By Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The articulated monk-saffron-colored tube winds through Seattle Asian Art Museum (the museum)’s glass hall as part of the “Hybrid Skin, Mythical Presence” exhibit by Anida Yoeu Ali. It is the first time the entire “Buddhist Bug” has ever been shown inside a museum and Ali is the first Cambodian artist to be given a solo show at the museum since their building renovations.
Ali looks upon the Bug and her other creation, “The Red Chador,” as entities in their own right, with fluid gender, and with separate identity from herself, though part of herself. When she talks about the full 100 meters of the Bug winding through the museum, for instance, she says, “The Bug ‘decided’ to take up a lot more space [than usual].” When she talks about the Bug or the Red Chador, Ali calls them “she” and describes, especially the Chador, as having its own life.
“They’re all semi-autobiographical,” Ali explained to the Asian Weekly. “There’s a part of me in them. It’s not separable, but at the same time each one requires an extra layer of courage, or visualizing, before live performance what these personas would do. Yes, Anida the artist is beneath the chador having these experiences, but at the same time, the outside public’s perceiving a much more regal entity larger than life presence of a person that is not just the artist.”
Both the Bug and The Red Chador are performance pieces that when not activated by an audience, Ali considers “artifacts.” Both have traveled far, are often in transit, and both represent the multiple identities of the Cambodian diaspora. Ali was born in Cambodia and her family was “locked inside the country during the Khmer Rouge genocidal regime.” They then left, “not by choice, but fled” as refugees, and Ali, who lives in Tacoma now, was raised in Chicago. She was insistent, though, during a press preview of the exhibition, that we are not going to find the trauma of Cambodia’s recent past within these walls but rather happiness, at times, and exploration of identity.
“The tubular structure is really about me coming to terms with this thing called the diasporic dilemma. This idea that I’m constantly fluctuating between insider and outsider…I’m never quite the person you expect me to be, whether that’s a local or a foreigner.”
That’s the Bug, which came to Ali after she had spent time in Cambodia and noticed how ever-present Buddhism was in a country where she was raised Muslim.
“It made sense to me [then] why my parents worked so hard to give my family, my siblings, and I, an Islamic upbringing; that they were ethnic minorities.” When Ali returned to Cambodia, where she worked for some years, and where the Bug has made many appearances, she had a “feeling of being overwhelmed by Buddhism,” and acknowledged “the ethnic minority of my family and how hard my family tried to preserve the Islamic culture, the Islamic religion, for their children.”
When Ali performs the Bug, she is “constantly playing with that juxtaposition of this creature who feels like she belongs, that she should be here.” Instead of the Bug feeling out of place, it’s the Bug implying (it rarely talks but does interact with the public by gesture): “What are you looking at? …Because for this creature, she feels like she’s fitting right in.” Similar to Ali’s own experience. It may be that Ali and the Bug relate best, however, to outsiders, as Ali documents in a photograph of the Bug with several U.S. deportees called “The Exiles.”
“These are my friends,” Ali told the gathered audience during the press preview. She wants to draw attention to these people’s “complex story and why they are being doubly punished” and also for the viewer to try to understand “the question of does the bug feel most at home amongst this group of exiles?”
Ali’s work is described as “feminist” by the press release on the exhibition, and she does wear this hat along with many others. She is an advocate and ally for multiple groups. The Red Chador addresses controversy surrounding the Muslim wearing of a veil and also touches on misogyny and contemporary politics. The Chador has lived an entire life, been born, died, and has been born again in the volcanoes and ocean of Hawai’i. Ali has performed The Red Chador in the U.S. and around the world where reception has been curious, welcoming, and hostile.
“She went very far, 15 cities, it was pretty epic,” Ali recounted to the press. “And she [experienced] a lot of negative and positive responses.” In 2015, for example, when Trump was campaigning and during the time surrounding the uproar in Ferguson, Missouri, “the kind of responses I was getting in Hartford, [Connecticut] were belligerent, were vulgar,” Ali told us.
The Chador can be triggering for veterans and it does bring up people’s worst behavior towards women because even though it represents Islam in general, most people associate the chador itself with females. The Chador experienced death in Israel when it mysteriously disappeared. Ali told the press of her harrowing experience traveling from Kuala Lumpur (KL) to Tel Aviv, the Chador packed in her luggage along with gifts for her family. Because Israel does not allow Malaysians to travel directly to the country, she had to pass through Bangkok. Prior to her arrival in Tel Aviv, she was strip searched and her belongings taken from her.
“I was allowed only my wallet, passport, and a phone without my recharger.” Ali was an invited speaker to the 1st Palestinian Performing Arts Network Conference; she was not there to perform The Red Chador and she never took it out of her luggage. “I was detained for about four hours at immigration, being asked the same questions: ‘Why is your last name Ali? What are you doing here? Why did you go to KL? Who invited you? Who are your contacts?”
When Ali returned to the U.S., the Chador did not follow her. In 2018, she laid the Red Chador to rest, for a time, wisely utilizing the unfortunate incident to further her art and her mission. Now, Seattle will have the privilege of seeing The Red Chador activated again via performance, as well as the Buddhist Bug.
“When I came to the form of the chador,” Ali told the Asian Weekly, “I was deciding between red and pink and fuchsia…Ultimately, I decided on red and that was because of what it represents in terms of life and vibrancy, blood…I saw this presence of life and love and blood oozing on the streets, walking on the streets.”
As a society, we don’t talk enough about the heroism of artists. Of what an artist like Ali risks in order to ask the hard questions—and to force the public to ask them as well. Strip searches, theft, violence. In San Francisco was the only time so far that Ali made the tough decision to take off the Chador in the middle of performance when she was being threatened by a bystander. She was rescued by “a stranger on a bicycle.” These interactions, though surreal, are real. They give the artist and the audience insight into who the artist is—but also into who we are.
“Anida Yoeu Ali: Hybrid Skin, Mythical Presence” opened at the museum on Jan.18 and runs until July 7, 2024. For information go to: www.seattleartmuseum.org/exhibitions/ali.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.