The Artsy Vanguard 2021: Alia Ali
“My work is dedicated to those hidden in plain sight: the migrants,” said Alia Ali, reading to me over Zoom from a moving open letter she has written, an extended poem that will accompany all of her forthcoming exhibitions. “If we are not honored by others then we have the power to honor each other,” she continued.
Ali was speaking from a studio in Roswell, New Mexico, with glimpses of the desert through windows behind her. She had been taking part in a residency at the RAiR Foundation, where she made four new photographic series. Among them is an eye-boggling diptych, Helix (2021), photographed in a corner so that when it is hung, it deliberately disorients the viewer’s perception of space and distance. Blue Bleed (2021), meanwhile, is a sumptuous full-body “portrait,” explored through a vacillating blue pattern. Both works continue to evolve Ali’s ambitious approach to imagemaking, using sculpture, video, installation, and still images to tackle the history of photography as a colonial force, while also embracing the playfulness of the medium and its potential for documentation.
Although Ali did study photography—completing an MFA at California Institute of the Arts in 2020, over a decade after she earned her first degree in studio art and Middle Eastern studies—in the years since she started learning to use the medium, her visual language has been shaped by various encounters. In 2010, a year after graduating with her first degree, she moved to Marrakech, Morocco, and worked for the Marrakech Biennale as a production manager for the fourth edition, and director of the fifth. There, she met the photographer Hassan Hajjaj, who encouraged Ali to push her own practice as a photographic artist. Next year, Ali will have institutional solo exhibitions at the Benton Museum of Art, the Arab American National Museum, and the Tucson Museum of Art.
Ali has become known for a distinctive sculptural approach to photography, from the early series “Cast No Evil” (2015–16) to the more recent “FLUX” (2019–21), the latter of which was included in her solo exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art last year. Her works have been hailed as “Yemeni Futurism,” and incorporate dazzling, prismatic textiles and fabrics wrapped around her sitters—the same circle of four people whose identities are never directly revealed. Often, her subjects are set against intricate backgrounds to create a stunning trompe l’oeil effect.
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.
Ali’s deep connection to textiles is also rooted in her own childhood experiences. She recalls being awestruck by the optical patterns of Yemeni Ikat textiles—a craft she later discovered could be traced back to the 9th and 10th centuries. “Unfortunately this part of our heritage would be erased,” Ali said, “a repercussion of colonization, war, and the fragmentation of our people with our diaspora spread across the globe.” Her works pay homage to that lost history, and to the Yemen she remembers from childhood—which is not defined by wars in her memories, but by its ancient architecture and enthralling beauty. She and her mother preserve an important piece of this, too: They hold the second-largest collection of Yemeni dresses in the world, and Ali is currently working on archiving them so that someday, they can be properly displayed, first and foremost, for Yemenis.
Ali’s photo-based works might also be viewed as an act of preservation; a moving, living history that traces a trajectory between places and people who do not identify with the borders that have been drawn around them. Ali calls her work a form of “indigenous solidarity”—it has taken her to communities in Oaxaca; to wax prints from the Ivory Coast, Senegal, Nigeria, and the Netherlands; to master Ikat designers, dyers, and weavers in the town of Margilan, Uzbekistan, in the Fergana Valley, home to one of the oldest existing Ikat factories along the Silk Road.
Ali rejects the term “Middle East” as a colonial descriptor, preferring to refer to the region as West Asia. She doesn’t call herself American, but says she is from the U.S.—she first came to the country from Yemen at the age of 13. Insisting on these definitions is to insist on a repositioning, the same way her work constantly reorients the viewer in relation to what they’re seeing.
If you do a Google search for Yemen, or Iraq, or Syria, Ali pointed out, you’re shown maps that are so similar, “you’d think they were the same place.” Images, as much as text, have been subsumed by the colonial machine of the internet. Ali’s works do not simply exist to counter the colonial, but act as windows, as Barthes would have it. Returning to her open letter, Ali read: “My work is a reminder of the beauty of our color, the poetry in our myths, and the song in our accents.”
The Artsy Vanguard 2021
The Artsy Vanguard is our annual feature recognizing the most promising artists working today. This fourth edition of The Artsy Vanguard is a triumphant new chapter, as we present an in-person exhibition in Miami featuring the 20 artists’ works, including many available to collect on Artsy. Curated by Erin Jenoa Gilbert, sponsored by MNTN, and generously supported by Mana Public Arts, the show is located at 555 NW 24th Street, Miami, and is open to the public from December 2nd through 5th, 12–6 p.m.
Header and thumbnail image: Portrait of Alia Ali at 193 Gallery in Paris, 2021. Photo by Elohimedia. Courtesy of Alia Ali.