Alia Ali’s work explores human culture to rethink the role of traditions in the present.
She lived and traveled through many places in the world, including Sana’a, Sarajevo, Istanbul, USA, Wales, Ho Chi Minh City and Marrakech, developing her artistic sensitivity on topics such as differences and belonging.
Her unique point of view conveys the experiences of all these countries. She expresses political reflections through aesthetics in a refined way.
Between the certainty of a community and the prejudice of those who are extraneous to it, is historical heritage a wealth or a barrier? Is inclusion possible without contamination, and is contamination good or bad?
Hi Alia Ali, welcome to Feel Desain.
1. What initially struck me most about your bio is that you have so many cultural roots, a very precious melting pot of different civilizations. This is the starting point for your artistic expression.
It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to experience so much in the world. What are the positive aspects and the possible difficulties of this?
It was a wonderful experience growing up in different parts of the world and being exposed to different people, surroundings, textiles and food. Visiting these places taught me to be a traveler, not a tourist, and I have my mother to thank for that.
She insisted that my brother and I grow up in Yemen to complete our foundational education in Arabic so that we have access to our heritage and our culture. She would occasionally take us out of school, sometimes a month at a time, to visit places like Pakistan, Hong Kong, India, Thailand and Kenya. Now that I’m older, I have considered how important it was to build the foundation of how we navigate and reflect ourselves in the world. It taught me about interconnectedness, not only among people but also our surroundings.
These experiences encouraged me to avoid having expectations of any place. I learned how to approach other cultures by listening, observing, and interacting, as opposed to taking, preaching, and “capturing.” As an artist it taught me the importance of using our physical surroundings to feed our imagination with the imagery that we experience rather than the images that we consume digitally or commercially.
2. Your work is based on the idea that spoken and written language is not fundamental for communicating. Words represent a limit to expression and understanding.
When did you choose to be a visual artist?
My parents are migrant linguists who have moved around most of their lives. The one language they shared, from the seven between them, was English. So, I grew up seeing how translation can be used as a tool, but also as a weapon. Translation doesn’t only support what people are trying to say, but it also supports the agenda of the person who is doing the translating.
I noticed this very poignantly during September 11th in the United States. This was the beginning of a significant rupture in how the Arabic language has been, and continues to be misused. For example, the word “ṭālib” which is used in “taliban”, the word that we have for “student” is now used for a the word describing a terrorist. If you type “madrassa” on Google, you can find images of terrorist training camps, when in fact this word just means “school”. Words are misinterpreted based on how they are used for propaganda and political agendas throughout Europe and the United States. I realized early on that if I couldn’t even use my own language, I would have to turn to something else, the visual language.
As an undergraduate, I was interested in law and studied politics. Very soon after, I realized that law is the art of manipulating words. During this time, I also became very interested in visual art. With visual art, the viewer has agency and has the space to decipher what the artist is communicating. The work of art becomes a prop for more intimate and in-depth dialogues.
I decided to become a professional artist in 2014. My guide in life is happiness- it is also fear, or rather facing my fears. I realized that fear is what stops us from doing things. Art is the only thing that has pushed me to face those fears. There were a lot of things that I needed to understand and process in my life and identity–– I didn’t see my mixed identity reflected in the world around me, so I had to create it for myself. Art was the one that had the least restrictions and constraints, which really allowed me to create that space to explore, to uncover, and to reveal.
3. Your series use fabrics as the main communicative language. Fabric patterns represent the subject of your works, characterizing but also hiding the portrayed person.
You have a theory on this particular material. Can you explain how and why you use textiles as media?
Textiles are really significant to me, and, in fact, to everyone. The word “text” comes from “textile”, it’s not the other way around. The most ancient form of visual communication were writings on walls, writings on stones, which were hard to move. Later humans used fibers such as papyrus, something that could be transported.
When I think of patterns on textiles, I think of my grandmother from Yemen who was illiterate in writing and reading in Arabic and Hebrew, but was very literate in motifs. Although she couldn’t read and write, she still documented our heritage in her fabrics. To me, these fabrics essentially became the documents of how we, Yemenis, see ourselves on our own terms. When we look at how history was written, many of our stories were written by our colonizers, in a language that wasn’t ours for people who weren’t us. This goes back to the beginning when I was describing how a message changes according to the agenda of the translator.
People look for the titles of my photographs to give them more of an idea and want to understand who’s beneath these fabrics. They look for text in order to contextualize and this is where I withhold that. I am more interested in what the Master who made the textile has to offer, in their language, on their terms. I am interested in portraying what it is that these Masters’ imaginations are and what their hands can produce. I think that concealing the face draws the viewer closer because the power dynamic shifts from the photographer and the viewer, to the person and textile that are being photographed.
4. Interesting contrasts are constantly mixed in your works. First of all, you deal with political issues in an aesthetic key. The visual impact of the compositions conveys many strong messages, such as exclusion, fear, and incomprehension.
Usually fabrics are an object of fashion, which is a more frivolous area than your themes. Is there a connection between clothing and human being?
Fashion is political. Through fashion we can outline historical elements, aesthetic trends and economies.
Fabric is something that we all have in common: we are born in it, we die in it, we sleep and wake up in it, we eat on it, we clean with it, we protect ourselves with it. We also express ourselves through it. It defines sometimes class differentiation, where you come from, and how you like to identify.
There’s so much potential in that, but it can tie us or divide us.
5. Mixing of cultures, walls, forgotten origins. These are important topics, in the everyday life of every citizen and for the international balance too. In my opinion, everyone needs to know their background, always keeping in mind that traditions are made of crossbreeds. Without mixing there would be no growth.
Your multicultural point of view certainly has many resources for this reflection. What does the world need today?
In my opinion, greed is causing the worst problems. What we need is maybe a little less attention to money and a lot more attention to love.
Artists spend a lot of time unpacking traumas of their own and of the world around them in order to hold the mirror up to their societies. We do the labour from where these traumas can be processed, rethought and hopefully changed.
6. One of the negative consequences of globalization is the ease of today’s pandemic to spread everywhere. Among the various inconveniences, many events have been postponed, such as the Art Dubai 2020 fair in which you would have participated.
Do you think that art, even in this situation, is one of humanity’s strongest tools to stay united and improve ourselves?
I do. Now is the time where, among the chaos of COVID-19, we are seeing balcony serenades, recipe exchanges, love declarations, storytelling events and music. People are sharing and caring and a lot of it is happening through creative means.
Art is what allows us to journey outside of ourselves but also within ourselves. This is a perfect time to see the power in how art can heal.
7. Who are your favorite artists, and what does creativity mean to you?
I have so many favorite artists, some of whom I’ve had the great privilege to work with. So I would say Seydou Keita, Ashley Hunt, Cauleen Smith, Sun Ra, Michael Rakowitz, Etel Adnan, Larissa Sansour, Bouchra Khalili, Hassan Hajjaj, El Anatsui, Graciela Iturbide, Fatima al-Qadiri, Paul Sepuya, Mercedes Dorame, Santiago X, Octavia Butler, Andrei Tarkovsky, Hito Steyerl… recently have been a bit diving into the films of Aki Kaurismaki.
What does creativity mean? It’s breath.
8. What do you suggest to those who are looking for a way to express their thoughts but have not found how to do it? Do you have any advice for our desainers?
Experiment, take risks and make mistakes.
It’s through the mistakes that we make while experimenting that we can learn the most- it is also where we see ourselves. To me, my practice is about risk and facing fears. I realized that I was the most afraid of how people would react to the work. I wasn’t thinking in the moment or what I was doing, I was thinking about what people would say.
That’s probably the biggest restriction that one can place on themselves, and that fear can be paralyzing. It’s not about producing something for a final result, it’s the space which is carved out during the process that makes room for surprise and discovery.