“Campus Dining,” The Buddhist Bug Series, 2012 • Courtesy

Anida Yoeu Ali, an internationally recognized, Cambodian American artist based in Tacoma, Washingon opened her first solo exhibition Hybrid Skin, Mythical Presence January 18, curated by José Carlos Diaz and Susan Brotman, Deputy Director for Art at the Seattle Asian Art Museum.

Situated in the idyllic Volunteer Park, the Seattle Asian Art Museum is home to a treasured collection of Asian art spanning back to B.C.  Today, visitors might notice a shift in the atmosphere as they enter this typically serene space.

The exhibit brings together a comprehensive body of work that centers the fearlessly shifting, and expanding figure of the diaspora evolving from her recurring themes of “memory, identity, and belonging,” and her 14-year artistic journey.  The exhibit celebrates two of Ali’s most emblematic works: the “Buddhist Bug” and “Red Chador” series, in which she weaves myths and her diasporic journey as a Muslim Cambodian through fantastical characters.

Upon entering the exhibition space, the viewers are greeted by “Buddhist Bug,” the massive 300-foot-long, vibrant orange installation that covers the ceiling and hallway of the museum leading into the gallery space, setting the tone for the transformation of the exhibition area.  From photography to moving images, sculptures, installations, and performances, the maximalist style of the installation exudes vibrant colors, excitement, and politically charged yet celebratory gestures.

Notably, Ali’s exhibition seems to attract a more diverse range of age groups today, from young children to the elderly Asian Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander American couples, from serious museumgoers to park visitors drawn in by the exhibit’s bright energy visible from the outside.

The Buddhist Bug

“‘The Buddhist Bug’ is a remarkable saffron-colored creature that can extend over 300 feet in length or coil itself into a small orange ball,” said Ali. This performance piece features Ali in the outfit, with her face appearing at one end, and a pair of feet at the other performed by her collaborator.

“The Buddhist Bug” embodies a hybrid identity, Islam in the hijab head covering and the bright orange outfit worn by Buddhist monks in Southeast Asia. This piece reflects Ali’s own experiences of displacement and longing for belonging, and is a performative, socially engaged, and playful work that explores her relationship to Cambodia and her diasporic, hybrid identity.

Ali was only 5 years old when the nation went into a war during the Khmer Rouge dictatorship that committed a horrific genocide against Cambodian civilians in 1975, forcing many Khmer to flee from their own homes. Ali was also on that journey, bound for a refugee camp in Thailand with only the bare minimum of clothing in her backpack.

50 years later, Ali, now a internationally acclaimed artist who crosses transatlantic seas and reimagines borders through her practices, reflecting her early experience of being a Muslim refugee.

Growing up in Chicago, Ali grappled with her identity as an Asian American and Muslim immigrant. She describes diasporic identity as “constantly shifting,  always in flux, you are here/there, insider/outsider, local/foreign at the same time, and never grounded or given a choice.” 

The Buddhist Bug” emerged from this “diasporic dilemma” and a creation myth.  And rather than seeing this in-between state as restrictive, it pushed her to move beyond the binary understanding of identity, to see it as limited yet generative and creative, and to embrace her hybrid identity and performance as a vehicle for her artistic expression and activism.

From the bustling streets to nightlife of Phnom Penh, from restaurants and schools filled with children to rural areas across Cambodia, the documented works invites the viewers to embark on a journey alongside the Buddhist Bug. With joyful children to bewildered adults by the Bug’s appearances, viewers are offered access to places not easily reached by locals or tourists alike; such as the artist’s grandmother’s plot of land, or the abandoned ruins of an Art Deco structure that harkens back to Cambodia’s own cultural epoch.

It is interesting to note that by following the trajectory of the Buddhist Bug’s appearances, the works together reveal a series of relationships that the Buddhist Bug forges with specific places, times, and different groups of people.

Looking at this trajectory, audiences find the landscape of a nation in rapid modernization, revealing the complex layers of Cambodia beyond its colonial and dictatorial past. This journey, guided by the Buddhist Bug, weaves a kind of “third landscape” — a narrative that challenges the sensationalist documentaries that focus only on Cambodia’s dark history or the typical tourist vistas.

It’s a counter-history created by the Cambodian diaspora and the Othered creature that reasserts the subjectivity of the land and positions everyday Cambodians, whether in urban centers or the provinces, as integral co-storytellers of their ongoing history. Buddhist Bug’s performance has crossed national borders, appearing in museum spaces in Europe, Australia, and Asia.

Politically charged yet engaging at a child’s eye level, the playfulness found in “Buddhist Bug” captures attention while portraying both alienation and familiarity as the ultimate Other: the non-human, mythical figure. Furthermore, the documented and “staged” shots, created in collaboration with her partner and photographer Masahiro Sugano of Studio Revolt, serve as a kind of evidence and post-production of the performance and are exhibited as part of her art and activism.

Water Birth, The Red Chador: Genesis I, USA, 2019 • Courtesy

Performing body as a site, “The Red Chador” series

“The Red Chador” series is Ali’s ongoing series of performative pieces and installations that challenge our perceptions and fears of Muslims in response to increasing incidents of Islamophobia, misogyny, and racism. Perhaps the best-known entry point into Ali’s work, “The Red Chador” was first commissioned and performed in 2015 at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, where it has become illegal for women to wear hijabs and face coverings.

Like “The Buddhist Bug,” “The Red Chador” uses religious and cultural aesthetics to challenge prevailing notions of Otherness, Ali explained. Made of sequins in a shade of crimson, “The Red Chador” demands the attention of all who approach. Ali describes the initiation behind the aesthetic in her statement:

“When I conceived “The Red Chador,” I was primarily thinking of my mother, aunts, grandmother, great aunts, and cousins who, when wearing their hijab, are joyful, loud, fierce, and celebratory — not miserable and oppressed as media images portray hijabi women.”

On display, “The Red Chador” stands proudly alongside six other brightly sequined chadors, forming a collective presence. After “The Red Chador’s” unexpected disappearance in 2019, it was recreated-or, as Ali puts it, “resurrected” — this time accompanied by “The Rainbow Brigade,” a joyful group of six more heroines adorned in bright sequins, symbolizing a community that embodies diverse identities.

The series of photographs document various moments surrounding the Chadors, capturing politically charged moments during performances in front of symbolic institutions of power, such as the White House or the Smithsonian Museum, as well as moments of camaraderie in the park, greetings exchanged during public performances, and joyful strolls through downtown crosswalks.

By merely showing up in social spaces and public places, certain subjects can make a potent statement and have a significant impact, particularly when they belong to social minorities. Ali’s “The Red Chador” series aptly and effectively embody this “politics of Appearance” and confronts the intricate narratives woven into public performances with flair, challenging our innate perceptions and biases that are often perpetuated and shaped by the media.

Abbey Road, The Red Chador: Genesis I, Bellevue, Washington, USA, 2021 • Courtesy

The emergence of the transatlantic diaspora

Through Ali’s artistic practice and her mythical figures and narratives, “The Hybrid and Mythical Skin” brings to life the transformative diaspora, the exiled, uprooted to another time and place. Yet with its expanded mobility and hybrid identity, it becomes a channel that opens a “third story” beyond the familiar narrative associated with its history of imperialism, colonialism, and social bias.

Drawing on the emergence of the diaspora and the transformative nature seen in “Buddhist Bug” and “The Red Chador” series, viewers are invited to explore relationships that transcend conventional boundaries, to question what it means to be “from” a place, to redefine insiders and outsiders, neighbors and strangers, and refugees and natives that lie beneath the fixed narrative of “refugee” and diasporic history.

The diasporic identities depicted in Ali’s work are not simply oppressed or assimilated. Rather, they embody multiple identities that extend and expand transnationally, rather than remaining confined to one place and constituting a diaspora.  In the face of mass global migration and times of heightened brutal war, the emergence of diaspora and the figure of the refugee found in “Hybrid Skin, Mythical Presence” may offer different ways of being with and understanding our time, and our relationships to ourselves and to the Other.    

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