are very welcome to just join the mailing list and come along to events. We have people in the network who haven’t connected to the University since the 1970s, and they felt they were alone, who have now come to events and met with alumni from across all the colleges, generations and medias.

If you would like to join the AoCA please get in touch with us at aoca@arts.ac.uk

Black background with white, hand-written text
My heart will always be in Brixton (Olive Morris). Linett Kamala, 2019

Black Lives Matter

One placard that stands out to me from the recent Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests was ‘Racism is a Pandemic’. I’ve seen a lot of positive changes, and then I have seen things not changing at all. But for me, with BLM, I hadn’t seen as many white people becoming aware of their privilege. I think it was partly down to the pandemic, that people were stuck indoors, and had to be still for a moment, and so it galvanized people globally. Change has come out of it, there are people benefitting from it, but when the hashtag dies down, that’s where the proof will be.

The change lies with people who are in positions of influence and power – if you have privilege, you need to speak up.

I’m currently working on a mural with Azarra Amoy entitled ‘We are all one family’ as part of the Kensington and Chelsea Art Week, which coincides with Black History Month. Nearly 500 members of the public voted on their favourite one of our designs and the winner features my handwriting using words from the BLM placards.

I've also got an ongoing exhibition as part of the Lambeth Town Hall Arts Programme; ‘My heart will always be in Brixton’. It was originally meant to run from September to December 2019, but got extended until March 2020 due to popular demand. Then due to Covid, it got extended again! Is there a record for the longest running art exhibition? The link to the exhibition, which was inspired by Olive Morris on Google Arts and Culture hosted by the Black Cultural Archives, was featured below the Olive Morris Doodle in the UK on Friday 26 June 2020.

For more information on Linett’s creative practice follow her on twitter or instagram.