"Is the change I seek revolutionary? Is every revolution going to require bloodshed? When the revolution comes will I be able to take my mother and father with me? The revolution came to us in Cambodia in 1975. Two million Cambodians died. My parents never left me behind even when the revolution left us with nothing. The change I seek has to include my family even if their politics differ from mine. ... I believe that you can't serve your people if you don't love your people," says Anida Yoeu Ali, a Chicago-based Cambodian Muslim artist, quoting from her manifesto (which is currently still a work-in-progress, titled 'Towards a Manifesto').
Ali is a performance artist, writer and global agitator. She is a first generation Muslim Khmer woman born in Cambodia and raised in Chicago. Her father is half Cham and half Malaysian, and her mother is half Thai and half Khmer. "I was born with two tongues, caught between definitions and borders, desperate to find Home," Ali says, "My family lived in Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge, a genocidal regime, took over and changed everything. As Cambodian Muslims they were an ethnic minority in a country that is 98 per cent Buddhist. Before the war, the borders were much more fluid and that's why I have such a diverse bloodline."
Today, it is this transnational identity that fuels Ali's art. She works with video, sound, and performance art and utilises her memories to create her mix-media pieces. "Art is a powerful and critical tool for creating social change. Art is more than object-based production. It is more than abstract, head-heavy concepts. Art includes the production of knowledge and the transformation of social spaces. Art is action. It requires labour. It requires love. It requires people. My Asian/Pacific Islander American identity is a political identity, a way to come together and mobilise people of a shared historical struggle specific to the US. This identity is a way to give voice to our invisible and complex stories. It is my means to become an ethnographer for my family, my community and a larger world. Only when I know my history can I begin to change it. This is at the heart of my work as an artist, educator, and agitator," she says, talking about her art and her identity.
As a young student, Ali chose performance poetry as a form of resistance. "After college I stumbled into performance poetry and writing because it was an inexpensive form of expression. With writing all I needed was a pen and paper. With performance poetry all I needed were my words and anywhere could become a stage. For me, everything happened around 1998, because that's when I became motivated to write and perform. My meeting with Isangmahal, a radical Filipino American arts collective from Seattle, spurred me on. A month later, I wrote 'I Was Born With Two Tongues'," she recalls. Ali has toured over 300 colleges and venues with the pan-Asian spoken word ensemble, 'I Was Born With Two Tongues', and the multi-media theatrical collective, 'Mango Tribe'. It was pioneering work that ignited a new generation of Asian American voices.
Identity apart, another theme that is strongly reflected in her work is religion. Ali strongly believes in religious freedom. "Freedom to worship and practice one's faith is a human right. This means that all people practicing their faith, in whatever form, should be allowed to do so as long as no one else is harmed in the process. This means if women in France and Belgium choose to cover themselves with a headscarf or full 'burqa', then they should be allowed to do so without the State implementing neo liberal policies veiled in xenophobia," she argues.
According to her, it's not religion that is an obstacle. It's the people who use it for their own power moves, a kind of power based on self-righteousness, patriarchy, and oppression. Religion is not destructive; it's when religion is controlled for power that it becomes a tool for repression.
A great believer in the power of collective creations, Ali, 38, has co-founded Young Asians With Power!, an Asian American Artists Collective in Chicago; and the MONSOON fine arts journal. Her most recent work - her graduate thesis - 'The 1700% Project: Otherance' intervenes against the racial profiling of Muslims through poetry, video, audio recording, performances, and installation. 'The 1700% Project' was conceived as a collaborative work and it utilises art not just as a means to address critical issues but as a strategic intervention. According to Ali, it implements a trans-disciplinary approach to the development of audience-specific and process-specific works based on the iteration of an original poem, '1700%'. "The prose-poem is a cento I composed of 100 lines of writings from actual reported hate crimes. The text is an unapologetic response to injustices against Muslims while acknowledging the resonance of historical persecution," she explains.
Regarding the number 1700%, she explains that it refers to the exponential percentage of increase in crimes against Arabs, Muslims and those perceived to be Arab or Muslim since September 11, 2001. Currently, her project includes a poem, video, dance, audio recording and performance installation. She has collaborated with a filmmaker, a dancer, musicians and over 50 volunteer participants from Chicago's Muslim community for the video that subverts the typical music format in order to educate the public about the dangers of racially-motivated fear and violence. "I strongly believe racial profiling is a device used throughout history to control and maintain power structures. The video, like the other components of the project, uses art to intervene with a sense of urgency," Ali points out.
But Ali's efforts for harmony were defeated when recently her installation was defaced with large caricatures and a word bubble strategically highlighting the text: "Kill all Arabs." Across a wall space measuring 18 feet x 9 feet, the installation exhibits 100 lines of white vinyl text composed from actual hate crimes experienced by people perceived as Muslims and Arabs. As part of the live performance of her installation, the wall had been stained with ink drippings to make the seemingly invisible 'hate crime' text more visible. "What this proves to me is that this is not just a student art piece, this is not just another graduate thesis project. This work extends beyond campus and institution walls. It is at the centre of a critical point where xenophobia, violence and fear intersect. It is disheartening to see my work defaced, but it is not surprising considering its politically charged content," she says.
The installation has been destroyed and all Ali can do, she says, is to make the most of it. "Because anyone who has experienced hate, racially-motivated acts, or any form of violence knows that when it happens, it leaves you defenceless, in shock, and renders you powerless. Still you live with it and are forced to move on," she says.
According to Ali, her husband, Masahiro Sugano, and her daughter, 20-month-old Minara Noor, remind her every day that art making is so much bigger than her. Her family grounds her, she says.
Finally, for Ali, her work is a transformative experience. As she puts it, "My work is about the refusal to end in violence and if I didn't strongly believe in that, I would not be able to pick up the pieces and make this into something more empowering."