Alia Ali introduces herself as a child of five languages and two defunct countries – Yugoslavia, where her mother hails from, and South Yemen, her father’s homeland, where she spent her childhood years before emigrating along with her family to USA. There she studied at Wellesley College, an institution which claims “[t]o provide an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world”1 and whose alumnae include names such as Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright. After finishing her studies, she spent her next five years in Morocco, where she was part of the organization of the Marrakech Biennial, while doing a lot of travelling around the world. She currently resides in New Orleans, USA, a city to which she felt drawn, the way she did Morocco, because she finds it such a lively cultural hub.
Her interest in photography was sparked by documentary filmmaking, but she soon felt that words, with their concreteness, hinder access to the essence. She began translating the fight for human rights into visual language, into an art discourse illuminating the invisible, inverting meanings, and replacing statements with questions.
In her early work, she is – as a consequence of her travels, as well – more concrete, travelogue-like, and journalistic, while her later work exhibits a gradual shift to the metaphoric and conceptual, and can be seen as a condensation of her visual language. Her orientation remains humanistic – multiracialism, gender, identity, the human being as a part of society and the world. The starting point of her Cast No Evil (2015) are the ideas of social roles, masking, namelessness, and universality, based on which she creates simple – for lack of a better word – portraits, even though the portrayed individuals of both sexes are perceived more as some sort of puppets or even fairy-tale protagonists. The images breathe vivacity and radiate positivity, mostly thanks to the use of multi-colour patterned textiles. The reading, however, can also be reversed – we can, for example, imagine the individuals as suffocating inside a layered cocoon.
It is interesting to observe how the viewer, despite the complete anonymity, is prone to see physical persons beneath the drapery and how the perceived gender of the subjects is female. What is also fascinating is how the artist’s background and the social norms of covering one’s body steer our interpretation of the images in the direction of the Islamic tradition of gender inequality. The artist herself admits that this is a possible basic, superficial interpretation, but that she is more interested in the fabric itself2, the veil as a shield or a social mask – that is to say, not only in the concept of being concealed, but also in the concealing object. She thus points to broader societal questions of exclusion and inclusion and re-examines the grey areas between them. In her words, she is interested in when and how exclusion is negative, and when it actually signifies security, as well as, on the other hand, who does the inclusion and whether inclusion can really be thought of as a synonym for acceptance – who dominates, and who is being dominated?