Alia Ali

About the Artist:
Alia Ali (Austria, 1985) is a Yemeni-Bosnian-American multi-media artist. Her aesthetic interests stem from people, place, and the processes which unite and divide us, all at once. Her work reflects on the politics and poetics of contested notions surrounding the topics of identity, physical borders, universality, mental/physical spaces of confinement, and the inherent dualism that exists in everything. Her work blurs the lines between what we claim to be objective and subjective, illusion and reality, truth and interpretation.

Alia Ali is a graduate of the United World College of the Atlantic (UWCAC) and holds a BA in Studio Art and Middle Eastern Studies from Wellesley College. Her work has been featured at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the Marrakech Biennale as part of the Swiss-Moroccan KE’CH Collective, Gulf Photo Plus Dubai during Art Week Dubai 2017. Her work is currently on exhibit at the Space Gallery in Portland, Maine. She has been awarded the Alice C. Cole '42 Grant of Wellesley College, LensCulture’s Emerging Talent Awards 2016 and Gold Winner in a Fine Art Category of the Tokyo International Foto Awards.

Alia Ali is represented by Mondo Galeria (Madrid), Galerie Siniya 28 (Marrakech), and the Peter Sillem Gallery (Frankfurt).

Read below the interview our Art Director, Finn Schult, had with the artist!

What lead you to start making the BORDERLAND work?

First of all, I would like to thank you for featuring my work and inviting me to be apart of your publication.

BORDERLAND is actually a series of portraits compiled over a nine month project, called the People of Pattern Project (POP). It was inspired in January 2016 when I was in New Orleans and the United States was fully invested in the primaries for its 2016 elections. I was stunned and frozen by the bigotry displayed by Donald Trump, his supporters and the blatant disregard of select media (mainstream and otherwise) to remain objective or at least attempt to provide balanced coverage. The media fueled the hatred, even if, at times, it was not its intention.

Hatred towards Arabs and Muslims became normalized from post 9/11 effects and the long drawn out wars that we are still embroiled in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and most recently, Yemen— this sparked my anger. Hatred was growing towards other groups and suddenly fascism was fashionable— this just fueled my anger. Mexicans being called rapists, the term ‘illegals’ was being thrown around all too lightly, the LGBTIQ community was under even more threat, not to mention the surge of violence against the already threatened Black communities, immigrant communities and Jewish communities. Then came the veterans, refugees and women… the list kept growing. It was a domino effect and it seemed evident that I would have to direct my anger and my fear into something productive and somehow engaging. It would turn into an initiative that would raise questions and simultaneously align itself with the efforts of those who were trying to change the monologue into some form of dialogue.

This poisonous discourse of ignorance had to be balanced with knowledge and beauty by means of art. It was evident that humanity was forgotten, so I sought something else that was more physically and visually evident- a material that divides us and unites us, all at once- fabric.

Fabric is something that almost everyone in the world touches on a daily basis. Whether we we are swaddled in it, wake up in it, define ourselves by it, shield ourselves with it, clean with it, eat on it, or are buried in it.

I started from something familiar, fabric from one of my native countries, Yemen. In her sixteen years of living in Yemen, my Bosnian mother collected colorful and intricate traditional dresses made by Yemeni tribal women, garments worn by Yemenis, and most unfortunately, sold by Yemenis who would then replace these colorful handmade clothes with mass produced black niqab (black veil covering every part of the body, except for the eyes). I saw these dresses as products of Yemen, in their entirety, which is rare. They were woven from resources of the land, the dye was of the flowers and plants, the symbols that are embroidered on them are with such precision, and everything had a purpose- each told a story. Whether it was a garment for a man or a woman, a specific class, a particular tribe, or a symbol to ward off the evil eye.

Generally speaking, Yemen’s history has been mostly told through the words of its British colonists, not in Arabic, but in English. Needless to say, a lot was lost and a lot remained untold. For me, a lot of what in untold in this abridged “histories” is found in the honey, the jewelry, the music, the architecture, the gestures, the language, the ceremonies, and of course, the precious textiles. All these are separate from religion, these are all cultural and that is an important distinction. These garments certainly don’t express everything, but they do express much more than has ever met the page about Yemen. They are testaments of the individuals from the various tribes who made them- an archive, a visual textile encyclopedia communicating their environments, their stories, their symbols, their beliefs and how they see the universe, each of which are uniquely different from tribes only miles away.

For the next nine months I traveled from New Orleans, Louisiana to Oaxaca, Mexico; Bokhara & Margillon, Uzbekistan; Yogyakarta, Indonesia; Kyoto and Tokyo, Japan; Hanoi and SAPA, Vietnam; Rajasthan and Mumbai, India; and Nairobi, Kenya. In each place I was introduced to  artisans, masters, curators, collectors and educators who welcomed me into their communities and shared their history, processes, methods, materials and wisdoms. For this, I am ever grateful to each of them, the artist residences who have hosted me, the mentors who have mentored me, and the patrons who have supported me.

A year after it all started, January 2017, I found myself in front of my computer witnessing the inauguration of a man who gained power through divisive means and who issues press releases through his twitter feed. Having no other choice but to step back, I was able to see the project as something larger, something more powerful and something political. This gave way to my series BORDERLAND.

Borders enact violence on the geography and identity of those living in borderlands and are imprints of power and scars of destruction. A borderland, on the other hand, is the result of naturally occurring interactions among people and of nature trying to forge an existence in proximity to what is around them. It is not only geographical, I see it as philosophical, political and personal. Through this series I re-examine these demarcated zones as territories of exploration drawing attention to them as transient physical spaces and a contemporary phenomenon from which the body of artwork is presented and the viewer is a participant.

 When exhibiting these portraits, the gallery becomes a BORDERLAND, where the viewer comes face to face with these characters. They are “undocumented”- their names are ambiguous and their exact location, a mystery. They are unidentifiable, except for the details displayed such as gesture, color of the fabrics, symbolism and texture eventually and simultaneously drawing on a sense of connection and alienation. Their existence questions what the human is and what lies outside and within it.

The characters in the portraits are wrapped in layers of fabric from eleven regions of the world that shield them from interrelating with anything beyond the material. Who is on the other side of the fabric questions the very nature of belonging and interrogates the binary of home and exile.

Seeing is an act of power, but so is being seen. I ask the viewer if the people behind the textiles are hiding or are they being hidden? Is it an active form of anonymity or a passive one? When confronting them, we are forced to confront the ways we include and exclude others in our daily lives. So, is exclusion motivated by a primitive fear and search for security? A form of self-preservation? A metamorphosis of the outcast into the villain?

The textile lends itself to questioning the fabricated barriers in society that inhibit the incorporation of others. Or are the obstacles just that: ideas, intuitions, fear, discriminations and ‘understandings’? Fabric, like paper, like borders, is narrow but long, defined physically and yet interpretative in identity- all three have a capacity of exploration and culminate into one photograph. All three are canvases through which culture manifests itself at the surface, and objects that become a part of us.

Fabric, ancient in its invention, is archival with the passage of time. The fabric, like the human beneath it, or the border it symbolizes within this body of work, or in this case, the paper it is printed on, is vulnerable to the elements and to time.  Borderlands, like textiles, are territories of exploration and zones in which we will be judged for our humanity. These portraits, in all their beauty, are the mirrors of what we are destroying, and within them are people, all of us.

How has traveling as extensively as you have impacted your practice?

I was born in 1985, to a mother from Yugoslavia and a father from South Yemen. in 1992, Yugoslavia would endure a genocide and divide, North and South Yemen would endure years of violence, and unify Later they would be known as Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republic of Yemen. Both countries redefined their borders, flags, passports, and allegiances. Identities would shift, both from the inside and outside perspectives. History and today’s news, will tell us that they are still suffering from the consequences of the events that happened 25 years ago. For my family, we would be naturalized as citizens of the United States, the shift would happen again. Woven between these inevitable changes and movements were trips that my parents would take my brother I on, journeys and adventures to Bombay, Lahore, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Dublin, Paris, Istanbul. My mother, in particular encouraged travel as an integral  part of our education-- one that was necessary and that was impossible to obtain in a classroom setting. Like education, we were taught that it is our responsibility as adults to continue to read and travel.

Travel eventually forced me to learn about myself, face my fears and acknowledge my passions. Stories and language are my passions and it is through the process of art that they are expressed. I have traveled far and wide in order to challenge perceptions and seek out other perspectives, closer to the source. I immerse myself in the cultures of others, their processes and their language, verbal and  nonverbal, such as gestural, visual, sound, smell, taste and time. Spending time in different environments, processing them over extended amounts of time and allowing them to develop in me and my work, is an incredible feeling. Different moments in this process are what I live for because they always come as surprises, they shift my reality and they make me realize how much more there is to learn and see. More questions form, curiosity grows and the need to be in my studio becomes overwhelming. These journeys are what inspire me and everything that I do and for that I am grateful.

Can you talk to me about the importance of the textile element in your work?

As a child, when I was growing up in Yemen, I was always been exposed to fabrics. My mother and my aunts would give me pieces of fabric that I would use to manifest my imagination. These fabrics would transport me to other places and other times. I would listen to cassette tapes of Ella Fitzgerald and Tina Turner and dress up to suddenly become them. With these fabrics I would be transported into the books I would read and with them I would construct hospitals, cars, markets, flying carpets, caves, hairstyles, gowns, suits, disguises- a big part of my childhood were these fabrics.

I should also say that in Yemen, it was rare that we bought ready made cloths. I use to think that having ready made clothes was so special, but now looking back it absolutely cuts out an entire cultural exchange and creative outlet of a society. In Sana’a there were streets of textile merchants where one would go to select the fabric and then take it to a tailor to make the design you want. The whole journey of going to several textile merchants, selecting the type of fabric, having dozens of fabrics spread out in front of you and all the while imagining how your design will look while touching each and imagining the final garment. Then, taking  that fabric to the tailor, who you is somehow an extension of the family, drawing out and planning the design, getting measured and communicating it all correctly. Unless you have made a skirt, you cannot imagine the amount of decisions one could make, it’s wonderful. Coming back after a few days to try it on, then another day, just enough time for adjustments to be made, and all the while the excitement of how it will finally look and the first place you will wear it.

Eventually I would grow older, and in our culture when something big happens, like graduating from high school, getting an excellent grade, getting a scholarship or an award, women are given jewelry but we are also given precious fabrics or carpets. I eventually would build a collection and was always afraid to cut them. Eventually, some of them would be used and eternalized in my work and they would be the gateway to exploring people through their textile collections.

It was only on this journey that I realized how much my family and culture taught me about textiles, fabrics, processes and so on. I learned a lot but, I have to say that I was also well prepared.

What was the most challenging part of making BORDERLAND?

November 8th, 2016 and January 20th, 2017

Your work is being shown a lot this summer at places like The Contemporary Art Center of New Orleans for the Ephemera Obscura show and then your solo exhibition, +|- at SPACE gallery in Portland, Maine. What's next for you?

Thank you, Finn, for mentioning and also for taking time to visit the +|- show at the Space Gallery in Portland, Maine. +|- is a photography and textile installation curated by Elizabeth Spavento and supported by the Space Residency Program and Designtex. It will be up until July 31st.

In that time I will be preparing for the Ephemera Obscura show, curated by Aaron Levi Garvey in New Orleans, Louisiana, for the opening on August 5th at the Contemporary Art Center.

Late August, I’m excited to be returning to my alma mater, Wellesley College, where I was granted the Alice C. Cole Alumnae award, alongside fellow alumnae Courtney Faith Richter and Margo Sulmont. Our work will be on exhibit from August 28th-to September 24th.

In October I will be showing the BORDERLAND series at the Peter Sillem Gallery in Frankfurt followed by a one-month residency in the Azores at Pico de Refugio.

If you would like to see more of Alia's work check out her website here, and if you would like to follow Alia on her adventures follow her on Instagram at studio.alia.ali