In the thick of a typical lunch rush upstairs at Tonle Bassac’s Java Café, Anida Yoeu Ali takes a half-hour respite from a frantic week.
At various points inside are the emerging signs of the room’s impending transformation: bare mannequins, a smattering of test prints, and the frenzied air of creative tension that always accompanies an impending deadline.
Ali, the Cambodia-born, Chicago-raised co-founder of local arts collaborative Studio Revolt, is capping off her association with the long-standing Phnom Penh creative hub with one of her most ambitious projects to date.
Following a three-month stint as JavaArts’ inaugural artist-in-residence, Ali tonight launches The Space Between Inside/Outside, a trove of lush panoramic photography, sculpture and installations.
Underpinning the exhibition is a series of images by local photographer and regular Studio Revolt collaborator Vinh Dao.
Set against the ruins of Boeung Kak, dilapidated shopfronts in Stung Meanchey and a pastoral field on the road to Takeo, each depicts Ali shrouded in a pair of flamboyant fabrics that will also be used to gild the café’s walls for the duration of the exhibition.
One particularly striking picture shows the artist sitting on an incongruously oversized replica of the ubiquitous plastic stools of Cambodia’s street eateries, brandishing a ream of red fabric against a backdrop of wet-season greenery.
A strong wind carries the fabric into the air and looks set to envelop the horizon.
When she reviewed the shot, Ali realised she and her team had unwittingly recreated the aesthetic of the Naga serpent from Hindu and Buddhist mythology.
As Ali had recently concluded a Fulbright scholarship researching Cambodian creation stories, it was a vindication of her fondness for incorporating sudden, spontaneous reactions to external elements in her work.
“I love performance because it’s very much about catching the moment within the boundaries I create for the composition,” she says.
“Hearing my photographer react – saying ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s cool, oh my God!’ – that, to me, is a huge part of the process.
“This is a solo show, it’s my idea, my concepts, I’m the instigator, conceiver and whatever else, but it takes a whole lot of people to make my ideas into reality.
“That’s part of the artistic joy, because everybody involved is invested.”
Ali, who plans to continue her endeavours in Phnom Penh indefinitely, says the contemporary art and performance scene emerging in Cambodia has been a rich font of inspiration for her work.
“It’s almost like I was just sketching things in Chicago.The work I was doing was just tiny sketches to what is actually realised here,” Ali says. “I feel like work is varied here. I enjoy more of the performance work and some of the installation work that’s been done, and I feel like I’m responding to the energy that drives the work here.”
The Space Between Inside/Outside opens tonight at 6pm at Java Café and Gallery, #56 Sihanouk Blvd, Phnom Penh, and will run until August 5.
To contact the reporter on this story: Sean Gleeson at [email protected]