Anida Yoeu Ali in conversation with Bridie Moran
In March 2017, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art commissioned a new iteration of Cambodian-American artist Anida Yoeu Ali’s The Red Chador as part of the Performance x 4A program at Art Central Hong Kong. Born in Battambang, Cambodia, and currently living in Seattle, USA, Ali is an artist, educator and global agitator. Her multi-disciplinary practice includes performance, installation, video, photography but it is her performative political agitation that is most celebrated.
The Red Chador [herein unitalicised to signal her existence as a noun in her own right, though italicised when in specific reference to a performance or exhibition title] embodies Ali’s performative political agitation where, clothed in a chador made entirely of red sequins, she engages silently with the public. The public encounters Ali in the chador—a full-body garment covering the majority of the body except the face, worn especially by Muslim women—as she walks through public spaces and encounters significant political, social and historical sites. The Art Central performance of The Red Chador: Ban Me! was the first time that Ali staged this work in the context of an art fair. For this iteration of the work, Ali adapted her performance to integrate a set of 99 protest signs, appropriating text from protest movements in both Hong Kong and elsewhere. These signs of social unrest, of civil disobedience and of public outrage became an activated site in which Ali, as the Red Chador, sought public engagement. With over 30,000 people witnessing this work and hundreds actively participating in her performative gesture, Ali received widespread critical acclaim in Hong Kong in The Art Newspaper, Asia Times alongside significant coverage in The Financial Times and Harper’s Bazaar.
In August, Anida Yoeu Ali and I had a conversation in which the artist spoke of her experience of staging the Red Chador at Art Central, new influences for her practice in an ever-changing US political climate, and the often-surprising reactions of the public to the sequinned Red Chador’s appearances.
— Bridie Moran
Bridie Moran (BM): 2017 saw the Red Chador’s first appearance in Hong Kong as part of the Performance x 4A at the Art Central fair in The Red Chador: Ban Me! What were your hopes and expectations going into this iteration of the Red Chador project?
Anida Yoeu Ali (AYA): I knew that I wanted audience interaction, I just wasn’t sure how Hong Kong people and the international art fair audience would take such a politically charged work, particularly such a particularly layered charged work. Because you’re not only dealing with the Red Chador and the sort of global Islamophobia that we’re seeing transpire, but I was also working with text from various sources that could be very much inciteful—incite as in i-n-c-i-t-e—so I really just wasn’t sure whether it was going to be shut down, especially with direct references to the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement. I wasn’t sure if people would be very conservative and not participate, but I knew that I was going to get a response.
BM: The Red Chador has generated a variety of responses in her appearances around the world, from what was described by some as censorship of the project at the Smithsonian, to the much more open response in Paris, to The Red Chador: Beheadings at Palais de Tokyo. What was the response at Art Central in Hong Kong?
AYA: I was really thrilled to see the kind of curiosities that came out of our audience there in Hong Kong—the participation by the general public, by children, by men and women of various ages, and also not just the Hong Kong people but the international audiences as well, whether they were visitors or ex-pats or people travelling through. I thought that having the installation… sort of take a life of its own was something I didn’t expect, but was a really nice surprise and I didn’t get a lot of belligerent or negative attitudes. Instead, I got a lot more appreciation, curiosity and also, I would say, people recognised the symbols that I was working with, whether it’s the text or the signs or the Muslim body itself. So that was really wonderful to be on the receiving end of that as the artist occupying the character, the persona, but also as someone who is Muslim, and dealing with these very heavy-handed issues that are in direct reference to my identity—to feel embraced rather than shunned was deeply moving for me.
BM: The Red Chador: Ban Me! installation responded to and engaged with the pro-democracy protest movement in Hong Kong, integrating slogans and phrases from the Umbrella Movement into some of the protest signs. Why did you want to include these references, and how did they interact with the other slogans, such as ‘Ban Me!’, ‘Nasty Woman’, etc.?
AYA: This is in reference to integrating slogans and phrases from the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, which was part of my installation of 99 signs. For me, you know, I’ve always been interested in pulling from history and showing the intersectionality of movements, of ideas, of things that aren’t supposed to be put together—so there’s that.
A lot of my works are about hybridity, and this mixing of, whether it’s cultural identities or religious aesthetics, to the past and the present, pulling that together. This mixing and this blending and this fusing is a very important part of my process in art making and so the idea really came to me with making these 99 protest signs. I didn’t want it to be very clear where this text was coming from, yet I wanted to pull text that related to this current political moment so that people maybe didn’t make that connection immediately. And so I pulled together Donald Trump’s quotes from his campaign, or the things that he has said or that have made headlines. I definitely pulled from the pro-democracy movement—the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong and that was such an important political movement—that was such an important political moment that I needed to pay homage to it, not only as an artist and an activist, but as someone who is coming to Hong Kong and recognising this generation of voices that have come out to make this statement. And I thought that was interesting to juxtapose that next to what’s happening in America, where we are definitely dealing with a kind of suppression and a kind of questioning of democracy, and ask whether that’s worked for us in the very turbulent election of Donald Trump.
And then of course with Trump comes the idea of the ban against Muslims and his misogyny, and so it was really important for me to put all that into this installation as text. I mean, ‘Ban Me’ is a statement of course, one that re-appropriates Trump’s statement of banning Muslims and making it a personal statement, an ironic statement. And then ‘Nasty Woman’ is what he had said to Hillary Clinton who was running against him. And I also pulled from Martin Luther King Jr, the leader of the Civil Rights Movement, who gave the amazing ‘I Have A Dream’ speech; for me, it just made sense to think about the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement in the context of the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s in conjunction to Trump and what he’s spewing forth in terms of his deplorable actions and words. And so again it’s that irony: it’s that little bit of humour that comes out in my work, and that I find ways for it to come out. The last piece of text that’s in there is that there are lines and statements paraphrased from the Qur’an or from Hadith and that simply means that’s in the Islamic context; again, people won’t know all of the roots of all of this, but I’m using that, with specificity and vagueness and abstraction, a mixing of the particulars and the not-so-particular parts. I think it’s just part of my process that’s very natural and organic and I haven’t actually thought about it much until you posed the question—so, a very interesting question, thank you.
BM: One particularly striking element of The Red Chador: Ban Me! at Art Central was the way in which visitors interacted with your installation of protest signs, with and without you present. How did you read this interaction and its social media output?
AYA: That was a really amazing outcome, I think. The fact that the installation kind of ran itself because of people feeling they had permission to interact with the signs and post their images or selfies with the installation or with myself to social media was something I did not anticipate. I thought I was going to have to demonstrate, be present, show people what to do, hand the sticks out (the protest signs that were on the sticks), which was what I did for a little bit but then after the first day, and a lot of those images started to go out on social media, it gave people permission. Maybe they saw something in their feed or they were paying attention to their friends and heard about it. The viral aspect of this and the quickness of information that got around was a remarkable addition and a positive addition to the work, and I think speaks to the moment that we’re in and the power of images. Again, allowing people to have the permission and also a safe space to engage in this political act, yet not see it as a political act but rather as an installation and artwork is what permits them to do this. So all of that framing really opens the work up for people and for a common person from the general masses to engage in a way that you know exceeded my expectations.
BM: Quite a few children engaged with both the performance and the installation during Art Central, with a number of young visitors joining you on walks through the fair. Do you think children have a significantly different reaction to the Red Chador? Are they less fearful, more curious?
AYA: Children are a lot more open than we think they are. As a parent myself, we tend to be very protective of our children; we see something out of the ordinary, a stranger or in this particular case, you know, a red-sequined veiled woman! This is why I love performance—you just don’t know what’s going to happen in the moment as things unfold in a way that I think speaks to the fact that we as human beings require interaction, interactivity and a desire to interconnect and interrelate. Performance for me is always about the artist offering something for people to become witness to, experience, and both give and add more layers of definition and meaning upon, making meaning for themselves.
So I guess I don’t know if I’ve answered the core of your question: children, are they more fearful or curious? I argue that children are more curious. Moreover, because I’m a mother myself and everything that I am comes into play as I take on these personas and engage in these performances, I know how to soothe a fearful child and I harness my energy—I guess that’s why I’m a performance artist, I know when to reach out I know how to not make an image so scary which is the whole point.
The Red Chador is actually just like you and me underneath all of that—you just don’t know it yet. So I’m playing with others’ ideas. When I sense a child is a bit nervous I will play with the child, allow the children to touch my dress and touch my face and at times unveil me; I’ll reach my hand out, I’ll caress their hand, I’ll give them the hand shake. All these gestures make for a more complex understanding of the piece. When you soften performance with tenderness and with an ounce of compassion, people start to change the way they’re seeing.
BM: In 2011, you returned to work in Phnom Penh as part of a U.S. Fulbright Fellowship. What impact did your return to working in Cambodia have on your subsequent practice?
AYA: When I decided to live, work and actually plant my feet in Cambodia for a length of time, to actually make that commitment, something happened to me. I became super productive because I was inspired by being in Cambodia and everybody around me and everything I was seeing and experiencing. This ache that I’ve had in my heart and my body for so long was finally being filled by being in the place I was born, but also where my parents called home for a really long time; all the stories that I knew came into that because of the mythology of Cambodia, and my Cambodian-American identity. More so, I guess, I just want to say that Cambodia has given me so much, and it continues to do so. I believe that everything I have created up until my residency in Cambodia were mere sketches; in Cambodia I got to realise and actualise my full potential as an artist that saw the realisation of very interdisciplinary and ambitious bodies of work.
BM: From your current base in the United States, and working as you do in the intersection between protest and contemporary art, what do you see as the role of protest in the present political climate? How can or should artists (both in the US and internationally) be engaging with politics?
AYA: I fully believe that we should acknowledge our identities and our histories and those who have come before us. I believe in a political identity and I believe in taking political stances. I believe in engaging in action that leads to social change. All of these things make us better human beings—just to know that we can do something to change the conditions, not only of our own lives but of other peoples’ lives who maybe who don’t have a voice, or don’t have the opportunity to engage with power, or privilege to have certain things for themselves. So I just think it’s very important to exercise that.
I also recognise that not every artist can do that, or wants that burden because I think that it is a responsibility and when you exercise it comes with some accountability. So I think that there are people who are fearful of having that kind of voice and power. I embrace it wholeheartedly and that’s simply because if I don’t do it, I don’t know who else would. Who holds the kind of intersectional identity that I have? Transnational, refugee, who happens to be a Muslim, is a woman, a mother, who’s a wife, who’s a collaborated, who’s a fierce woman, who’s a lover, loves colours, loves laughter—you know what I mean? All these things that make us who we are: there’s a reason why we got to where we are, but there’s also a reason why others didn’t. So I just think when I have the privilege and platform to address certain issues then I will take that opportunity to do so in a way that can create change so that we can live in a better world, a more just world, that allows for more people to be empowered. It’s a very important moment to be doing that when it’s so easy for people to shut down borders, exit out of political unions, and not have others who are coming to shores. As human beings we’re better when we embrace other people we when embrace our own fears, our own hesitations, our own limitations, and see it as a political act.
BM: What are the benefits and challenges of working with the community and public on politically and socially engaged projects?
AYA: That’s a really great question. I think there are lots of benefits and challenges that artists have to be ready for and equipped to handle. Not only do you have to be bold, brave and fearless, but you have to put yourself into it. You bring your politics alongside everything that you are, and so a lot of times people will be very critical and try to tear you down and destroy you work, try to prevent you from achieving your goals or saying what you need to say and this can be really disheartening. So I think the biggest challenge in what I’m doing in socially engaged projects is simply recognising my own insecurities and what it means to stand up for something in the political realm because that’s when you start to understand that everything you do will always be questioned and never good enough for everyone. Everyone will protest, no matter how much or how hard you try, you have to be ready and you have to be confident in what you’re saying and what you’re about and who you are, and never let anybody kind of break you down in what you need to do to engage the public. I tend to do work that isn’t just in the museum and galleries, such as on the street, in neighbourhoods, as well as alternative spaces and venues such as an art fair. I consider that to be a different kind of space than a contemporary institution like a museum. And the more chances that I get to have my work experienced by what I call ‘everyday people’, the more powerful my work has the potential of being and the larger benefit of the impact. You never know who’s seeing your work and how they react to it and often times you’ll find that one or two people you know just embrace the work so deeply that it just becomes a beautiful moment.
BM: Recently, the Red Chador has appeared at a variety of locations as part of the opening performance for the BorderLands exhibition presented by Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture in August. Do you feel that responses to your work change in changing political environments in the U.S.?
AYA: I absolutely feel all the different changes in terms of all the different ways people reacted towards the Red Chador. It started at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris where I was invited to do the work after the Charlie Hebdo massacres, so of course I was conscious of that context when I created this work in April 2015. Parisians were very embracing of the work at that time in April, I’m not sure if it would be different now. There was a gentleness in the air and there was a curiosity in the Palais de Tokyo in terms of people wanting to engage in the conversation, seriously wanting to understand and to know and to have dialogue—it was the one moment where I did allow the Red Chador to fully speak and engage some of the dialogue.
Following Paris, I presented in Hartford, Connecticut, in 2015 where I had taken residency for a year at Trinity College. That was my first time performing in the U.S. since I left six years prior. I was shocked at the treatment I got on this campus doing this work. The students just saw it as a strange red-sequined lady. This was in fall of 2015 at the height of a lot of student political protests particularly with Black Lives Matter, and on this particular campus students were so scared [of me in the Red Chador] they were shaking. They would come to the Red Chador [who was in full veil] and they were throwing profanity at me; there were some vulgar reactions and some pretty belligerent attitudes out on the streets of Hartford. There was one local, an older white male, and he said that I was what’s wrong with things, that I’m just trying to get a reaction. He was trying to tell everybody not to participate because I am the problem.
I also performed in Washington, D.C. in May of 2016 on what we call Memorial Weekend, which is a very nationalistic, patriotic holiday [Memorial Day] where a lot of American flags get waved and veterans are being paraded around. I did the performance at the Smithsonian and that was really interesting in that I think people were amazed by the fact I had 99 U.S. flags in this space, so it felt regal. And for some reason, there, the Red Chador was highly honoured by the audiences and the patriots that were in that space, and there were thousands of people coming through but I was this veiled installation of regalness, this forest of U.S. flags and in the shiny red-sequined chador. With men coming out of the centre, with the way the light of the round space was hitting the Red Chador, all of that I think made her feel like a queen of the space. And so I then got a lot of negative reaction, which I thought I would as it was Memorial Weekend and there were a lot of veterans who were in town. But because I respected the display of the flags, which I was really conscious of, I think it just added more—regalness is the best word.
After that I took her to San Francisco. That was crazy because I was attacked, or I should say almost attacked. San Francisco was actually the worst experience for the Red Chador because I was threatened to be punched by an ex-veteran that saw me coming off of public transportation as the Red Chador and he swung at me and said, ‘If you don’t get away from me you’re going to trigger my PTSD because I just came back from Afghanistan.’ I don’t know why he was relating my red sequined chador to Afghanistan, but this is what we are talking about, the psyche of Americans; they don’t see the Red Chador as funny, they don’t see it as a kind of absurdity because everyone everywhere else knows it is not a traditional outfit and no Muslim woman wears something this bright and ostentatious. But to the American mindset, it’s a scary image because, a) they don’t see your face, and b) it’s relaying all of the stereotypes of Islamophobia that have been slowly rising and rising to this fire storm right now and this has been happening since 9/11.
In another incident in San Francisco, a man charged at me—it was the only time I broke character. He charged at me with a windshield wiper, chasing me, trying to flog me. It was my documenter who saw him charging me and so she was able to scream, ‘get away from me!’ There was a passer-by, a man on a bicycle, who confronted him, running him down. It was the only time I actually unveiled and took off my costume and just said, ‘hey, let’s not do this right now’. That was really bad.
And then finally I did a couple of performances in Seattle. One was after Trump got elected, the day after in fact, where I went onto the main streets of Seattle, which are very touristy, with a sign that red on one side BAN ME and on the other side, I AM A MUSLIM. This was at the height of all of the anti-Muslim pro-Trump rhetoric and this was my way of reacting to his election win. For me, this was an act of resistance. I was literally at a loss: how the hell did Candidate Trump win? I felt hijacked; so disappointed by the system of voting, and so disappointed by my fellow Americans, whoever voted him in office. How they could be so bamboozled, fooled? And I was scared for America, that this was the message we were sending to the world and ourselves, that we would have this fear-mongering individual be the face of America, in the highest office. So my debut of the Red Chador in Seattle was as an act of resistance.
This brings us to 2017 which indicates the span of two years that this project has been going/ growing in all these different places. The only other strange response I’ve had was when I performed at one of the main public libraries in Seattle and they were partnering with me as the Red Chador, but unfortunately when I asked to go to the children’s section as the Red Chador I was declined immediately. This was during the performance itself and I was really shocked by this response from just one of the people that was part of this organisation. I mean, she’s a librarian and that shocked me coming out of a very liberal city, liberal progressive city like Seattle, so again there is a fear, there is a fear that for some reason—whether as the Red Chador or as a performance artist more generally— that such live actions draws such reactions from people by virtue of performance existing as an ephemeral experience between the person performing and the people witnessing an experience. This can create some appalling and disturbing responses.
BM: Where might the Red Chador appear next? Where do you think this performance’s work is most vital?
AYA: Oh, OK, the Red Chador, where will she appear next? I am not sure where she is going to appear next, that is up in the air. I hope it will be in Southeast Asia. I would love for her to appear next in Australia and I have a lot of plans in America that am I slowly figuring out. One idea that I’ve had is that I’d really love to bring her to more rural communities in the U.S. because I think that’s where the conversations are more important. I don’t want to just perform her in progressive spaces, but rather in other spaces where she can make an impact on people who aren’t like-minded, or would never experience contemporary art and/or someone like myself. So I think the more we can be in those spaces and have a true dialogical conversation I think it will make a difference. It would be really amazing if I could take the Red Chador to these more rural spaces that are removed from having access to cultural institutions of contemporary art.
Anida Yoeu Ali’s The Red Chador—Ban Me! was presented as part of Performance x 4A, a program of live performance and interactive panel discussions curated by Mikala Tai for Art Central Hong Kong, 20-25 March 2017
Feature image: Anida Yoeu Ali, The Red Chador: Ban Me! (2017). Photo: Art Central Hong Kong. Courtesy the artist.
Anida Yoeu Ali (1974, Battambang, Cambodia) lives in Seattle, Washington, and works between the Asia-Pacific and the the USA. Ali is an artist, educator and global agitator. Her multi-disciplinary practices include performance, installation, videos, images, public encounters and political agitation. She is a first generation Muslim Khmer woman born in Cambodia and raised in Chicago. Utilising an interdisciplinary approach to art-making, Ali’s installation and performance works investigate the artistic, spiritual and political collisions of a hybrid transnational identity. Ali’s works have been exhibited widely in including installations and performances at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, 5th Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial, Lyon Museum of Contemporary Art, Palais de Tokyo, and the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. In 2014, Ali won the top prize of the Sovereign Art Prize, Hong Kong. Ali earned her B.F.A. from University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) and an M.F.A. from School of the Art Institute Chicago. She is currently the Artist-in-Residence at the University of Washington Bothell where she teaches art, performance and global studies courses. Ali resides in Tacoma, Washington and spends much of her time traveling and working between the Asia-Pacific region and the USA.
Bridie Moran is an arts manager, writer and marketing and development professional who joined 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art as Marketing, Communications and Development Manager in 2016. She has a background in contemporary arts and cultural organisations, having worked with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Carriageworks, and the Australian National Maritime Museum. Her previous roles include as inaugural Program Manager of the Australia Council funded National Craft Initiative and most recently as Partnerships and Marketing Manager at The Walkley Foundation. From 2011–2013, Moran was Executive Producer of Arts and Culture at FBi Radio and a supervising producer on weekly arts radio program Canvas. She graduated from the University of NSW with a Bachelor of Fine Arts/Bachelor of Arts (Distinction) in 2012, and in 2016 completed a Master of Museum and Heritage Studies at the University of Sydney. Moran is a member of the Board of Directors in 2017/2018 at Firstdraft, a national artist-led organisation.
Commissioned for 4A Papers Issue 3. © Copyright 2017 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art and the authors, artists, photographers and other contributors. No part of this publication may be reproduced without permission from the Publisher. The opinions expressed in 4A Papers are those of the contributing authors and not necessarily those of the Editor or Publisher. Permission has been sought to reproduce all images with appropriate acknowledgement where possible.