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In art show, scarlet woman unravels diaspora dilemma

19 Red Naga Woman

‘Red Naga Woman’ by mixed-media artist Anida Yoeu Ali. Photograph: Scott Howes/Phnom Penh Post

It was halfway through last year and the tempestuous and unpredictable rainy season was in full swing: grey, clouds thundered across Phnom Penh and, in a rice field on the fringes of the city, gusts of wind sent ripples through blades of emerald grass – ideal weather conditions for an artists’ photo shoot, it so happened.

Mixed-media artist and spoken word poet Anida Yoeu Ali was perched precariously on an oversized red stool, the metres-long, blood red cape attached to her dress billowing out over the grass, ballooning into a riot of shapes. Then she fell off, prompting the director and crew to wade through to help the 39-year-old artist as she laughed, muddied in the wet field.

Moments after she climbed back onto the stool, the wind picked up again and Ali’s cape mushroomed into a spectacular serpent – they had their shot, part of a collection of images, video and live performances and sculptures that formed her 2012 Java Arts residency exhibition, The space between inside/outside.

An extension of that exhibition, featuring the serpent in the form of an abstract sculpture named ‘Red Naga Woman’, opened last Thursday at the Intercontinental Insider Gallery.

The exhibition, Enter, which also featured previously unseen panoramic stills and one other sculpture named ‘Black and white vertigo’, marked a change for the year-old gallery, which until now has mainly exhibited wall bound, canvas paintings.

Due to the hotel’s tighter security regulations, the two abstract sculptures, which were suspended from the ceiling in previous exhibitions, are fastened to the wall in Enter.

“That’s the beauty of installation: it is so site specific, you can manipulate it. I have the chance to be creative all over again, to re-sculpt.”

The installations stand alongside panoramic images of her performances in the dresses. Underlying the whole show is the image of the two women.

In one of the photographs, and a video, Ali is seen swathed in black and white striped fabric, writhing in an ethereal dance in another rice field.

“The rice field is such a Cambodian image, especially in the diaspora imagination – I have to tease that out,” she said.

The Cambodian-born, American-raised Ali said when she returned to the Kingdom to live in 2011, she was struck with the “diasporic dilemma”.

“I’m forever looking at the difference between urban and rural spaces . . . juxtaposing the two,” she said.

In other photographs, the red naga’s scarlet dress contrasts dramatically with a variety of everyday Cambodian imagery – a coconut stand, a tangle of powerlines, a crumbling construction site and a roadside restaurant.

One of the collection’s most powerful, of the red naga curled under her stool in the Boeung Kak lake eviction site, is laden with symbols and signs: a CPP poster, a deserted street, a web of power lines and her cape moulded to form a scarlet trickle of blood.

“I guess it’s a picture I’m trying to get into people’s head . . . a neighbourhood block that is about to go through some rapid changes . . . right next to it you see the development and destruction of it , but there’s something still detailed and beautiful about this space.

“She [the red naga] is everything to do with my diasporic need to find beauty in what is supposed to be my homeland which is going through so much rapid urbanisation and progress  . . .”

Ali took part in the recent New York arts festival Season of Cambodia, as a curator for its Legacy of Now panel, addressing diaporica issues such as identity.

She thought elements of the “diasporic dilemma” were missing and created several projects of her own to coincide with the festival. An exhibition at Topaz Arts, 1975, featured the work of her and fellow diaspora artists Amy Lee Sanford and LinDa Saphan, and Generation Return: Version 1.5, with Cambodian-American chanteuse Bochan, rapper PracH and a video performance from Kosal Khiev gave a voice to the issue of deportation.

“I believed [addressing these themes] couldn’t be done in one panel . . . the exiles were missing! This is one of the most destructive forces within the American Cambodian community . . . nearly every single family is affected . . . I thought it was ridiculous for us not to talk about this while the festival was happening. Just as much as [SOC] was focussed on beauty and these high aesthetics . . . they’re forgetting about important issues – the festival was happening in New York, in the Bronx, the birthplace of hip hop, something incredibly important for this group.”

Ali said what had been most meaningful about her New York trip was a coalition that formed after one performance, the Khmer American Freedom Network, that would campaign specifically on this issue.

Enter runs until June 30 at the InterContinental’s Insider Gallery.

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