At first glance, the work of multimedia artist Alia Ali is a captivating juxtaposition of color and pattern. What makes her portraits of silhouettes in vivid motif-bearing textiles truly powerful is that at their core, they are a reflection on the inherent duality of things. This reflection, both fearless and nuanced, raises hard-hitting questions about politics, history, identity, erasure, imperialism, racism, and sexism.
The daughter of linguists, Ali who has traveled to 67 countries, lived in and between seven countries and grew up with five languages, initially wanted to become a lawyer. But once she realized that a career in law was more about “the manipulation of language than about justice,” she found herself naturally drawn to photography and experimental filmmaking.
In a conversation with Departures, the award-winning artist who lives and works between Los Angeles and Marrakech, reveals how her art explores the economics and politics of textile, the colonization of cultures, and the narratives that emerge as a result of that.
How deeply does your Yemeni-Bosnian-US identity influence your work as an artist, both in terms of having that heritage and a mixed identity that gives you a unique perspective on the themes you explore?
Alia Ali: "I'm always careful about these categorizations and how I categorize myself. When people say, “You're an artist from the Middle East,” I always say, “West Asia” because these are sort of colonial terms.
In fighting against certain categories, coming from color, language, or even terms like ‘migrant’, ‘refugee’, ‘exile’, ‘expat’, as an artist, it's made me think even more about how, because I cannot fit into these categorizations, I push myself and my practice to create another space through my work."
What impact does language, and your experience of speaking different languages, and the insight into cultures that comes from that, have on your work?
"I continue to see the difference between what is being said in a certain language and what ends up becoming the translation of it. Somebody might be saying something very peaceful, but because of the politics or the agenda of the media or whoever is doing the translation, it ends up coming across as very violent. The nuances, the most important thing in language along with tone, are lost and often manipulated.
After 9/11, it became very evident that language can be used as a weapon. I saw how Arabic words that were peaceful to us, like ‘madrassa’ or ‘talib’ (used in taliban), which mean school and student respectively, ended up becoming words that I couldn't even use anymore."
What drew you to the visual mediums of photography and filmmaking?
"Image is a form of language that is much more universal, but I’ve learned how image has also absolutely disserved communities. That has pushed me towards doing a lot more installation work and to experimental filmmaking. While photography has its own problems in terms of how it's been used, manipulated, and dispersed, it's still my preferred language."
How did your photography journey begin?
"I realized I couldn't really be an excellent filmmaker if I didn't understand how to take a single frame photograph.
On my first trip where I started photographing as a personal project, I found myself moving away from the faces of people. I was photographing hands and what they were making. At the end of the journey, looking at all of these photographs, what I was seeing was all these textiles. With textiles, everything has so much significance and meaning, and for it to be disregarded as only aesthetic…but that's not it. There are so many layers to it."
Your work reflects on important themes such as identity, power, and colonialism, using textiles as a medium. What inspired you to use textiles?
"In Yemen, we have this oral history, a lot of which was subjected to erasure by British influence. The narrative that ended up becoming Yemeni history, was inaccurate. So what were the stories that we were telling, as Yemenis? The most honest thing I found were the dresses.
When we lived in Yemen, my grandmother would make dresses and my mother would collect dresses from different regions. Looking back, I began to see how there was a mistranslation and misunderstanding of the patterns and symbolism in the textiles. That led to my fascination of looking at how the narratives of other indigenous groups in other parts of the world were essentially mistreated in the same way.
That led to my series Borderland, where I worked with textile masters in India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Vietnam, Japan, Kenya, and Nigeria, spending five to six weeks in each location, building intimate relationships, and trying to understand the processes, patterns, and symbolism. The condition was that it had to be their textiles, something they’d made, because fabric in itself is a product of the land."
Can you tell us about your latest series Flux?
"Flux is a series of shifting photographic portraits that embody silhouettes warped by textile, saturated in colors and a medley of motifs. Each frame is hand-upholstered with wax print sourced from Côte d'Ivoire.
Wax print is a wax-resistant dyeing technique that has many names. When I started looking at the history of it, it's a fabric that is really transglobal in both beautiful and extremely disturbing ways. When we see the textile, we're so drawn to it, because of these super saturated colors. It’s so defining of what is African, which in and of itself is extremely problematic, because it's a whole continent, you know?
Then I learned that many of these textiles have been produced in the Netherlands. That got me thinking—if pattern is the language through which communities share their narrative on their own terms, then African wax print was a complete break of that.
When the Dutch colonized the western coast of Africa, a part of a Dutch trading company took many of the heritage symbols that had been there for hundreds of years and copyrighted them. So now, artists from the region could be sued for using their own symbols of heritage.
What happens when there's that trauma and erasure? You have to create a new space.
When I saw African wax print made by young artists on the continent, in Togo, Benin, Côte d'Ivoire, and Senegal, those patterns ended up becoming extremely futuristic.
With African wax print, I just thought that it deserved its own conversation. It was important to talk about the economics and politics of the textile on its own, and to think about everything else that was being traded along the colonial trade routes. While using textiles, we shouldn't be erasing the histories in which they came into existence.
The Flux series consists of 13 photographs, made across continents. They were photographed in Morocco, the textile comes from Côte d'Ivoire, they're printed in New Orleans, I upholster them wherever they are, and they're mounted in Germany.
The way that the fabrics were chosen for the photographs—there are definitely aesthetic choices—but there's also this tension, this conflicting nature of how they are raising these questions."
Growing up, was travel always important?
"Growing up in Yemen, travel was part of our education. To my mother, who is Bosnian, it was important that we saw Asia, to know where we came from. She took us to India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Indonesia, for as long as a month at a time, and I think that also became a way to understand our identity.
But in other cases, with the war in Yemen, and the genocide in Bosnia, travel, for my parents, was not always by choice. Eventually, we moved to the United States."
What does travel mean to you today, and how is it important to your work as an artist?
"Travel is a huge privilege. With my privilege, I want to make work that opens up more questions by crossing borders. Borders are these scars of destruction. Travel becomes essential because my practice is, in a way, removing these borders.
I would say, specifically to women, to absolutely go and travel, and by themselves. I think there's something important about what it means to see yourself in the world and to acknowledge that you're an uninvited visitor in these places. In terms of living in other places, it means that you have to give back.
Travel is a gift and it’s a big part of our culture. I'm not religious at all, but I am spiritual, and I consider myself culturally Muslim. When you think about one of the pillars, which is to go to Mecca, I always interpreted it as being just about travel, being able to see other people like you and unlike you, the things that we have in common and those that divide us, and how that also unifies us."
What can audiences look forward to with your upcoming work?
"For the last two years, my work has been focused on Yemen. The first, called Conflict is More Profitable than Peace, is an ongoing project about which I also made a short film, and is made of a binder that explains the circumstances, or at least tries to compile, what is happening in Yemen.
My next film Mahjar, which translates to both ‘diaspora’ and ‘migration’, was about Yemeni diasporic communities, and what it is that we have in common, other than our suffering. Najm al Ahmar, or The Red Star, is the installation, inspired by a story that is specific to Yemeni culture. Together, they are part of an experiential exhibition where I am creating a language of the future that draws on Arabic, Hebrew, and ancient Sabaean. I'm also making my own textiles for my Hub (Arabic for ‘love’) series."
Where can we see you work this year?
"Flux is currently in exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art and that's open through November 15th, 2020. Flux and my new series Hub, along with Mahjar and The Red Star are also in exhibit at the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College."