Roswell Artist-in-Residence: Alia Ali

Alia Ali | Refracted Futures
Roswell Artist-in-Residence

Curated by Aubrey Hobart
March 5 - April 16, 2021

Marshall and Winston Gallery 

The title of this exhibition, Refracted Futures, is a linguistic intervention that pushes against the singularity of how we reference the future. Through the several bodies of works presented, the exhibition demonstrates the urgent necessity to shift our thinking towards multiplicity. BORDERLAND: The Miniatures (2018), FLUX (2019-2021), أصل // Source (2021) and مهجر // Mahjar (2020) are drawn together to present complex discourses surrounding notions of migration, borders, colonization, imperialism, capitalism, and feminist theory. These ideas become tools to unpack practices of refusal and rupture in order to refract restrictive linear timeframes and open a space from which multiple futures can and must exist simultaneously. 
In order to imagine what the future could look like, we might consider one’s personal will and freedom as guiding principles. However, more often, one’s future is deciphered and determined within rigid parameters set by a dominant culture, through imposing educational, legal, economic, cultural, and even intimate social structures. In many cases thinking about the future engages a power dynamic whereby the dominant paradigm maintains a greater capacity and privilege to define what the future looks like. It is these forces that determine what is archived from the past, and how language is contextualized, which in turn sets the tone and trajectory of the future. Subjugated groups are forced to adhere to these structures of oppression and are thus limited to turning to their own imaginations to activate a new future, on their own terms. 
Over the last five 2 years, I have been concentrating on the migration of ideas and people across (meta)physical borders in the context of the crisis in my native land, Yemen, and my adopted land, the United States of America. Through the use of video and sound, I aim to convey complex narratives of Yemeni existence and futurity. My process is divided into two simultaneous paths: research and practice. I research and collect artifacts, myths, and textiles in order to bring together a fragmented archive from which I engage Yemeni tribal narratives, including my own, to carve out radically imagined futures, in direct opposition of the dystopian present: 
March 19th, 2021 will mark the 7th year of the war in Yemen.
Using photography and language to translate verbal, textual, visual, and patterned lexicon, familiar and invented, I examine levels of concealment by staging portraits of myself and others enveloped in woven newspaper, thread, and patterned textiles. BORDERLAND: The Miniatures (2017) is the result of my travels across eleven regions of the world. The series expresses cultural histories visually through color, texture, and pattern, and in so doing, creates connections across indigenous cultures that dismantle physical, political, and historical borders. In FLUX (2021), I focus on wax print fabric—a material with roots in Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Javanese, Dutch, and West African tradition––as a document in which politics, economics, and histories collide. The multiple dimensionality creates a kaleidoscope of perspectives, horizontally and vertically. Horizontally, in that this material has come into existence across borders over land and water, and vertically in that they draw from and evoke cosmic, mythical, and religious inspirations. Furthermore, these particular wax prints are a key to mapping colonial trade routes. While they certainly can be seen as escapist dreamscapes, they are also objects of oppression and capitalism.

My current research at the Roswell Artist-in-Residency program (2020-21), probes both systematic erasure and cultural preservation in the context of the crisis in Yemen and its diaspora. My work is also informed by discourses of criminality, Yemeni Futurism, and feminist theory, all of which are tools to unpack practices of refusal and rupture. I define Yemeni Futurism as new explorations of Yemeni selfhood that are free from limitations of travel bans, borders, colonialism, trauma, and imposed linear timeframes. I call upon Yemeni oral histories to conceptualize these narratives, while reflecting on contemporary circumstances in Yemen and its diaspora. Drawing on stories, including the nostalgic past of Queen Belquis of Saba’a (also known as the Queen of Sheba), my work investigates dystopian realities of the present and radically imagined possibilities for the future.

Interstellar, FLUX Series, by Alia Ali. 2021-1

The point of departure for The Red Star is 3,000 years ago, when Queen Belquis of Saba’a (Sheba), whose throne was situated in Yemen, was gifted the Red Star (the planet Mars) by King Solomon. A cosmic rupture occurred in 1997, when NASA sent the Sojourner Pathfinder to “explore” Mars. In response, three Yemenis filed a lawsuit against NASA for invading the land that they inherited. Suddenly, Mars becomes the point of reference and fractures the dystopic existence in which we reflect ourselves. As Yemenis and members of the diaspora, we can no longer imagine an existence on a horizontal axis. My work on Yemeni Futurism aims to reorient how we think of home by positioning ourselves on multiple vertical axes–– from the earthly to cosmic and from the linear to non-linear.

By activating a futurist narrative anchored in interjections of real accounts of war, migration, diaspora, mythology and science, مهجر // Mahjar presents an alternative space that addresses painful political histories while simultaneously inventing different horizons for existence. Reality becomes a phenomena of layered images that are constantly shifting, giving room to reveal the things that aren’t seen––the most layered scenes ring the most emotionally true.

The exhibition space is further activated by other forms of light and shapes, which create a distorted constellation of imagery intended to suspend the viewer in a portal of potentiality. The gallery walls are adorned with characters drawn from ancient to contemporary sources, including Sabean (the language of Belquis), Arabic, and Hebrew. These characters present a new lexicon that doesn’t translate directly but rather exists on the borders of words––as sounds that are starting to say words––and are void of colonial baggage and foreign interpretation. Of the three, this invented language is the most trustworthy, most consistent, and yet least attainable. The characters become a material that functions to reclaim language, by rejecting it.

From the oasis to the desert, our utopia of terraced mountains, ancient architecture, jewelry, textile, frankincense, and myrrh has become a dystopia of explosions, famine, disease, and suffering. Our land was looted of our most precious artifacts, which bear witness to this cruelty that we have endured. They are imprisoned in museums and collections far away, and we must pay our colonizers and looters for the visas and entrance tickets to access the sites on which they are held captive. Like us, they are nomads, not by choice but rather by consequence. We have been robbed of our archive and our narrative is fragmented. Our creations and gifts have been exchanged for the “rocket’s red glare” and “bombs bursting in air,” while our cities are backdrops for military training games, and our oil builds “the golden doors” from which we are banned.

Alia Ali is a Yemeni-Bosnian-US multimedia artist currently in fellowship at the Roswell Artist-in-Residence Program (RAiR) in New Mexico.