In conversation with Anida Yoeu Ali: "I never thought that I would actually be banned"
For Cambodian-American artist Anida Yoeu Ali, the loss of her artwork The Red Chador was profoundly traumatic. In her socially-engaged performances, Ali embodies characters intricately linked with her identity to be in dialogue with the current sociopolitical climate. When the forced disappearance of the Red Chador, the persona central to her latest series, occurred, Ali and the communities the Red Chador encountered felt a disruptive sense of loss. Yet, rather than being silenced, Ali publicly reclaimed her violent death with continued political agitation.
From 2015, Ali walked as the Red Chador within public spaces in silence wearing an all-encompassing, red-sequined chador (an exaggerated Muslim headdress). The Red Chador debuted at Palais de Tokyo in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo massacre and, over several years, engaged with thousands worldwide.
The Red Chador probed everyday people to respond to her assertive presence. Their patterns of anxiety, curiosity and solidarity exhibited that her defiance was reclaiming for some and provoking for others. Community connection was imperative in these performances as the Red Chador embraced power by donning religious aesthetics and inhabiting public space within a greater narrative of pervasive Islamophobia.
In December 2017, the Red Chador vanished. Ali had been harassed during a trip to Palestine, including being stripped searched and detained for three hours by immigration. When she arrived in the USA, her luggage containing the Red Chador did not follow. Ali recognised this disappearance as a deliberate attack on her existence as anti-Muslim sentiments surge.
When the Red Chador did not resurface, Ali confirmed her death in May 2018 She maintained her political demeanour and the public’s engagement by curating online and public memorials, both including a visceral and articulate eulogy devoted to the Red Chador. Opening with the digital altar of TheRedChadorisDead.com in May and concluding with the last memorial in Adelaide, Australia at the OzAsia Festival in October, Ali and global communities mourned her death. Following, the Red Chador was finally laid to rest.
In the following conversation, Ali stays true to her eulogy statement, “I will continue to speak of you, about you, with you.” She reflects on her process of grief, discusses the human rights violation of forced disappearances, considers how the loss of the Red Chador references her identity and foreshadows her regenesis.
Tell me about the months between the Red Chador’s initial disappearance and announcing, ‘the Red Chador is Dead.’ How did your relationship with her develop during this period of limbo?
The day my flight landed in America, I noticed my luggage wasn’t there. I had to stay overnight in Chicago and wait for, what was meant to be, the return of my luggage. The next day, I took my flight to Seattle, where I live, and it wasn't there. I called the airline and they said they would get back to me. They said the last placed it checked in was in Tel Aviv - my flight was Tel Aviv to Istanbul to Chicago to Seattle.
At that moment, I thought, ‘This is not an accident.’ I felt very strongly there was a message in this in terms of difficulties I had when I went through customs. Any of the customs’ staff have access to the internet and, if they look me up, can see my artwork. The luggage that went missing had my original costume in it and a bunch of gifts - you couldn’t open it without seeing the outfit. They probably looked it up. I am inclined to think this was a message to me to never return to Palestine.
I called the airlines and they told me to keep checking in. A week had passed, then three weeks had passed, then 3 months. I realised it wasn’t going to resurface. I had to sit with that. It was really depressing for me to realise I had lost this work.
This was in a long lineage of loss and was related to violence that has happened in my politically charged work, like the attack against the Red Chador. I was sitting for months with the idea of loss and, considering my background, it’s something that never leaves me.
Her persona had been an extension of my body for two years. I had travelled all over the world with her and met thousands of people. I felt a deep sorrow with that loss. In that limbo period, it was a time to figure out. I had already booked exhibitions for the year and was struggling around what to do - whether to remake her or figure something else out. Then, I was talking to a colleague and she said I should consider doing a eulogy, grieving her death and my loss. That was the spark of why I decided at this moment it would be appropriate to grieve this loss.
After spending two years together, the Red Chador formed part of your identity and reflected your lived experiences as a Muslim woman. In the eulogy, you stated you did not have ‘words to own this moment of pain and loss.’ How has her disappearance affected your sense of self and, through your artistic process, have you been able to understand this loss?
Anytime there is an attack on a work that is autobiographical, I can't help but feel that it is an attack on me. This was a disruption, something important about me has been taken without my permission. It is like a crime has occurred. I have become very aware of the kind of messages that surround this violence when it happens. It’s important for artists to reclaim and remark on moments of challenge and an important part of the artistic practice is to grieve and reflect.