Opacity as Reclamation in Alia Ali’s Textiles - Mia Jodorcovsky
November 8th, 2023
About the artist
Alia Ali is a Yemeni-American globetrotter, most recently splitting her time working in Morocco and the United States. As a multimedia artist, Ali explores the synergistic qualities of photography, textiles, videography, and sound. Her practice underscores the multidimensionality of textile and pattern, which she uses to weave anti-racism, feminism, and decolonialism into the fabric of her work. Additionally, Ali delves into the enigmatic territories of opacity and intimacy. Her focus rests on the collective tapestry of our human experiences, revealing both their universality and unique hues. Through her work, she invites us to transcend the tangible boundaries of our experience, venturing into the cosmic realm where all things are possible, such as a space in which Yemeni futurism can prosper.
BORDERLAND Series (2017-ongoing)
Ali’s longest ongoing series, BORDERLAND, reconsiders the fictitious geographic borders which simultaneously exclude and include. In this portrait from the Yemeni subsection of the series, the opacity of the fabric and the anonymity of the artist underneath it are what first draws in the viewer. Recalling the “right to opacity,” a theory pinned by the French poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant,1 the dark black textile acts as a shield from an unwelcome, racializing gaze. The person beneath the fabric is its creator, a Yemeni artisan who rather be seen for the utter beauty that lies within the details of their embroidery, preserving their own interiority. This creates an interstitial space of intimacy between Ali and the artisan which the outside viewer is not allowed to infringe upon, as both Yemeni creators collaborate to bring together a fusion of textile and photography that keeps alive their Indigenous ancestry. They wear their traditional Indigenous Yemeni dress as a symbol of beauty and an ode to the stories of their tribe.
In the heart of the bodice, small mirrors, like ancient sentinels, are nestled, evoking the whispered tales of the Yemeni tribes. In their wisdom, these communities bestowed upon mirrors the power to repel the malevolent eye, deflecting its harm through shimmering reflections.2 Here, in this tapestry of self, these mirrors become a shield, preserving the artisan’s essence from the forces of racialization and reduction to a mere “other.” In every embroidered golden thread, an anthem of Yemen’s resilience and the culture’s enduring pulse is woven.3 Every fibre stands as testament against the spectre of erasure, projecting an unyielding declaration of existence of the Yemeni people into the future. The golden filaments, gleaming like threads of time, are the first to greet the viewer’s gaze, etching a silhouette of strength against the engulfing black backdrop. Gold, once claimed through the violent hands of empire, is now reborn within the artisan’s own creation, worn as a vivid recollection of stolen heritage and steadfast reclamation of land, power and identity.4 This act of redemption echoes a time when Yemen bore the yoke of colonial dominion, just a mere sixty years past.5
روح (roowh), LOVE series (2021)
In the second enchanting portrait from Alia Ali’s LOVE series bearing the title روح (roowh) (2021), she embarks on a profound journey of reclamation through the symbiotic relationship of love and language. Seated beneath a vibrant lilac fabric inscribed with the symbol روح (roowh) in fluorescent pink, Ali once again harkens back to the “right to opacity.” Here, she beckons forth the ethereal essence of love, transcending the mundane, and revealing it as the spiritual core represented by the Arabic world.6 In a world where Arab visual and linguistic culture has endured relentless demonization, particularly in the shadows of the 9/11 tragedy in New York City, Ali, like countless Arab-Americans, found herself silencing the native melodies of her language.7 The fear of discrimination and the harsh social consequences imposed on those who dared to speak publicly weighed with them heavily, threatening livelihoods and silencing voices.8
Yet, Ali reclaims the discourse on Arab culture by embodying this feared language. In this portrait, she dissolves into the very fabric upon which “روح ” is inscribed, woven into a tapestry of repetition. She divests herself of corporeal confines to become a spiritual essence – the very soul of Arabic ‘love.’ In doing so, Ali unveils the stark distortion her language and culture endure in the eyes of the West, a powerful exposé of the corrosive imperialist discourse that has unjustly cast millions under the shadow of “guilty by association” for over two decades now. The inscription of روح on her veiled form emerges as twisted and contorted, a poignant contrast with the background’s uniformity. It symbolizes how the purity of its essence becomes washed away when tethered to a corporeal vessel. This underscores the profound complexity of language, love and identity, in a world too often marred by misunderstanding.
In choosing love as the central theme of her portrait, Ali beckons forth a different path, one paved with compassion and connection, echoing the sentiments of bell hooks’ chapter, “Values: Living by a Love Ethic” in her book All About Love. Emulating hooks’ ideas, Ali champions a universal approach to love, one that prioritizes bonds and unity over individual triumph and advancement.9 Covering herself and her surroundings in the same fabric, Ali upholds this vision of community and unity, emphasizing our shared traits over our disparities. Through her unwavering commitment to a love ethic, Ali becomes a beacon, urging the viewer to see language not as a divisive tool, but as a bridge to connection and unification, a remedy to the divisions and fears that oftentimes plague our world.
In both of Alia Ali’s artworks, we find a profound and unifying thread that ties together her exploration of opacity, identity, and reclamation from her BORDERLAND to her LOVE series. Through her remarkable work, Ali eagerly invites us to move beyond the tangible boundaries of our earthly experience and embrace the universality of love and connectedness. In doing so, she not only celebrates culture and identity but also offers a powerful call to transcend the divisions and fears that too often cloud our world. Ali’s art serves as a bridge, uniting us in the common threads of our shared humanity and urging us to embrace compassion, unity, and understanding.
- Édouard Glissant and Édouard Glissant, “For Opacity,” in Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2021), pp. 189-194.
- Heidi Zucker man and Alia Ali. “60. Alia Ali,” March 2021, in About Art, podcast, 55:31, https://open.spotify.com/episode/4yYYmlS0KOKT83jUAaLaVy?si=bcc107a7528044bb.
- Christopher C. Lowe et al., “Diamonds, Gold, and Imperialist Intervention (1870–1902),” Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 2023), https://www.britannica.com/place/South-Africa/Diamonds-gold-and-imperialist-intervention-1870-1902.
- Robert Burrowes and Manfred W. Wenner, “The Age of Imperialism,” Encyclopædia Britannica (Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 2023), https://www.britannica.com/place/Yemen/The-age-of-imperialism.
- Alia Ali, “// Statement حب (Ḥub) // LOVE Series, 2021,” Alia Ali, 2021, https://www.alia-ali.com/filter/art/statement-8.
Heidi Zuckerman and Alia Ali. “60. Alia Ali,” March 2021, in About Art, podcast, 55:31, https://open.spotify.com/episode/4yYYmlS0KOKT83jUAaLaVy?si=bcc107a7528044bb.
bell hooks, “Values: Living by a Love Ethic,” in All about Love: New Visions (New York, NY: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2022), pp. 86-101.
Ali, Alia. “// Statement حب (Ḥub) // LOVE Series, 2021.” Alia Ali, 2021. https://www.alia-ali.com/filter/art/statement-8.
Burrowes, Robert, and Manfred W. Wenner. “The Age of Imperialism.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 2023. https://www.britannica.com/place/Yemen/The-age-of-imperialism.
Glissant, Édouard, and Édouard Glissant. “For Opacity.” Essay. In Poetics of Relation, translated by Betsy Wing, 189–94. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2021.
hooks, bell. “Values: Living by a Love Ethic.” Chapter. Iin All about Love: New Visions (New York, NY: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2022), pp. 86-101.
Lowe, Christopher C., David Frank Gordon, Martin Hall, Colin J. Bundy, Leonard Monteath Thompson, Andries Nel, Alan S. Mabin, and Randolph Vigne. “Diamonds, Gold, and Imperialist Intervention (1870–1902).” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 2023. https://www.britannica.com/place/South-Africa/Diamonds-gold-and-imperialist-intervention-1870-1902.
Zuckerman, Heidi and Ali, Alia. “60. Alia Ali,” March 2021, in About Art, podcast, 55:31, https://open.spotify.com/episode/4yYYmlS0KOKT83jUAaLaVy?si=bcc107a7528044bb.