Photography • Inspiration Alia Ali and the Power of Seeing


Her richly patterned images are at the intersection of cultural history and photography, textiles, portraiture, and politics.


Imagine having traveled to sixty-seven countries, resided in seven, and speaking five languages. Imagine growing up in a multicultural household with two linguist parents. Imagine, in mid-September 2001, being a Yemeni-Bosnian-American child, told that you could no longer speak your language. Imagine Alia Ali.

The 34-year-old artist, now in Los Angeles for her Masters in Fine Art, went to college thinking she’d become a lawyer or politician. But the mastery of words to shape, debate, and defend ideas gave way to an unexpected passion through a required art history foundations course.

“I noticed that in other classes I had to repeat or regurgitate what I was learning to show that I understood. In my art classes everything was about producing my own ideas on my own terms,” Ali explained. “That’s when I fell in love with art. Specifically with photography and film, I realized that these visual artforms are inherently ambiguous. There’s so much room for interpretation and discussion and dialogue about what everything means. It is democratizing to free up the dialog around visual linguistics.”

Today, Ali is best known for her work crafting images at the intersection of cultural history and digital photography, textiles, portraiture, and politics. Figures swathed in richly textured fabrics challenge viewers to interpret them. The characters are at once anonymous and highly specific. Set on black backdrops or almost completely camouflaged by patterns, each mysterious figure simultaneously presents and hides themself.

Ali got into patterning and textiles by thinking about her grandmother from Yemen. She was “illiterate by written language but was extremely literate in motif,” says Ali. “Just because you don’t have verbal written language doesn’t mean you don’t have a way of documenting.” Yemeni culture is largely oral and visual, so ideas and experiences are richly conveyed through textiles, dyeing, weaving, embroidering. “How did she document her life?” Ali wondered.

Patterned fabric is a theme throughout the artist’s work. Each series that Ali conceptualizes is based on a unique set of questions, which Ali then includes in her statements about the completed presentation. Depending on the series, it may be Ali herself, or highly specific subjects beneath the material. Either way, Ali describes the cloth-covered people in her portraits as “cludes,” encouraging the viewer to decide whether they are “includes” or “excludes.”

Ali constantly challenges herself to evaluate what it means to have the power of disseminating images. By frequently photographing herself, she places herself in a dual role, as both the observer and the observed, the passive and the active. Within the gravity and meticulousness of her work, the artist finds moments of levity. “As the photographer I’m in control, but I don’t actually have very much control over the camera because I’m completely covered and not knowing what’s going to come of it,” Ali explains with a laugh. Sometimes, hundreds of photos must be taken to find a single image that tells the story she seeks.

The mobility of digital photography allows Ali to work on the fly, creating an office or studio wherever she is in the world. For her Borderland series, which is comprised of 172 portraits, Ali spent nine months traveling to eleven regions around the world with rich patterning traditions. Exploring and documenting the visual language of master textile makers, Ali sought the textile itself as a portrait of the community. “I chose not to look at who these people are based on the color of their skin or the borders which have been imposed on them, but rather what they’ve been producing through their hands and their minds and their imaginations,” she says.

Over the course of several weeks, Ali would embed herself in a workshop or studio, learning how each individual articulated their perspective through unique patterning processes. In the last week, rather than using herself as a model, Ali would swath the maker in their fabric to create their—literally—multi-layered portrait. Community members worked alongside Ali to help her understand and properly fold and arrange the material in ways that celebrate its drape and respect the nuanced relationships between different textiles.

“I find that the textiles are so much more expressive of who the person is, if we are looking at it as a language, and of their surroundings,” Ali says. “There’s a power of seeing someone, and a power of being seen.” By collaborating with each community’s most experienced, nuanced, and creative communicators, Ali was able to center the story of individuals using the subject’s own visual language.

The potency of language informs Ali’s perspective on her practice as a whole, and she is aware of the double-edged meaning of much of photography’s macho lingo: load, shoot, capture, take. By being more mindful of her words, Ali is able to be more mindful of her actions, prioritizing ethical collaboration and deep cultural research. Whereas Ali considers herself an artist in the general term, the designation of ”photographer” was bestowed upon her by others. Shrugging it off, Ali clarifies, ”rather than specific labels, I’m interested in the idea I want to communicate.”

All images copyright Alia Ali.

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