These works come together through a lengthy, careful process that is both performative and sculptural, and reintroduces the labor into imagemaking. Each photographic work begins with extensive research into the history, distribution, and production of the particular fabrics and textiles Ali employs. She noted that she meets all of the makers of the fabrics she buys for her work, so she can be sure where the money is going. She then collects and upholsters objects for backdrops and installations, building a stage for photographing before enshrouding her sitter in the material. “There’s a lot of trust involved,” she said. “It’s a very intimate process.” She then sets up the image as she would like to make it, and instructs her sitter to move—and their body completes the act. Her photographs are never framed with glass, to avoid reflecting the viewer’s image; instead, they are mounted in custom-made frames that Ali upholsters herself.
The aesthetic vibrancy of the resulting work is vital: Ali wants the viewer to see “motif as a dominant language.” Although her visual language is quixotic, there are political reasons for it being so. The artist grew up with a family history of forced exile on both sides of her bloodline. Her linguist parents—a Jewish Yemeni father and Bosnian Muslim mother—learned firsthand how “language is manipulated, and how it alienates and isolates different communities to serve an agenda,” she said. At the same time, her illiterate Yemeni grandmother has been a profound influence: A master dyer from the village of Qubayta in the central highlands of Yemen, Ali’s grandmother documented her experiences through textiles and embroidery. “Even the Latin origins of the word ‘text’ comes from the word ‘texere,’ meaning ‘to weave,’” Ali explained. A deep concern with divisions emerges from her works, which, through their rich tapestry, offer messages of unity. “What does it make to break something, then put it back together?” Ali asked.