Award-winning artist Anida Yoeu Ali, who was born in Battambang and raised in Chicago, talks about her celebrated series, the Buddhist Bug, and Cambodia’s captivating art scene
What were your reasons for coming back to Cambodia?
I returned for the first time in 2004 after nearly 25 years in Chicago. I came back as an invited artist to participate in the Mekong Project Artist Residency, which brought together 14 artists from Southeast Asia and two diasporic artists from the US to exchange thoughts, skills, artistry and create cross-cultural connections and new regional networks. This return and immersion amongst artists was the best way for me to experience a contemporary Cambodia that would inspire me to make more trips and eventually relocate there in 2011.
What messages were you trying to get across in the Buddhist Bug project?
There is no singular message. I created the work from both reality and imagination, in which transnational identities and the hybrid use of religious aesthetics could exist simultaneously.
I wanted ‘the bug’ to draw people into conversation about who she/he is, what she/he is and why she/he exists. The humour within the work is intentionally used as a way to open and invite people into conversations about otherness, religious identities and ultimately tolerance and acceptance.
You’ve spoken about your “spiritual turmoil between Islam and Buddhism”. Can you expand on this?
I was born and raised Muslim. I was born in Battambang and left in 1979 when
I was only five years old. My ancestry is mixed: Thai, Malay, Khmer and Cham. My family has carried Islamic tradition for generations and when they were forced to leave Cambodia for America, it was critical for them to preserve our Cambodian Muslim heritage. During the Khmer Rouge period Muslims were targeted in the genocide.
In my childhood, I spent more time amongst Muslims of varying ethnicities than with Khmer people. Islam has always been part of me and continues to shape me, although I am much more critical of the religion as an institution.
Upon returning to Southeast Asia, I would grow to have a fascination with Buddhism. Cambodian culture, rituals, and even artistic practices are deeply linked to Buddhism. The turmoil I speak of is my own spiritual turmoil between the two religions – loving and appreciating various things from both religions, yet not practising either.
What is your relationship with Islam, and what do you make of the way it is
presented in the world today?
Being Muslim is a cultural and political identity. I am not devout, and I have serious questions about organised religion as a whole. I claim the identity as an homage to what my parents persevered [through] under the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, but also to challenge what the image of a Muslim woman can be, especially in the contemporary art world, where it feels taboo to celebrate any kind of identity that doesn’t feel universalised or abstracted. Over the past decade, I have found myself at a juncture where my spirituality is something beyond one particular religious identity. I use religious aesthetics in my works because it’s the vernacular I grew up with that continues to inform my political outlook on the world.
What do you make of the Cambodian art scene today?
It’s phenomenal that an ecology of the Cambodian arts scene has emerged despite no institutional support and no institutionalised educational programme in contemporary art fields. This speaks to the resilience of Khmer people and the inherent need for human beings to create, especially in a post-conflict nation such as Cambodia. To think that 90% of artists perished during the time of the Khmer Rouge is a haunting historical fact. But what is beautiful about this contemporary juncture is that artists are not trapped by history or just creating works that overtly reference the trauma and tragedies of the past.
We are at a critical time, a contemporary moment where art is addressing the present. Filmmakers are creating new stories rooted in both reality and imagination; artists are becoming more daring in subject matter and experimental in their medium. My biggest wish is that we work to foster local participation and appreciation for contemporary Khmer arts, from cultivating the audience for contemporary art to creating funding opportunities to sustain artists and cultural workers.
Do you have any favourite Cambodian artists?
Vann Nath, Vann Molyvann, Rithy Panh and Sophiline Cheam Shapiro are artists who have paved the way for so many of us. Without their contributions, the Cambodian arts scene would not be very exciting, nor would it have captured the world’s attention. Their works are renowned and have shifted the global perception of Cambodia from one of destruction to one of creation. Vann Nath [one of the few survivors of the Khmer Rouge prison, S-21] is no longer with us, but what he has left behind should be a national treasure housed in Cambodia’s greatest art museums. His paintings are historical testimonies to the price of surviving and the beauty of resilience.
Do you think your artwork provokes certain people in Cambodia?
Art can provoke as much as it can offer people a space to reflect on beauty. All of it offers truths. I’m not interested in provoking people in Cambodia towards political action; I am interested in provoking people in Cambodia to think deeper beyond the literal and the surface. Contemporary art, especially performance works, offer people this kind of opportunity to engage – to momentarily think about what something could mean and where there are no right answers.
You’ve called yourself a ‘global agitator’. Who or what are you trying to agitate, and why do you think it is important?
My work isn’t just in the realm of visual art. I am also a producer of films and participatory action with my collaborative media lab, Studio Revolt. Alongside my husband, filmmaker Masahiro Sugano, we tell stories that are often unconventional narratives, some of which are politically charged… I am a survivor of genocide; I cannot and will not live in a world where one does not speak out against injustices, war and inequalities.