Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record
Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record
By Christina Stock
Last Sunday, we featured the exhibit opening and talk by Roswell Artist-in-Residence Alia Ali at the Roswell Museum and Art Center (RMAC). Her exhibit, Refracted Futures, will be on display at the museum until April 16.
Unlike other exhibits, Ali’s covers so many layers and nuances that are based on the artist’s unique background and life experiences. It goes beyond art into the reality of the past, of today and the possible future, including concerns for her former homeland Yemen. The exhibit is a journey that includes subtle connections and bright visual and vocal experiences that can only be experienced in person.
Ali and Aubrey Hobart, RMAC curator of collections and exhibitions, worked two weeks on the exhibit, which is meticulously structured for effect, mood and messages.
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Ali’s description as being a Yemeni-Bosnian-U.S. multimedia artist seems to be clear and straightforward. However, within these words are layers of history, beauty, terror and hope. She is an artist of today, formed out of traditions that go back thousands of years. To understand her exhibit and art, one has to understand Ali’s life and her passion.
Together with Hobart, Ali took the time to walk through her exhibit. Ali said she grew up being surrounded by languages. “My parents, between them, they speak seven. They are linguists.” Ali herself speaks three languages.
Asked about her art and her choosing cloth/textile as part of the material, Ali said, “I grew up around cloth; I don’t think it’s only cloth, I think it’s the pattern. When I started acknowledging myself, or decided to become an independent artist, I was really broke. I was in Morocco, it was in July and it was 54 degrees (Celsius) which is 129 degrees (Fahrenheit). I was applying for different things and was invited to do this exhibition called ‘Shades of Inclusion.’ I thought you can’t think about inclusion without exclusion, and the material that I was having a lot of was fabric. Because growing up, we didn’t buy ready-made fabric. You would go to the fabric market / souk (Souks are enclosed marketplaces where vendors have their booths selling anything from cone-shaped dried spices by the pound, to toys, textiles and TVs.)
“And you know already the difference between cotton and linen and what is silk. It’s not only something that’s female, it’s male; it is something that is generational; then you go to the tailor. You make those decisions, what you wear and how it’s cut. Everything becomes unique with its creative process that you go through, but also there is this part of the culture where you are also given this fabric as a gift to go and make something. It is not something that is already ready. You are given this fabric and so I ended up collecting a lot of fabric and I inherited fabric. So I carried this fabric with me, because I always was afraid not finding the right one. I had it, and that’s what I had a lot of. I started thinking about it as community like mine, Yemeni community, or the other communities that I photographed, indigenous communities.”
Anybody who has traveled to other countries may prepare themselves for different taboos in different countries. Ali herself traveled to many visiting with masters of their craft, creating fabrics. She became sensitive to how her former homeland Yemen and indigenous people were portrayed. “Photographers, how they portrayed Yemen have been really violent,” Ali said. In a sense that photographers came in and captured images. They ‘shoot’ but aren’t working with the people — and then they leave. It is really like stealing a photograph and then interpreting it in a particular way that has no context at all. Actually, it does a lot of damage to culture. I was thinking of power, of the photographer and the person behind the fabric. so I started photographing myself being both of them.”
Ali sees a relationship between the different indigenous experiences she said. Though not planned, to enter her exhibit at the RMAC, visitors walk through the Donald B. Anderson Gallery where they are first greeted with the exhibit Indigenous American Art, 1960-2000. Ali said, “That is not comparable, but in some cases it can be approached in similar ways. What does it feel like being an alien in your own land, that is even harsher and more violent?”
The first part of Ali’s exhibit is part of an earlier project called Borderland. “Those are miniature versions of it, there are also larger ones. I worked with 11 different communities in different parts of the world with the masters who came from similar cultures as I did, which is more of an oral culture that maybe was more illiterate in written language, but certainly documented it through textile. So I was looking at the patterns as a language, but also as an indigenous solidarity among different communities. Those photographs in the front are from those communities.”
Out of the light, the visitor steps into the cool darkness of the second part of the exhibit. Here visual and vocal art is reflected in film, sound and material.
Hobart said about the writing that is displayed, “This is an invented language that (Ali) has created. It combines Arabic, Hebrew and the language they used to speak in Sheba, Yemen used to be called Sheba. She is semi-fluent in those languages and combines those.”
Ali’s profile and information is available by taking a photo with a smartphone of the QR code next to the entrance. Her name is displayed in Arabic and Sabean.
Sheba, known among historians as Saba, was its biblical name. Archaeologists and historians contributing to the annual Seminar for Arabian Studies have several theories about Saba, some are skeptical about how far Saba reached. The Sabean culture vanished with the rise of Christianity, and loss of its income from the incense trade as Christians and later Muslims didn’t use as much as the pagan worship called for. Also, Sabean trading partners learned to navigate the Red Sea, bypassing Saba to sail directly to India where they could purchase spices and incense themselves. The theory is that this caused the deterioration of the southern kingdoms and a new culture came to power, the Himyarites. They used the nomadic Arabs in their armies from the 3rd century AD forward. In the 4th century, the Sabean/Hymyari writings became much closer to Arabic, with them welcoming the Arab tribes in their midst and, eventually, adopting their religion and language.
Asking Ali about the war in Yemen, she said, “Yemen was a product of U.S. imperialism and active erasure and it continues to happen. There was the unification war in 1992 to ’94 and that’s when we (her family) immigrated to the States — my grandfather was here — and we wanted to have a different life. It became dangerous there and my parents were looking for something different. And here I am in Roswell and still feeling like an alien. The irony of this.”
Growing into her art with this background formed Ali and gave her a deeper insight into how languages are used. “When you talk about verbal or written language, we read it like the truth and it presents itself as the truth. But as a child of linguists, I see it is also manipulated in terms of translation or what’s left out of an archive, what is kept in an archive. Who is being silenced through it; who is being represented and who’s not. I think there is much more power if you use visual language because it reaches something in terms of emotions and it’s not always comfortable. There is sometimes work that one presents to say it’s not actually accessible to everyone and that’s also a point,” Ali said.
Hobart said, “There is a word that comes to mind, which is multivalent, that is what we talked about in my studies. When you read a sentence, that sentence is fixed. When you say, ‘That dog ran under the tree.’ That sentence will never change, it gives you a very clear picture but it is a singular picture. When you look at a picture, it is multivalent, it tells multiple stories at once, depending who you are looking at. I was coming to this from Aztec writing, which is pictogram. You can have a sense on what is happening: These two characters are getting married, these two characters are having a fight, but it doesn’t give you exact words. You have to provide words and that’s what Alia is doing, is making you provide your own words.”
Out of the darkness, the next parts of the exhibit are in the bright light and include five large versions of the Borderland display.
“This series,” Ali said. It is a journey you go through. We set this up in a very particular way and again, there are these conversations, these indigenous experiences and the questions that arises in combination with an already existing exhibition. Borderland, it is not something harshly drawn, but is a place that doesn’t belong to anyone but can belong to everyone. It is also a place of violence, then you enter into this other time and other place, and multi-layered overwhelming capsule and it is also a dream. It is this radically imagined future to what is present. It’s not supposed to make sense, it has this part that is supposed to follow you home. Because there are people who always live with that trauma, it always follows them home and try to figure out what those are. But then again you are seeing this future impasse not only in this horizontal level, but this vertical level and these plains are broken.”
The journey from light to darkness to light is on purpose Ali said. “I am thinking of Islamic architecture in a sense that architecture is supposed to support nature. You come in from the street or the outside, and you come into this place that is really dark and the purpose for that is so you can really appreciate the light that’s in the garden, in the middle of the house. There is that kaleidoscopic saturated images that is beautiful. We recognize something but aren’t sure about it. This is something that is indigenous. There is this sense of confusion. At first there is something to question: Who are the people who are visible, that are invisible but always there? Because to me they are very visible. Some of them are camouflaged, maybe you don’t see it at first but once you see it you can’t unsee it. There is that moment that causes a cognitive, sensational shift and once you get into it there is the question, what does textile mean? It represents something that we all touch, we all experience, we wash it, it protects us, we die in it, we are born in it, but then this one, it’s Dutch wax print, it is really violent.“
The exploitation of countries and its people is part of Ali’s message. The fabric chosen represents in its cheerfulness a dark side, having been copied by the Dutch Trading Company who copyrighted the patterns and process in the 1930s and tried to sell them back, which didn’t work. Instead, they became popular in another part of their empire, West Africa. “Now there is a company, an off-shoot called Vlisco (Vlisco Netherlands B.V.), which is also based in the Netherlands, they produce them, similar ones, and sell them to West African nations. The thing is, I say West African, but this too is generalized. They essentially watered down these symbols and removed them from their roots or origins so they are unrecognizable from where they come from. Not only that, but people who come from that community, who might have inherited it, are not allowed to use it without paying,” Ali said.
“Those are the stories where you see yourself reflected, but you don’t see yourself reflected in the larger historical narrative,” Ali said.
Ali is concerned about the exploitation of indigenous people, but there is another aspect in her involvement, her concern seeing the origins of weapons used today in Yemen. “They are definitely made in the United States and that’s what is destroying Yemen. Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing — that’s really what is actively erasing Yemen at the moment.”
Asked about her plans, Ali said, “On March 19, it actually marks the Seven Year War in Yemen, I am organizing with the Arab American Museum an online event where we actually are screening this film (featured in the exhibit at RMAC) — it’s free. Also ‘Conflict is More Profitable than Peace,’ which is a film that talks about weapon-making companies. We are going to have a conversation and that is going to launch a 48 hours film series of seven young Yemeni filmmakers who are in Yemen. The films are so beautiful and also disturbing, but it expands the gaze as opposed to see Yemenis as terrorists, as villains or victims. It will be good.”
Despite the pandemic, Ali said that she enjoys being in Roswell and the freedom of being able to exhibit. “It has been really nice here, having complete freedom to paint the wall, to completely do an installation and also activate sound; what would it feel like to put something so bold like dress and the jewelry paired with something that feels and is futuristic? How are they in conversation? There is a part where you have to just sit with it I think.”
For more information about the exhibit, visit roswell-nm.gov/1259/Roswell-Museum-Art-Center, to sign up for the Yemen filmmaker event, visit arabfilmseries.eventive.org. To follow future projects of Ali, visit alia-all.com.