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On International Women’s Day, an artist’s studio revolt

TOMORROW is International Women’s Day, a worldwide celebration honouring women’s achievements.

In Cambodia, it is a national holiday, allowing women to gather together and spend time with one another.

Growing up, I looked up to role models such as Mother Teresa, Princess Diana and Oprah for their commitment to helping the most vulnerable and less fortunate.

Today, there are thousands of inspiring women to look up to as role models, and having to juggle both family and a career is a gift of love. Anida Yoeu Ali, an innovator and artist, has been able to balance family and work in the US and now in Cambodia.

I was invited to attend her current exhibition, the Buddhist Bug Project, created by “collaborative media lab” Studio Revolt, founded by Ali and her filmmaker husband, Masahiro Sugano. Based in Phnom Penh, Studio Revolt is an independent artist-run space that produces films, videos, installations and performance projects. The Buddhist Bug Project is inspired by two things: the artist’s inability to reconcile her fascination with Buddhism and her upbringing as a Muslim woman, and an attempt to capture a quickly changing Cambodian urban and rural landscape.

“I have frequently explored issues around spiritual turmoil,” Ali said.

The Buddhist bug is a saffron-coloured creature that can span the length of a 30-metre bridge or coil into a small orange ball.

The bug’s representation references Buddhist and Muslim aesthetics, in shape and colour. The Buddhist bug aims to question and challenge the notion of identity expressed through ways of life, religion, and culture.

“It is important for us to explore our roots and heritage and understand who we are. The project is a culmination of my thematic interest in hybridity, transcendence and otherness. Through an interdisciplinary approach, my work maps new political and spiritual landscapes.”

Ali is a  first-generation Muslim Khmer woman born in Cambodia and raised in Chicago, Illinois. With her multicultural background, Ali has experienced hate and intolerance in the US, particularly after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.

“My graduate thesis work,  titled 1700% Project, exposed the issue of hate crimes against Muslims post 9/11. [It] was vandalised at a public gallery space,” said Ali.

“It is the only student work in the school’s long history to have ever been defaced. The criminals were never found, and the school and city did little to pursue the case. The work is a politically charged piece and I believe the perpetrators couldn’t stand the political power behind the work.”

After residing for more than 30 years in the US, Ali returned to Cambodia in 2010 as part of her 2011 US Fulbright fellowship. Next month, Ali will embark on a Studio Revolt tour around the US,  Generation Return: Art + Justice Post-Genocide & Post-9/11, presenting her works about contemporary justice and its effects on the Cambodian-American experience.

Ali has inspired us with her creative and artistic talents, and is an example of what International Women’s Day is really about: working together to achieve justice, peace and equality for all.

The Buddhist Bug Project exhibition runs until April 7 at Java Gallery (upstairs). It is exhibited online at The Philanthropic Museum website: www.thephilanthropicmuseum.org.

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