Alia Ali’s Yemeni Futurism

CLAREMONT, California — During a time that is all but apocalyptic, Yemeni-Bosnian-US artist Alia Ali is looking to the future with a radical sense of hope. The photographer and filmmaker is pioneering the field of Yemeni Futurism. Her new work is currently on virtual view at the Benton Museum at Pomona College, in Alia Ali: Project Series 53, curated by senior curator Rebecca McGrew with independent curator Hannah Grossman. 

From her earliest works, Ali has confronted colonial histories, challenged viewers’ preconceived racial and gendered biases, and put pressure on borders both physical and conceptual. Her new work follows the same anti-imperialist threads as she shifts from the still to the moving image and contends with the war in her native Yemen, educating international viewers and engaging Yemenis globally in a radical act of imagination.

The Benton exhibition comprises four bodies of work: photo series FLUX (2019-2020) and حب // LOVE and the videos Conflict is More Profitable Than Peace (2019) and مهجر // Mahjar. FLUX focuses on the wax print, a dyeing technique, and the ways in which stylistic variations are traces of colonial, economic, and political histories of exchange. Ali’s statement on the work describes the textiles as “fabrics in flux” that evade categorization. “Who names them? Is it the entity who produces the cloth, or the entity who consumes it?” she asks.

Installation view, Ali Ali, Red Star, Benton Museum of Art

The compositionally similar حب // LOVE series pictures fabrics that Ali has printed herself, with the Arabic word for love. These photos crystallize the nexus between textile and text, two of the artist’s long-held interests. In a video interview, Ali explains how “Arabic has been abducted from a lot of Arabic speakers” and imbued with connotations of terrorism by Western media, which adheres largely to stereotypes of Arab people as terrorists. The multicolored photos are meant for “reclaiming the beauty and nonviolence of the language.” 

Conflict is More Profitable Than Peace, based on materials in a photographed binder, surveys news articles, government resolutions, and maps pertaining to the war in Yemen, now in its seventh year. The work presents a narrative of one of today’s worst humanitarian crises that clearly delineates the war’s culprits, victims, and means, and traces a global network of affiliations that have sustained the genocide in Yemen. It addresses the ongoing sale of arms by the United States to the Saudi Coalition for use in Yemen, as well as the weapons manufacturers, including Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and BAE Systems, and the US senators who have accepted funding from them and then voted against halting American military assistance to the war. Through this, the artist unveils a vicious web of complicity in which all of us are caught within the global regime of imperialism.

Ali traces this thread of culpability back to herself: “Am I complicit by the taxes I pay?” she wonders in the video. In an exhibition essay, she describes the feeling of being part of an adopted country that abets the destruction of her native country as a “relative of cannibalism.” It’s a feeling that many Arab Americans share. The photos from Ali’s UNDER THREAD series (2019), which are interspersed within the binder, poignantly illustrate this entanglement. The black and white self portraits feature the artist posing with a suffocating length of white thread winding around her head. Even as the string is unwound, Ali remains entangled, phantom lines and “scarring” rendered painfully visible where thread had been. As both photographer and subject she is critically cognizant of the camera’s colonial histories and toggles between perpetrator and victim of its “imperial lens.” 

Alia Ali, Conflict is More Profitable Than Peace, film still (2019)

In addition to culprits, Ali also considers victims. She collaborated with American and Yemeni journalists to collect the names of at least 40 children who were killed during a field trip in Dahyan, Yemen, when a Lockheed Martin missile launched by the Saudi-led coalition hit their school bus. The August 9, 2018, Dahyan massacre sparked international outcry that year, and yet airstrikes and raids have continued well into 2021. Although President Biden initially stated he would “terminate” American involvement in the war, he has not. With nearly 100,000 people killed since 2015, many more displaced, and health, water, and sanitation infrastructures obliterated, millions of Yemenis are still left in limbo. 

While making room to mourn for a demographic whose lives the US government and its international accomplices have deemed “ungrievable,” to use Judith Butler’s term, Ali’s video exposes and dismantles the imperialist logic that says: profits are more grievable than humans; conflict is more profitable than peace

With مهجر // Mahjar, new horizons of possibility appear. The work is a shift from the dystopian present of Conflict is More Profitable Than Peace to imagination, hope, and futurity. Characterized by disjuncture and recombination, the 14-minute film — representing Ali’s notion of Yemeni Futurism — is narrated by a spidery storyteller, a reference to Islamic mythology. Both the narrator and length signify baraka, or blessing, in Islam. Indeed, مهجر // Mahjar is steeped in spirituality, revolving around the Yemeni myth of النجم الأحمر, the Red Star. 

Alia Ali, مهج // Mahjar, film still (2020)

As told by the time-traveling arachnid, the Red Star was offered to Queen Belquis of Saba’a (or Sheba) thousands of years ago by King Suleiman, after she had requested a gift to match her power as a condition of meeting with him. Flash forward to 1997: three Yemeni men, Adam Ismail, Mustafa Khalil, and Abdullah al-Umari, sue NASA for sending the Sojourner Pathfinder to Mars, which they deemed an act of colonization. The lawsuit traces back to the myth, in which the descendants of Queen Belquis inherit the Red Star, Mars. It was dismissed by the space agency and Western media outlets. Closer to the present, we listen to Awad Ghazali describing leaving Yemen in 2016 and the beginning of “an extremely long غربة [exile].” 

The 1997 lawsuit points to the deep connections between space exploration, colonialism, and imperialism. As Haris Durrani writes in The Nation, space missions have always been contingent on the massive accumulation of capital made possible through colonialism and lingering “imperial claims over natural resources,” which continue to displace and endanger indigenous communities worldwide. 

According to an article from the Arabic newspaper Al-Thawri in مهجر // Mahjar, a representative of NASA had axed Ismail, Khalil, and al-Umari’s claim by citing the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which states that “the moon and other celestial bodies [are] not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty.” The Treaty also bans the placement into Earth’s orbit any “kinds of weapons of mass destruction.” That the Treaty’s decolonial ethos was a failure to launch is apparent in aspirations like Trump’s Space Force and in the committed relationships between the military and space industry. Indeed, the same companies profiting off the carnage in Yemen, “such as Boeing, BAE Systems, and Lockheed Martin,” writes Ann Deslandes, “make and sell satellites and spaceships as well as missiles and bombers.” By challenging major American news outlets that derided them, Ali reframes the three Yemenis’ contention with NASA as a legitimate injunction against US imperialism.

Alia Ali, مهج // Mahjar, film still (2020)

Afrofuturism considerably influenced Ali’s thinking behind مهجر // Mahjar. Her turn to space echoes landmark works like legendary Afrofuturist jazz musician Sun Ra’s film Space Is the Place (1974). Detailing Ra’s plan to musically teleport Black Americans to a peaceful space colony, the experimental flick is rife with ancient Egyptian iconography, an aesthetic decision driven by his belief that myth’s “potentials are unlimited.” By retelling the tale of Queen Belquis, Ali similarly harnesses the utopian potential of myth and the extraterritorial. In the fluid blackness of space, the lines between reality and mythology dissolve, creating alternate possibilities. Ali’s suggestion, following Sun Ra, of the extraterrestrial as a space of freedom from the colonial systems entrenched on Earth implies the radical possibility of abolishing those very systems in our world, too.

In her essay “Toward a Planetary History of Afrofuturism,” author Sofia Samatar reads Afrofuturism “as a philosophy of the remix” whereby music functions as “a technology of time travel.” Throughout مهجر // Mahjar, the oud’s cyclical strums, Ofra Haza’s sonorous singing, and the Yemeni national anthem are sampled along with the haunting hum of Martian winds collected by NASA, electronic beeps suggesting a spaceship, the US national anthem, and more. This multilayered remix takes viewers between distant pasts and futures.

In addition to music, Ali uses language as a time-traveling technology. By marrying Arabic, Hebrew, and ancient Sabean, a language that stretches back 3,000 years, she hopes to project 3,000 years into the future. The letters of this new language, which flash across the screen in the exhibition’s two videos, adorn the exhibition catalogue and the dim walls of the The Red Star installation. They are also printed on some thermal blankets in the space, similar to those used by refugees. Ali’s nascent language is a new semiotic system that subverts capitalistic metrics of usefulness and overturns the colonial violence affiliated with languages like English. Its radical illegibility spells out the opaque terms of a decolonized future. 

Alia Ali, from the BORDERLAND series (2017), pigment print with UV laminate mounted on aluminum dibond in black wooden frame, 42 x 28 inches, Edition of 5 + 1 EP + 1 AP

That the arachnid protagonist is a time-traveler is highly significant. By traveling multi-directionally through time, she breaks away from the future prescribed by imperialism. In this sense, the fracturing of linear time carries a world-building function similar to the bricolage of visual and textual fragments in the video — that is, the way it stitches together languages, looted artifacts at the British Museum, news articles, footage of Yemen, testimony, and more. As “the sign of becoming rather than dissolution,” Samatar writes, the fragment bears enormous world-building potential — something Ali taps into to imagine مهجر // Mahjar‘s revolutionary future. 

Alia Ali: Project Series 53 continues at the Benton Museum of Art at Pomona College (120 West Bonita Avenue, Claremont, California) through May 29.

This text has been adapted from an article originally published by artmejo.

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