For Cambodian-American artist Anida Youe 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.
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 three 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. 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.
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.
Did you intend to ‘politically agitate’ by using the phrases ‘enforced disappearance’ and ‘violation of human rights’ in the eulogy as to publicly deny the claim she was lost in transit?
I chose those words as part of a political stance. Most disappearances are part of human rights violations and have occurred in places where people have caused political disruptions and agitated power. I use that word a lot in terms of looking at South America, dictatorships and regimes that cause the disappearances of so many people and activists. Currently, you can look at what happened to the Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, which was not only a brutal murder but definitely an enforced disappearance. This wording is in that lineage and it’s important to mark and declare that. It puts a responsibility on Israel for me and the authoritative figures in Israel who perpetuated her disappearance.
Considering increasing anti-Muslim agendas in the Trump era, can you comment on the foreshadowing of your sign ‘ban me’ in The Red Chador: Day After (2016)?
When I did the piece The Day After in response to Trump getting elected, we went out with signs to the public with ‘ban me’ on one side and ‘I am Muslim’ on the other. I was entering the Trump era by protesting the legitimacy of his presidency with irony due to his proposed campaigns to ban Muslims from the US and other threats against immigrants. I, my family and my partner, had moments of fear about our families’ political history. My husband is a Japanese immigrant—the legacy of WW2 is still part of Japanese people’s history in America.
All these fears started to surface because they could be realised policies implemented by a very racist "ruler", Trump. I never thought the ‘ban me’ statement would come to play, in terms of her disappearance. It is shocking because I was playing with ironic language and never thought that I would actually be banned. But, it makes sense that it’s at the hands of Israel—the policies in Israel related to the Arab population of Palestinians have been extremely problematic.
Can you explain your intentions for holding an online and public eulogy and how public engagement occurs in these spaces?
The Red Chador had encounters with thousands of people all over the world within multiple cities. The idea behind theredchadorissead.com, a curated space to put up 99 witnessed experiences of The Red Chador, was to reflect the importance of creating a digital alter and space for people touched by her to mourn. I am building that out as I ask over social media and through emails for people who have encountered her to send me photos and thoughts of what they experienced to be generated into a concept online. It’s not the public at large because I was nervous about hate speech coming into play by going into conservative, anti-Islamic hands. I didn’t want it to be this free for all, so that’s why it is a curated space.
Can you tell me more about how your use of religious aesthetics and hybridity informed the OzAsia memorial?
I created public rituals as part of the memorial appropriated from both Buddhist and Muslim traditions of mourning the dead. This is in line with my work, using hybridity and merging various religious rituals as somebody who celebrates intersectionality. I did a burning ritual of the remnants of her garment which I discovered. At the time I wrote the original eulogy, I didn’t have one sequin—which was a line in the eulogy. But then, my old gallerist at Java Cafe found a small bag of things I had left with her before leaving Cambodia and told me, “I found remnants of The Red Chador.”
From these little remnants, I was able to create a ritual. I burnt her in the Buddhist tradition and then buried her with soil from Cambodia in the Muslim tradition. I also burnt incense and did an offering and asked the audience to also burn incense and say some prayers and make an offering in that Buddhist tradition. I ended with Arabic prayers in the Muslim tradition.
Following these three memorials, what will happen with The Red Chador?
She needs her rest. I don’t think it’s appropriate to do any more memorials for a while. I want The Red Chador to rest in peace. I want myself to rest. It wasn’t easy to create something with the challenge of creating it from nothing. It would have been easy to just remake the costume and restage her but it didn’t feel poetic and it didn’t feel right to just smooth over the loss.
Can you explain what you meant by the line in the eulogy, ‘one day I know you will return and your rebirth will be epic?’
That is the foreshadowing. I will play with the religious theme of resurrection and rebirth. The disruption was not something I had planned for the work itself, there needs to be an event, religious idea or divine intervention that occurs to help her rebirth. I am playing with the word regenesis: there will be a regenesis after she is laid down in the ground for a while. But it is going to be much more. She has to come back with an impact, with a punch, with an even more loaded presence, when she is rebirthed in 2020.