Anida Yoeu Ali - “You Can Have Very Powerful Conversations Without Speaking a Single Word”




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Feb 10, 2017
by Andrea Abellan
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Anida Yoeu Ali - “You Can Have Very Powerful Conversations Without Speaking a Single Word”

Cambodian-American artist explains how her use of movement, humor and brightly-colored structures in public spaces can open wider conversations  Anida Youe Ali speaking at Session 573 The Art of Resilience: Creativity, Courage and Renewal

Anida Yoeu Ali likes to refer to herself as a “global agitator” It is the best way for her to define the social provocation her art is constantly seeking. The poem she shared with the audience at the opening of the recent Salzburg Global Seminar session The Art of Resilience: Creativity, Courage and Renewal, set the tone for the following five days, creating a special and inspiring atmosphere: 

I will return to a country I have never known

That burns a hole inside my heart the size of home

The piece, titled Visiting Loss, describes how she felt before returning to Cambodia, her country of origin, after 25 years living in the United States. Her path to self-discovery and reflections about her own identity play a fundamental role in her work. 

Ali combines her work as an Art and Global Studies teacher at the University of Washington Bothell with the development of her own projects through Studio Revolt, a media-lab she manages with the Japanese filmmaker Masahiro Sugano. Together they develop “unconventional narratives” that range from short videos and films to live performances. These projects largely differ to what audiences are used to finding in traditional media, both in terms of content and form. Although she points out that they are not always fully understood by the audience, Ali keeps believing in that “sort of chemistry” that emerges when connecting her creative performances with Masahiro’s special visual aesthetics.

The Buddhist Bug, one of her most recognized projects, is one such example. It consists of a bright, huge, saffron-colored creature that Ali has taken to a number of open spaces. The main goal of this project is to raise awareness about identity and displacement issues. Ali’s body is a fundamental part of the performance as it makes the bug be alive and able to move so it can get closer to people. 

“The work I do would not mean anything without the use of my body,” she explains. “I truly think that arts, and specifically performance, can engage the audience through the energy that our body emits. Of course I want people to ask themselves questions while observing my work, but I also want them be aware of those different emotions that are surfacing. You can have very powerful conversations without speaking a single word.” 

Another important feature that characterizes the Buddhist Bug is the use of humor to talk about challenging and compelling topics. “It leads the audience to reflect on different subject such as the challenges of religious hybridity, or what the sense of belonging and tolerance means. However, people always have to look twice to understand what is really happening. Then they smile, or laugh because in the end they are just looking at a bug,” Ali states.

Her work is usually placed in public spaces; location a key part of her performances. Ali’s goal is to take contemporary arts out of galleries, the “boxes” where artistic representations are frequently trapped. Her hope is to open conversations with bigger populations. The “surprise element” is another of her priorities when building a project. The original – and not discreet – clothes she wears together with her unexpected actions enable her to catch audience’s attention when they less expect it. The artist likes playing with the surprise factor as a form of engagement. 

Even though she recognizes that she could not imagine herself doing anything else rather than arts and teaching, she is very clear when talking about the difficulties that being an artist involves. “You must have a lot of faith and courage to do what you do. As artists we often lack resources and proper support. Also, we are constantly judged, especially in my case as my work is always placed in the street. I get a lot of criticism and judgement by the press and through social media. I guess you need a very thick skin to do this” she declares.

Despite the many difficulties her work involves, she still has many ideas to keep the audience surprised. For instance, she is planning to focus her next project in the United States on the so called “Trumplands,” those areas where the current president was voted for the most. “I am very interested in opening up discussion there. These are mostly rural areas where people do not see difference so they can only imagine what difference means and that often relies just on stereotypes and misinformation,” Ali explains.

When asked about the outcomes she was expecting to achieve through her participation it the session The Art of Resilience: Creativity, Courage and Renewal, she didn’t hesitate for a second. “I believe we have to create and reinforce these international connections as we have already started to do. We need to break up our bubbles and try to put ourselves on the radar. As artists we should work together for our communities and the world.” 

To conclude, Ali insists on “the need to produce new and innovative projects, instead of keep trying to make old models work – which did not help in the past.” 

The Salzburg Global program The Art of Resilience: Creativity, Courage, and Renewal is part of the multi-year Culture, Arts and Society series. The session is being supported by the Edward T. Cone Foundation. More information on the session can be found here. You can follow all the discussions on Twitter by following the hashtag #SGSculture.