A tuk-tuk is consumed by a giant orange fabric tube, a cross between an earthworm and a giant Slinky. At its head pops out a female face, looking searchingly ahead, at the tail end are her bare feet.
The oddly humorous image, created by performance artist Anida Yoeu Ali, 39, is taken from a series of adventures embarked upon by the artist’s larger-than-life insect character, the Buddhist Bug.
Instinctive and curious, with a penchant for wrapping her metres-long coil over and around staircases, restaurant tables and forest floors, the Buddhist Bug also harbours a deeper quest: a place among two different religions.
Like her Diaspora creator, the oversized bug is navigating dual Cambodian Muslim-Buddhist worlds, in a very public way. With the saffron-orange body of a Buddhist monk and the wrapped head reminiscent of an Islamic hijab, the Buddhist Bug turns up at pre-arranged spots in streets, villages and eating venues, to move, interact and delight with everyday audiences.
For years, the performances have been captured on film by Ali’s spouse and Studio Revolt collaborator Masahiro Sugano. Tomorrow, a film will be on show, with eight photographs, as part of the Buddhist Bug Project, a new exhibition at Java Café and Art gallery. The Bug itself will also unfurl for a one-off opening night performance.
“When I was growing up [in the United States] we were very different from Cambodian Buddhists,” says Ali, “My parents were interested in being around Pakistani [and other] Muslim communities.”
When she returned to Cambodia to live permanently in 2011, the spoken word and performance artist was struck by what she calls the “diasporic dilemma” experienced by many returned and second generation Cambodians. On top of these identity issues Ali also struggled with an all-encompassing religion and culture which she was not a part of.
With a multi-ethnic background including ethnic Cham, Cambodian and Malaysian, Ali’s Muslim family arrived inthe US during the Khmer Rouge period as one of “an extremely small community”.
“I am not [a practising Muslim], but I feel that Islam to me is a very important cultural identifier. Because my father, like so many other Cham, was almost annihilated during the Khmer Rouge. It’s also because the
Islam presented [in the media] after 9/11 is so different to what I have known … I want to debunk that … Whether or not I practise Islam – I carry it in my heart regardless … It transcends.”
Ali has explored identity and disjuncture in her work for many years, but it was buying her children a piece of tube-like play equipment that gave her the inspiration for the spiralling bug costume, which she had made in a hoop-like concentric circle and “lugged around” for two years.
“She is so many things – a hybrid, a creature that exists. She can be a tunnel, she can be a bridge.”
Her role – if she has one – is also more literal. She bugs. She bugs her creator, at least, with annoying questions.
“She’s working on her Buddhism: that moment of trying to be in the present moment but maybe transcend – but at the same time she’s such a quirky character.”
When the project went to a Cham fishing village in Phnom Penh displaced by a development the resulting work did transcend performance – reaching out to community members, who were fascinated by the slow-moving costumed character.
Did they understand what the performance was about?
“I never have an answer to that,” Ali says. “All I know is that they had an experience. I don’t know if we should evaluate it with ‘understanding’. Like all performance art, it is the experience. It takes the work out outside of the white cube [of the art gallery].”
An artist talk by Ania will also take place this Sunday, March 3, at 6pm at Java Café.