Refracted FuturesPhoto Series
50255 Artworks

Azizan, 5025

blinding the Imperial eye and visioning Ancient futures: The Work of Alia Ali

by Jad Dahshan

CHICAGO- Across an iron-red desert, lilac dreams blossom and ancient voices swell and ebb with the sands. Songs and scripts of old dance electrified in its winds and constellations stretch across the opaque fabric of its sky. 

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 with new work currently on virtual display in Alia Ali: Project Series 53 , curated by Senior Curator Rebecca McGrew with Independent Curator Hannah Grossman at the Benton Museum at Pomona College. From its earliest instances, Ali’s practice has confronted colonial histories and legacies, challenged viewers’ preconceived 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 image to the moving image and contends with the war in her native Yemen, both educating international viewers and engaging Yemenis globally in a radical act of imagination.

The presentation at the Benton Museum will be live until May 30, 2021, and includes four bodies of work by the prolific artist. The series of photographs in FLUX (2019-2020) features figures with fabric fully furled around them, forming the backdrops behind them, and upholstering the frames containing these pictures -sourced from Cote d’Ivoire. Textile in all its forms has always been central to Ali’s practice, but in this series in particular, she hones in on the wax print. Variations of pattern, style, and even execution of technique are in fact traces of colonial, economic, and political histories of exchange. In other words, these are “fabrics in flux” and evade categorization and even naming -are they “Indian, Chinese, Javanese, Dutch or West African?” Ali’s research into international networks of commerce in which the wax print was and is imbricated resulted in the FLUX series, in which meanings, values, intentions, and identities are constantly shifting.


Moving beyond -but also, through- her photographic oeuvre, Ali presents two new video works at the Benton: Conflict is More Profitable Than Peace (2019) and Mahjar (2020), the latter of which is presented as a two-channel film within The Red Star installation, an architectural intervention within the museum.

Grievability And A Kind Of Cannibalism: Conflict is More Profitable Than Peace

News articles, government resolutions, timelines, lists of names, and graphs comparing arms sales to aid: these are among the hundreds of documents Ali has compiled over the past few years as part of her research into the war in Yemen (, her childhood home. They are all arranged into a binder that is the subject of Conflict is More Profitable Than Peace. In 17 minutes, Ali goes through some key parts of the binder, presenting a narrative of today’s worst humanitarian crisis that is unobfuscated by political jargon or tribal and colonial histories, and instead offers a clear-cut delineation of the war’s culprits, its victims, and its means. 

Transparent, crisp, and glaring, Conflict is More Profitable Than Peace is all about highlighting information rather than concealing and redacting it, as is typical of states hiding their war crimes. The video combines multiple forms of incisive storytelling. At times the viewer follows a general plotline, learning about when the U.S. first started selling weapons to the Saudi Coalition and how the sales remained ongoing as Obama’s administration gave way to Trump’s.

This plot is strewn with lists. Ali enumerates the corporations producing the weapons being deployed in Yemen, including Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, BAE Systems, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics. She then goes further and lists the American senators, both Republican and Democrat, accepting funds from them, and thenceforth voting against ceasing American military assistance to the war. At other times, Ali’s narration is simply and strikingly imagist in nature as it sifts through the binder: “mounting evidence of war crimes”; “human rights violations”; “no electricity”; “no water”; “don’t have fuel”; “conflict is more profitable than peace”.

In addition to culprits, the artist also lists victims. Specifically, Ali collaborated with American and Yemeni journalists to compile the names of at least 40 children who were killed during a field trip when a Lockheed Martin missile launched by the Saudi-led coalition hit their school bus. The August 9, 2018 Dahyan massacre and raids continued well into 2021. At the time of writing, Trump’s outgoing administration had just designated the Yemeni Houthi movement a terrorist organization, putting critical amounts of humanitarian aid under threat of being cut from an already suffering populace. However the designation is currently back under review by the U.S. State Department, and the new president Biden has stated he would “terminate” American backing of the war. Arms sales were paused, despite “the possibility for future sales”. With nearly 100,000 people killed since 2015, millions displaced, and health, water, and sanitation infrastructures obliterated, millions of Yemenis are still left in limbo. 

Comprising hundreds of pages of material amassed and updated on par with the ongoing catastrophe, this video essay constitutes a massive emotional, mental, and physical labour on the artist’s part as she works to educate viewers. At this point, as she says in an interview, “there is no excuse not to know about Yemen”.

Interspersed with the data and headlines throughout the binder -itself comparable to Arthur Jaffa’s– are photos from Ali’s UNDER THREAD (2019) series. These black and white autoportraits feature the artist posing while a suffocating length of white thread winds around her head. As the thread unravels, so does the thick, saturated fog of information around the war, and as her face comes into view, so does it become clearer that a handful of American companies’ and senators’ lust for profit is causing the carnage in Yemen. Yet even as the string is unwound, Ali remains entangled, phantom lines and “scarring” painfully visible where thread had been on her somber face. “Am I complicit by the taxes I pay?” she presciently wonders at the beginning of the video. In an essay she wrote for the exhibition, she describes the feeling as a “relative of cannibalism” -one many Arab Americans share. This duality also comes through in the fact that the artist is both the photographer and photographed in UNDER THREAD. Critically cognizant of the camera’s colonial function and history, she toggles between perpetrator and victim of its “imperial lens".

In addition to being didactic, Conflict is More Profitable Than Peace opens up space and time to grieve for a demographic whose lives the U.S. government and its international accomplices have deemed “ungrievable”, to borrow a term from Judith Butler. “An ungrievable life” writes Butler, “is one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived, that is, it has never counted as a life at all”. Ungrievable lives are “socially dead” and “are not quite lives, not quite valuable, recognizable or, indeed, mournable”. To quote Ali’s video, these are lives which are considered “collateral damage”. The Saudi coalition consigns the inhabitants of Yemen to a state of ungrievability through relentless attacks followed by denialism, as when Col. Turki al-Malki justified the civilian deaths at Dahyan by insisting the bus was a “legitimate military target”. What is more, Yemenis themselves are also often prevented from grieving. In 2016, a funeral was bombed, killing 140 people -even public expressions of grief are policed and prohibited. To add, contrary to Butler’s analysis, which holds that some populations are considered ungrievable in order to protect those considered “worth defending, valuing, and grieving”, the case here is different, since the American government’s interest is not to protect the lives under its own purview but to secure profits.

In other words, in addition to making room to mourn, Ali’s video exposes and dismantles the imperialist logic that says: profits are more grievable than humans; conflict is more profitable than peace.

By the video essay’s end, Ali has traced a global network of affiliations, sales, and profits that is sustaining the necropolitical state of mass death that has been unfolding in Yemen for 7 years by March 19, 2021. The work unveils a vicious web of complicity in which all of us are caught under the global regime of imperialism and capitalism. But the artist’s project is not all dystopian. Throughout the short film, semi-second glimpses of mysterious orange letters, ancient artifacts, and explosive fireworks flash across the screen, weaving an associative net that expands in Ali’s second video: Mahjar.

Space Colonialism And An Abolitionist Mars

To say مهجر // Mahjar is a departure from Conflict is More Profitable Than Peace would be an understatement: it is an intergalactic leap, a time-warp, lightyears away. Yet the two are also deeply intertwined. The video is narrated by a spidery storyteller and spans 14 minutes: both these elements signify baraka, or blessing, in Islam. Indeed, this work is steeped in spirituality, mythology, and cultural heritage. It is premised on the Yemeni myth of النجم الأحمر, the Red Star, one commonly told to children. According to the time-travelling arachnid narrator, the Red Star was offered to her friend, 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 to 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, an act of colonization, only to be dismissed by the space agency and Western media. Closer to the present, we listen to Awad Ghazali describing leaving Yemen in 2016 and the beginning of “an extremely long غربة”.

However, this is not to say that مهجر // Mahjar progresses linearly as described, but flits and loops through time and space. The video begins with an Arabic narration of the aforementioned myth and ends with it retold in English. What is more, it is an abstract montage of sights and sounds characterized by disjuncture, fragmentation, and recombination. It phases away from the dystopian present of Conflict is More Profitable Than Peace to its own ancient future, which we only perceive sparingly in spectral scenes of Sana’a, the red planet’s terrain, Yemeni flower men dancing Bara’a, a warrior dance, and more. The work is a shift from a brutal survey of facts, numbers and lists, to a wellspring of imagination, possibility, heritage, memory, dreams, myth, hope, and futurity.

Furthermore, the story of the 1997 lawsuit against NASA is more than a whimsical anecdote about three tribesmen suing a powerful U.S. institution. It is also more than Ali’s justification for identifying the mythical Red Star as Mars. Rather, on the one hand, by displaying the Yemeni Al-Thawri article side by side with the derisive CNN reportage, it represents a dichotomy between two sides of the current war: Yemen and the United States; East and West; victim and culprit. On the other hand, perhaps more crucially, it evokes the deep connections between space exploration and colonialism.

As Haris Durrani writes, since humanity’s first forays into the cosmos and up until today, space missions have been contingent on the massive accumulation of capital made possible through colonialism and lingering “imperial claims over natural resources.” This is why settler-colonial states like the U.S. continue to dominate space while ‘developing’ countries cannot do so due to the exorbitant costs. Additionally, as soul and jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron famously elucidates in his 1970 spoken word poem, Whitey On The Moon, the American government’s prioritization of the Apollo program of the 1960’s left Black and other marginalized communities in the States in dire poverty. Even today, since territories near the equator are deemed “valuable for launching into space,” they are often abused for this purpose, displacing and endangering indigenous communities worldwide. 

According to the Arabic Al-Thawri article 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 placing into Earth’s orbit any “kinds of weapons of mass destruction” and “reaffirm[s] the importance of […] the peaceful exploration and use of outer space”. However, it is safe to say that the Treaty’s decolonial ethos was a failure to launch. This is manifest not simply in aspirations like Trump’s Space Force, but also in the long history of efforts to dominate Earth’s natural satellite, as well as in the committed relationships between the military, weapons producers, and space industry. Indeed, the same companies profiting off the war 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”.

As such, challenging major American news outlets that derided them, Ali reframes the three Yemenis’ contention with NASA as a legitimate injunction against the United States’ expansion of its imperialist project from the horizontal plane of the world to the vertical plane of the cosmos. مهجر // Mahjar upsets a colonialist, white supremactist imagination that refuses to conceive of a world without war, borders, or police. In this aspect, the short film falls into a long tradition of filmic and visual arts practices that have sought to imagine a future liberated from racial capitalism and imperialism by looking to the stars. 

The Magic Touch Of The Mythocracy: Yemeni Futurism and Afrofuturisms

“Everything you desire upon this planet and never have received will be yours in outer space,” declares legendary Afrofuturist musician and cosmic philosopher Sun Ra at the beginning of his seminal film, Space Is the Place(1974). Directed by John Coney, the experimental flick is based on the avant-garde Jazz artist’s eponymous concept album and follows his plan to musically teleport Black Americans to a peaceful space colony. Throughout both the movie and his career, the prolific performer borrowed from ancient Egyptian iconography to construct his Arkestra’s futuristic persona, hence their costumes and his name . This decision was not purely aesthetic, but was driven by Ra’s belief that myth’s “potentials are unlimited ” and can hence open up infinite space to envision a liberated future. Thus, in the fluid blackness of space, the lines between reality and mythology dissolve as ancience and futurity commingle, creating alternate possibilities to the cruel, colonized state of the Earth in the present. 

“I am paving the way for humanity to recognize the myth and become part of my mythocracy instead of that theocracy and that democracy and these other -ocracies that they got. They can become part of this magic myth, the magic touch of the mythocracy. Because everything that’s unknown is part of the myth, and I’m sure that the myth can do more for humanity than anything they ever dreamed was possible.” – Sun Ra

And pave the way he did. Sun Ra’s work left a tremendous impact on subsequent generations of creatives, including transdisciplinary filmmaker Cauleen Smith. Although the LA-based artist does not necessarily label her work as “Afrofuturist”, it frequently resonates with the movement in its use of “cosmological metaphors of space and time and sound and environment to talk about experience or identity”. In fact, Smith pays homage to Sun Ra in a few of her landmark projects. Notably, while living in Chicago in 2010, Smith organized the Solar Flare Arkestral Marching Band Project in which the Rich South High School marching band performed Ra’s 1972 composition, Space Is the Place, as a flashmob in Chinatown -spontaneously taking up space. Meanwhile, a “film without film”, her Black Utopia LP (2012) is a shapeshifting audiovisual performance consisting of a growing collection of over 800 35mm slides and a vinyl LP. Site-specifically, Smith incorporates new images every time the piece is performed, drawing on research into local histories of Afrofuturism, as well as astrology and the occult. Sonically, the slides are supplemented with live lectures, recordings of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, poetry, and more.

As Ali has explained and as the exhibition website attests and other sci-fi-influenced practices, specifically including the work of Ra and Smith as well as many others, have exerted considerable influence on her thinking. Indeed, Smith was a mentor to Ali at the MFA program she recently completed at the California Institute of the Arts, where she began making مهجر // Mahjar. Yet, in taking this futuristic direction, Ali was careful not to appropriate from the decades of labour that form the rich tradition of Afrofuturism, but to do the work of developing a distinctly Yemeni Futurism by turning to her own diasporic community and reflecting on the customs and stories that she inherited. As such, though Ali harnesses the utopian potential of myth and the extraterritorial like Ra and as she collages sights and sounds like Smith in her Black Utopia LP, she does so by tapping into her own Sabean roots and draws from an archive she has built herself.

Moreover, typical discourses around Afrofuturism have tended to linger within the African American context, ever since the term was coined by cultural critic Mark Dery in his 1993 essay, Black to the Future, author Sofia Samatar rewrites a history of Afrodiasporic futurisms by considering their points of convergence with 21st Century African science fiction. Tying together the visionary work produced on the African continent and in the diaspora, Samatar outlines a set of concepts through which Ali’s Mahjar, Yemeni Futurism, and other global futurisms can be better understood.

For one, the narrating spider in مهجر // Mahjar bears exciting resonance with the “data thief” of Black British filmmakers John Akomfrah and Edward George’s 1996 Afrofuturist film, The Last Angel of History, as well as the “bricoleur” Onyesonwu, the protagonist of Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor’s 2010 novel Who Fears Death. As a “time-travelling” data thief and bricoleur, the spider fluidly moves across spacetime and “through cyberspace seeking signs of collective memory” and working with “whatever is at hand”, stitching together languages, looted artifacts in the British Museum, news articles about the NASA lawsuit, footage of Yemen, testimony, and more. All the while, this “tinkerer” tries to “avoid being infected with capital-H history,” that written by the colonizer, “opposing it with lowercase histories drawn from popular forms”, such as myth, folklore, and dance. Within the mainstream cyberspace that runs on racist and profit-driven algorithms, encompassing search engines like Google and social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram, the bricoleur and data thief of مهجر // Mahjar smoothly glides, weaving together a disorienting and de-orientalized dream of Yemeni and Sabean culture and heritage.

Ali settled on the tale of the Red Star as her subject after conducting a “passionate research” aimed at constructing a vision of Yemeni cultural identity that broke away from the orientalist images of destruction and devastation propagated through Google, for example. She landed on the myth after speaking to others in the Yemeni diaspora, including Eman Ahmed and Awad Ghazali, while trying to find things that united them besides historical and current traumas. Ali met Ahmed and Ghazali while building connections with the Yemeni communities in Brooklyn and Detroit, respectively. As such, in addition to data theft and bricolage, community-building is another vital component of Ali’s work to develop Yemeni Futurism. مهجر // Mahjar is not merely the result of researching myth and collecting testimonies, but of forming close ties within the diasporic Yemeni community. It therefore comes from a place of collective imagination and hope, not individual fantasy. This is another aspect that unites Ali’s work with Ra and Smith’s: the emphasis on collectivity, “radical generosity and community building

Moreover, although Ali imagines this collectivist Sabean mythocracy on Mars, glancing towards the stars has not always been a utopian or even optimistic gesture. In Turkish artist Halil Altındere’s short film, Space Refugee (2016), it is one rife with cynicism, loneliness, and, at least according to Dorian Batycka, a kind of “refugee romanticism”. Described as an “ironist ”, Altındere created the film in collaboration with Muhammed Ahmed Faris, the first Syrian cosmonaut in space but later an activist and refugee in Istanbul, as well as some NASA personnel, to imagine the logistics of a future in which Faris leads the world’s Syrian refugees to Mars. Although the hope for Mars to act as a place where “there is no tyranny, no injustice” is approached by the film, Altındere reveals to Kaya Genc that the driving thesis behind the work is the postulation that, “If no country wants them, why don’t we settle the world’s refugees on Mars?”

Despite both using the extraterrestrial as a kind of mirror to reflect social issues on Earth, Altındere and Ali produce dramatically different works. Altındere’s work is almost too literal in seeking to plan out a Syrio-Martian colony. Comparing the absurdist and frigid vision of Mars in Space Refugee to that in Mahjar makes obvious the spirit of care and hopefulness that Ali fosters in her work. Indeed, in contrast to Altındere, Ali’s suggestion 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.

Moving on, referencing “the subversive power of music” in Black life, exemplified by genres like the Blues and Funk and musicians like Ra and George Clinton, Samatar reads Afrofuturism “as a philosophy of the remix”. Within it, music functions as “a technology of time travel” and “a source of emotional experience and healing”. Music also mediates مهجر // Mahjar’s journey through impossibility. Throughout the film, a panoply of percussions, the cyclical strums of the oud, the sonorous singing of Ofra Haza, and the Yemeni national anthem are sampled, spliced, and distorted along with the haunting hum of Martian winds collected by NASA, electronic beeps suggestive of a spaceship or probe, radio static, the U.S. national anthem, and more. This multilayered remix is just as complex as the abstract visuals of the video -and just as allusive in storytelling. No complete narrative is told, but the parts and pieces coalesce in what Samatar terms a “poetics of the fragment”. As “the sign of becoming rather than dissolution”, the fragment bears enormous world-building potential, which is amplified through remixing in films like مهجر // Mahjar.

However, these acts of bricolage and remix also play a role in highlighting dystopian realities, rather than merely nurturing utopian promises. In both of Ali’s video works, we see scenes of Sana’a overlaid with clips of fireworks that begin to look more like explosions against the buildings and people, as opposed to their typical nocturnal backdrop. As a result, an audio track of people roaring or holding their breaths in anticipation with these fireworks assumes a similarly ambiguous air: are they cheering or screaming? Or is it both? Or are they two different crowds, a Yemeni one and a North American one?

In this regard, مهجر // Mahjar is comparable to two videos by the Palestinian sound and image performance group Tashweesh: Intro (2009) and Collapse (2009). Like مهجر // Mahjar, both these videos employ a machinery of data theft, bricolage, and remixology to produce dizzying audio-visuals that explore the possibilities of the present and future by intervening in the past. In Intro, the abrupt jump from looping clips of idyllic beach scenes to a more rapid, post-catastrophic montage of rushing figures and ruins produces a dystopian anxiety that permeates the work. A more ominous soundscape replaces the trip-hop rhythms of Intro in Collapse, which collapses together different people and places in repetitive segments that meditate on the cycles of displacement, resistance, and rupture throughout Palestinian history. In works like these, remixing and layering amplify the anxious state between presents and futures, potentialities and failures. مهجر // Mahjar builds on these techniques as well as the emancipatory power of electronic music technologies to place viewers on the suspenseful cusp of a possible utopia. 

Chronopolitics And Time Travel As Resistance

To dive deeper, Samatar’s argument about music as a mechanism for journeying through time serves the broader idea of “time travel as resistance” -one which reverberates through countless creative and scholarly works in science and speculative fiction. Writing about “Arabfuturism,” respectively, Paulina Sobczyk and Jussi Parikka both owe to the foundational work of Sarah Sharma in her book, In The Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics. Sharma’s work can help expand the geopolitical analysis of Mars as a space of liberation and belonging in مهجر // Mahjar to consider the chronopolitical dimensions of Ali’s work -that is, how the politics of time play out.

People experience time -and what is possible in time- differently based on a large and dynamic set of factors including race, gender, class, and others. According to Sharma, “[t]heir experience of time depends on where they are positioned within a larger economy of temporal worth,” in this case the worldwide networks of capitalism and imperialism and specifically the weapon industries. Like the string in UNDER THREAD, different experiences of time are tangled with one another (even in different parts of the world) and “uncompromisingly tethered and collective” under global capitalism. They are not only “relational” and interdependent, but “uneven;” indeed, these “differential relationships to time organize and perpetuate inequalities.” Sharma borrows Doreen Massey’s idea of “coevalness,” a critical and imaginative awareness of the aforementioned complex “multiplicity of time” and one’s “mutual implication” therein, to posit “coevalness as a political act.”

On the surface, by carrying out an explicitly didactic function, Conflict is More Profitable Than Peace inducts viewers, especially North Americans, into a stance of coevalness by forcing us to reckon with how we are “implicated in the bounds of time, in the production of temporal vulnerability for others,” specifically the population of Yemen, through taxation and, somewhat, electoral politics. The video makes apparent how, for the sake of profits, numerous political and corporate players are fueling conditions of war in which people’s lifetimes are curtailed, the time they have left on earth jettisoned sporadically -for whom futures are cancelled and even imagination of what time can hold is asphyxiated. The fact that this is a time-based work is hence also significant because it obliges the viewer to take time to adopt this position of coevalness.

In other words, Conflict is More Profitable Than Peace exposes the “structural reality that not everyone is equally out of time” with a focus on how the U.S.-backed war in Yemen literally forecloses the futures of Yemenis living under constant threat of airstrike. Meanwhile, مهجر // Mahjar responds to the fact that disparate populations “have different horizons of political possibility tied to where they exist within a larger temporal order” by actually breaking from this constricted sense of political potential mandated by the imperialist machine. The work accomplishes this not necessarily just by turning to Mars, but by travelling multi-directionally through time, deviating from the future prescribed by the imperialist. It does it by twisting and undermining the aforementioned “capital-H” historical timeline drafted by the colonizer. It does it by intricately layering ancient and recent pasts with glimpses of the present to produce allusions to a future outside the temporal scheme enforced by these systems.

It would be remiss at this point not to also think through Ali’s use of language as a time-travelling technology in addition to music and video. While working on the Red Star, “the manipulation of language has really become the center of [her] practice.” Having grown up the child of two linguists sharing seven different tongues between them, Ali has always been attuned to the power in language, but it was not until this project that she began developing her own orthography. By marrying Arabic, Hebrew, and ancient Sabean, a language which stretches back 3,000 years, Ali hopes to project 3,000 years into the future. The letters of this new language adorn both the exhibition catalogue and the dim walls of the The Red Star installation, and fluoresce a bright, solar orange under the black light that fills the room. Some of those same characters appear in the two channel video of Mahjar on the wall, which physical visitors would have watched while laying on the ground with some thermal blankets, similar to those used by refugees, also printed with the letters. Still in development, Ali’s nascent language is a new semiotic system that subverts capitalistic metrics of usefulness and efficiency attributed to other languages and overturns the colonial violence affiliated with languages like English. Its revolutionary illegibility spells out the vague terms of a decolonized future.

Time-traveler, tinkerer, trickster; cultural preserver, producer, pioneer; storyteller, seamstress, cybernaut; the spider of مهجر // Mahjar is a bricoleur, a data-thief, a DJ, a linguist, and a necessary glitch -to borrow a term from Legacy Russell– in the world-wide web of racist, capitalist, imperialist, heteropatriarchal power relations that dominate the earth. Weaving dreams of counterfutures, this spider is at the forefront of a Yemeni Futurism.

“A defiant cultural break:” Arabfuturism/s

And as we begin to trace these threads from Afrofuturism to Yemeni Futurism to the aforementioned Palestinian projects, and as we retrace the links drawn by scholars like Sobczyk under the term “Arabfuturism,” it becomes necessary to reckon with this idea’s limitations. Although it may tempting to think of Ali’s work as Arabfuturist, precisely as we outline the affinities between different geographies, “Arabfuturism” as a concept disintegrates. At a more incipient stage, Palestinian artist and scholar Lama Suleiman had employed the term as a framework to understand the parallels between Afrofuturist creative work and some sci-fi-inspired art and film in Palestine, Lebanon, and the Gulf, work which is “heavily invested in experimenting with history, revision, technology, and the absent future.” Suleiman draws connections between work like Palestinian filmmaker Larissa Sansour’s and “Afrofuturistic threads such as the apocalypse that has already happened, the unattainable return to the normal, power regimes of colonialism, racism, marginalization, [and] displacement”. 

However, the ‘Arab World’ is not a monolith. It is incredibly diverse, complex, and contradictory. A homogenous ‘Arabfuturism,’ one Ali is critical of, collapses vital distinctions between futuristic expressions emerging from the drastically different lived conditions in Southwest Asia and North Africa, ranging from the war in Yemen to Israeli settler-colonialism and apartheid to Gulf hypercapitalism to many others. For example, writing for The Quietus, Perwana Nazif teases a vast difference between Gulf Futurism, which is “associated with the GCC Art Collective (Fatima Al-Qadira, Monira Al Qadiri, Sophia Al Maria), with its focus on hyper-capitalistic themes, oil, and the Gulf,” and a Palestinian futurism like Sansour’s, which contends with themes of occupation, apartheid, and diaspora. To further complicate matters, artists like Sansour have not even adopted this label in the first place. 

Instead, a frame of thought that respects this divergence might be approximated by Glasgow-based artist Suleiman Majali’s “[p]luralised and in a state-of-becoming” concept of “Arabfuturism/s“. An idea “born of counter-culture,” Arabfuturism/s signify “a defiant cultural break, a projection forward into what is, beyond ongoing eurocentric, hegemonic narratives”, embodying “a post-post-colonialist reflection on what actually is”. The plurality and malleability of this term allow us to locate Yemeni Futurism within a network of counterfuturisms that stretches across the SWANA region and world without blunting its critical uniqueness.

Textile As Document: Borderland and Love

Hurtling back to the present, Ali’s fourth and final body of work at the Benton is her LOVE series. Compositionally similar to FLUX and her earlier and ongoing BORDERLAND series, the حب // LOVE photographs feature fabrics that Ali has printed herself with the word حب, Arabic for love, as opposed to textiles with whose expert makers she collaborated to photograph. The حب // LOVE series crystallizes the nexus between textile and text, two long-held interests of the artist’s. Stemming from “how Arabic has been abducted from a lot of Arabic speakers” and disfigured with connotations of terrorism by the racist, islamophobic Western media apparatus, the multichromatic photos are “reclaiming the beauty and nonviolence of the language.” Ali cites the words طالبان (taliban) and مدرسة (madrassa) as the biggest examples of this linguistic abduction, conjuring images of terrorists and terrorist training camps on Google and in the minds of the misinformed alike instead of their actual meanings: students and school, respectively. With individual titles like تضحية ,راحة ,لطف ,الذات ,اختيار إخلاص ,عمل , أصل, and روح, the حب // LOVE series strives to flip the aforementioned racist associations with Arabic.

Further, the حب // LOVE series takes a markedly different approach to the violent, colonial mechanics of language than BORDERLAND, which is not on display at the Benton. In speaking of the genesis of BORDERLAND, the artist often pays homage to her Yemeni grandmother who, through “embroidery, dyeing, and weaving,” passed down “tribal, historical, religious, cosmic, and/or mythical” stories and histories in the form of fabric. The artist presents these pieces as legitimate documents to confront the violent erasure inherent in the written story of Yemen penned by its former British colonizers in English, a language inaccessible to many. The pieces in BORDERLAND showcase textiles from 11 different regions of the world. Three of these that feature traditional textile from different parts of Yemen are currently featured in the virtual exhibition Phantoms, Ruins, and Reflections, organized by the European External Action Service as part of the awareness-raising campaign, We Need To Talk About Yemen.

The campaign comes in response to the dismal lack of international attention and aid as Yemen enters the 7th year of conflict. Curated by Sama’a Al-Hamdani, the physical-exhibition-turned-online features a broad array of work ranging from paintings to photographs by the Yemeni artists Hakim Alakel, Obeid Salem, Ziryab Alghabri , Sarah Al-Aulaqi, and Ali. The exhibition is conceptually unified by the BORDERLAND pieces and in fact shares its ethos with them. That is, Phantoms, Ruins, and Reflections acts as a platform for Yemeni stories told by Yemenis, and while deriving from conflict, revels in Yemeni heritage rather than painting a narrative solely defined by suffering.

Opacity As Common Thread

“We demand the right to opacity,” famously declared Martinician poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant in his 1990 essay, For Opacity. We can imagine opacity as a curtain concealing something, or a character completely covered in textile, their identity unknown and unknowable. We can imagine it as the chopped-up samples of music we do not recognize or a story that seems completely alien to us. We can imagine it as a language that we cannot read, or perhaps partially decipher but never fully grasp.

The opaque for Glissant “is that which cannot be reduced”. While the opaque “is not the obscure, […] it is possible for it to be so and be accepted as such”. It escapes understanding and eludes the scrutinizing, imperial eye. The opaque rejects categorization. By asserting the right to opacity, one is resisting an inherently colonial way of relating to the world and to other people, one embodied by the gesture of “grasping,” one “of enclosure if not appropriation”. Glissant urges us to “give up this old obsession with discovering what lies at the bottom of natures” -to surrender drilling, dissecting, demolishing, categorizing, classifying, taxonimifying, bureaucratizing, essentializing, homogenizing, orientalizing, stereotyping. 

This radical gesture of opacity lies at the core of Ali’s oeuvre, in which the artist toggles between differing degrees of opacity and transparency to tackle colonialist and imperialist logics. From BORDERLAND’s utterly ambiguous figures that resist being confined within any form of geopolitical, racial, ethnic, gendered, sexual, or social boundaries, to those in FLUX, Ali’s earliest photographic work forces viewers to confront identities that escape knowability. In making مهجر // Mahjar, Ali “wanted to make a film by Yemenis and for Yemenis,” a highly abstracted, celebratory montage of cultural codes that does not necessarily cater to non-Yemenis and more importantly acts as an absurdist affront to the expansionism of major space missions. On par with this, she is innovating a novel language that is equally powerful in its unreadability and opacity to non-speakers. On the other hand, Conflict is More Profitable Than Peace is explicitly educational and targeted towards international, but specifically U.S.-based audiences who need to be made aware of the Yemeni crisis they are implicated in. Similarly transparent is the حب // LOVE series, which aims to upturn racist views of the Arabic language by teaching non-Arabophones to the Arabic word for love.

This radical gesture of opacity lies at the core of Ali’s oeuvre, in which the artist toggles between differing degrees of opacity and transparency to tackle colonialist and imperialist logics. From BORDERLAND’s utterly ambiguous figures that resist being confined within any form of geopolitical, racial, ethnic, gendered, sexual, or social boundaries, to those in FLUX, Ali’s earliest photographic work forces viewers to confront identities that escape knowability. In making مهجر // Mahjar, Ali “wanted to make a film by Yemenis and for Yemenis,” a highly abstracted, celebratory montage of cultural codes that does not necessarily cater to non-Yemenis and more importantly acts as an absurdist affront to the expansionism of major space missions. On par with this, she is innovating a novel language that is equally powerful in its unreadability and opacity to non-speakers. On the other hand, Conflict is More Profitable Than Peace is explicitly educational and targeted towards international, but specifically U.S.-based audiences who need to be made aware of the Yemeni crisis they are implicated in. Similarly transparent is the حب // LOVE series, which aims to upturn racist views of the Arabic language by teaching non-Arabophones to the Arabic word for love.

... for full article, click here.

Special thanks to the artist Alia Ali for taking the time to sit down for a personal interview with Artmejo’s Jad Dahshan in preparation for this article.

Some more resources to learn about the ongoing crisis in Yemen: Yemen Crisis: How To Help | The Crisis in Yemen