In a campus dining hall, a woman in an orange worm costume looks at the viewer with a neutral expression.

Anida Yoeu Ali is Embracing ‘Joy and the Absurd’ Over Trauma

Her new and bizarre photo series exhibit will make you smile, but the Cambodian American artist has a deeper message

Anida Yoeu Ali as The Buddhist Bug in a campus dining hall.

Courtesy of Seattle Art Museum Communications

The themes underlying Anida Yoeu Ali’s art—Islamophobia, xenophobia, returning to one’s home country after fleeing mass violence—are heavy. But the work itself is not in the least bit depressing. In the artist’s own words, it’s about embracing “joy and the absurd.”

At a time when so much of the world’s news is deeply upsetting, her work embodies a sense of optimism and power, even as it raises serious questions about belonging and exclusion. After seeing it, I’m convinced that everyone should see these images—especially anyone who has ever felt like an outsider, or who has a complex relationship with their own identity. Currently, it’s on view in an exhibit called Anida Yoeu Ali: Hybrid Skin, Mythical Presence at the Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM) through July 7, but it can also be viewed online.

Ali’s work draws from her experience as a first-generation American of mixed Malay, Cham, Khmer, and Thai ancestries. Born in 1974 in Battambang, Cambodia, she fled with her family to the United States and was raised in Chicago. Her family was part of a Muslim minority in their home country, and when Ali returned there to live for a time as an adult, the sense of being amidst an overwhelmingly dominant religion made a strong impression.

This dynamic was part of her inspiration for “The Buddhist Bug,” a shockingly long, bright orange creature that Ali has donned in all kinds of unexpected spaces. The orange evokes the color worn by Buddhist monks, while the tightly fitting material around Ali’s face is a nod to the hijab worn by Muslim women. As such, it creates a point of connection for the two religions, while literally connecting disparate points in space. The creature—which will be making an in-person appearance during a performance art piece at the SAAM on March 23—is bizarre as hell, yet it seems to feel it belongs wherever it is. The effect is both comedic and oddly touching.

“The Red Chador” series tells a very different story. In 2018, Ali suffered a great loss: a glittering chador—a garment worn by some Muslim women that she’d donned in politically charged performances around the world (at times holding signs that read “Ban Me” and “Nasty Woman”)—went dubiously missing at an airport in Tel Aviv. After a year mourning its “death,” the Chador was “reborn,” along with a posse of rainbow companions and layers of new meaning. The Chador will be performed in collaboration with six community participants at Olympic Sculpture Park, the Seattle Art Museum, and the SAAM on June 1.

I spoke to Ali about her art, her creative process and the political salience of art.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A woman stands in front of a blurred background of orange tubes, with her arms crossed and a proud smile on her face.

Anida Yoeu Ali.

Sam Leong

Annie Atherton: Are “The Buddhist Bug” and “The Red Chador” both your alter egos, so to speak?
Anida Yoeu Ali: Definitely. They’re extended personas. It’s to separate the artist from the actual persona. When I embody these personas, something does happen to me where I do have to go beyond myself to become these creatures, become these entities.

AA: You've already performed your work in so many places. How are you feeling about showing it here, in particular?
AYA: For me, “here” means in America, and I feel like my work hasn't been recognized and acknowledged in America at the level that it is in Asia and in Southeast Asia. Over there, I'm considered an established artist, but here, people just didn't really know or understand the scope and scale of my work.

It's also that people here don't pay attention to other parts of the art world. So I think it's a real moment for Southeast Asian diasporic artists who are working across borders, and are interdisciplinary. I don't think they've ever shown an artist that really, truly embodies that and has that practice of literally going back and forth to Southeast Asia, to Cambodia, to not only implement and actualize these projects, but bring it back here and then bring it back over there. I'm doing this “back and forth-ness” intentionally, and also because those are my homes. It's really important for the audience to see the complexity of somebody like myself who's doing this kind of contemporary work.

It’s about showing a more contemporary image of Cambodia and of Cambodians who embrace contemporary art. People in Cambodia who are artists are so resourceful, and I think that people don't know that.

AA: What misconceptions do you think a lot of Americans have of Cambodians?
AYA: It's “temples and trauma.” They have this global impression of Cambodia as a country that is suffering, not only under dictatorship, but also under the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge. And then we have these glorious temples that all the tourists flock to.

So it’s about showing a more contemporary image of Cambodia and of Cambodians who embrace contemporary art. People in Cambodia who are artists are so resourceful, and I think that people don't know that. So part of this work is to show that there are some pretty interesting things happening, and you can be a performance artist in this country and do it in a way that is inclusive, and also inquisitive.

A person wearing a wet blood-red cloak stands in a body of water. Only their hands are visible from the cloak.

Anida Yoeu Ali as "The Red Chador."

Courtesy of Seattle Art Museum Communications

AA: How do you think this work will be received in (the United States)?
AYA: I don't know how some of the more politically charged works, which are really around “The Red Chador,” will be received. I'm not downplaying what happened to “The Red Chador’s” disappearance. It's so contentious to say anything about Israel and Palestine, and I hope that that doesn't interfere with this work. Just for me to say that it disappeared in Tel Aviv, that's fact. That’s not me trying to be negative about a country.

I'm most interested in reaching the audiences who might see a little bit of their story in here or a reflection of themselves, or the possibility to dream to do some of this work and be recognized in an institution. Maybe there is a Muslim girl or Asian American girl who looks at this and says, “Oh my gosh, she's Asian American,” or “She's Muslim,” or “She's a mother.” They may see that you can still do this work, and you can still create on this level.

AA: In your exhibit, it states that 65 percent of the Cambodian population is under 30, which is a common demographic trend in a lot of places where people have experienced a lot of violence.
AYA: Yeah, and that also is why the contemporary culture has such energy in these places, in particular in Southeast Asia. Whether you go to Saigon or Bangkok or Phnom Penh, that energy is just so alive. And again, they're resourceful, they have hopes, and they have the energy to make things happen. It's very exciting.

That's why I sculpted the bug for example, so kids can run underneath it. Hopefully they don't run into it or anything, you’re not supposed to touch it, but you should be able to look around and be immersed in it. And then for kids to see other kids in the photographs and videos. I think that is going to help kids understand that you can be a part of contemporary art.

A woman in an orange worm costume touches foreheads with a woman crouching down.

Anida Yoeu Ali connects with someone during a performance as "The Buddhist Bug."

Courtesy of Seattle Art Museum Communications

AA: A lot of artists who have immigrated or fled their home countries address the theme of identity fragmentation, but “The Buddhist Bug” seems to express more of a “stretching” across space.
AYA: Yes, I did that intentionally. We are always told that fragmentation is—because we have to split our Asian-ness or our American-ness, our bicultural identities—that we have to be more whole. What I'm teasing out is what I call that diasporic dilemma. And what I've figured out for myself is that the in-between space and the working in fragmentation is how I'm whole. It's not pejorative, it's actually something that makes you even more inspired, motivates you to do even more work that's meaningful. And so with the Bug, she is created in segments because it was impossible to build her as a whole, but she comes together to connect two distant points.

So that distance is a bridge, a tunnel and a creature that connects the idea that we can be over here and over there. And do this in-between thing, as mediated by this creature that I've created that, to me formalistically, is what she's meant to be, and that's why she can expand, but she can also coil if the space requires that she become smaller.

AA: We often think of bugs as undesirable, but this creature doesn’t see herself that way, does she?
AYA: Right. I'm playing with all that, knowing that of course, she's an odd creature and everybody's going to look and gawk. But for the bug itself, she doesn't realize that she's odd and foreign. For her, she's the perfect size for every situation. She's malleable. She's adjusting to the spiral staircase. She's adjusting to the boat on the orange river. She is that flexible because she thinks that she fits perfectly and she belongs. It's everybody else who’s looking at her as if she is foreign and extraterrestrial and maybe not belonging there. So I'm playing with all that ambiguity. The classroom photo with the kids is the best one where she really thinks she's a student in that classroom and those kids don't mind. Those kids are like, “This is my classmate.”

Seven figures walk in full-body cloaks cross a city street at 102 Avenue, each of them in a color of the rainbow.

"The Red Chador" and its posse of rainbow companions on Abbey Road in London.

Courtesy of Seattle Art Museum Communications

AA: You mentioned that you got the idea for the tunnel when your daughter was very young and played with a similar looking tunnel. How has being a parent of three influenced you as an artist?
I'm always interested in ways of tricking people into these complicated conversations and using humor and color. People, when they know that it's about religion and politics, they avoid it, but I think that when you massage them into it, it feels better. It warms them into the conversation. So that definitely is influenced by kids. We think we shouldn't tell them things, but they actually are so much more open than adults.

AA: You’ve said your work is about joy and the absurd. What is the role of these concepts in today’s world?
AYA: Humor gets us through a lot. I experienced that in the pandemic. Everybody's interested in trying to find moments of joy in this daunting situation. But also, in the rise of populist figures like Trump and other world leaders on that swing to an ultra-right wing, conservative politics. We need  humor, and we need joy, and we need the ability to laugh at ourselves and go towards the ridiculous sometimes.

I feel like the absurdity is of course, the Bug itself in that series. But the presence of the Bug,there's a surrealism in it and absurdity. Yeah, this tubular structure with a woman's face and a pair of legs sticking out in a classroom or on a spiral staircase. It is ridiculous, and you should be looking at it with that lens. Like, what is it? What crazy artist is doing this? And then there's “The Red Chador,” where the absurdity there is in the different installations. And the French themselves were so embracing of that work and wanting to engage in conversation.

Published on February 6, 2024

Words by Annie Midori Atherton

Annie Midori Atherton is a writer, editor, and parent living in Seattle, Washington. She covers a variety of topics including parenting, work, and entertainment, and is particularly interested in the way culture and media influence our understanding of ourselves and relationships.