Tatler Hong Kong
Art’s New Road Map
WE MEET Anida Ali, THE TALENTED YOUNG KHMER ARTIST WHO SHOOK UP THIS YEAR’S SOVEREIGN ASIAN ART PRIZE
Anida Ali was born in Battambang, Cambodia, on the eve of the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. During the years she was learning to walk, Pol Pot’s communist regime implemented brutal measures to purge the nation of religion, foreign influences and intellectuals. The population was forced into agricultural labour and millions starved or were executed on account of their piety or education.
As practising Khmer Muslims, Ali’s parents feared for their lives. In 1979 her family fled to the US and settled in Chicago as refugees. “My parents left Cambodia thinking they were never going to be able to return. They didn’t even think we would need the Khmer language. That is how severe a move it was. They thought there was no need to teach us about our culture because we were in America now; this was our new life and our new home. The only solution was assimilation,” says the 40-year-old artist.
Assimilate she did. Emphatic, expressive and eloquent, Ali’s dense American accent betrays no trace of her diasporic upbringing. She graduated from the University of Illinois with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, then completed a Master of Fine Arts at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. But she always viewed her life in the West through the lens of a refugee, and an unshakeable preoccupation with her roots penetrated her work. In 2011, Ali was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to work as an artist in Phnom Penh and returned, for the first time, to the nation of her birth.
Having successfully become an American, she was now an outsider in her native country. “When I returned to Cambodia in a time of peace I was not equipped with the cultural tools to properly relate and reintegrate,” says Ali. She couldn’t communicate, and though ethnically Khmer, she had little grasp of local customs and traditions. As a Muslim, she found herself part of a religious minority in a land where 98 per cent of the population identifies as Buddhist. Nor was there a contemporary art scene in which she could immerse herself. Although a modern art movement had flourished in Cambodia from the 1940s, the creative community was razed in the 1970s. The little art that surfaced in the following decades—work by artists such as Vann Nath, who painted vivid scenes of torture and persecution—was preoccupied with the pain of the recent past, a past Ali really only knew second-hand.
She used this cultural dislocation as fuel for art. Her work, which spans performance, photography, video and installations, explores the spiritual and political collisions of a hybrid transnational identity. The Buddhist Bug Project— a series of performances captured in photographs—presents Ali in a retractable saffron tube, snaking incongruously through urban Cambodian streetscapes. “She’s engulfed in saffron, which references the robes of Buddhist monks. But when you take a closer look, you can see she is wearing a hijab, adhering to the modesty code of Islamic tradition,” says the artist. “The fabric that encompasses her can easily fold up and collapse. This portable shell alludes to the refugee experience—arriving in a place with nothing but the clothes on your back, and the idea of home being elusive.”
Ali wasn’t the only Cambodian artist to be
To be a contemporary artist in Cambodia right now is something very new. Across Indochina there aren’t many artists who are very active in the contemporary art scene. Anida’s work stood out because she’s female and because she’s Cambodian
recognised in this year’s Sovereign Asian Art Prize. The annual competition, founded in Hong Kong in 2003 and backed by the Sovereign Art Foundation, seeks to expose and boost mid-career Asian artists. Khvay Samnang, another Khmer performance artist, had his photographic work Human Nature shortlisted, and there were numerous Indochinese artists, including Vietnamese performance artist Phan Quang, Singaporean Eugene Soh and Thailand’s Dusadee Huntrakul, among the finalists.
“To be a contemporary artist in Cambodia right now is something very new,” says Emi Eu, director of the Singapore Tyler Print Institute. Eu, who sits on the selection committee for Art Basel in Hong Kong, was one of a handful of Asia-based contemporary art minds that chose Ali as the winner of the regional art competition this year. “Across Indochina there aren’t many artists who are very active in the contemporary art scene. I think Anida’s work really stood out because she’s female, and because she’s Cambodian.”
Auction houses and international art institutions have been seduced by Cambodian art over the past few years. Works by sculptor Sopheap Pich have been acquired by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum. The artist, who works with burlap, beeswax and rattan, was also the first Cambodian to be given a solo show at the prestigious Documenta festival in Kassel, Germany, in 2012. Younger artists, such as Samnang, Tith Kanitha, Chov Theanly, Sokuntevy Oeur, Than Sok and Chan Dany, are also forging names for themselves in the world’s art capitals and attaining representation by established galleries.
Why is interest growing? Fumio Nanjo, director of Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, points to the region’s economic rise. “As we know, art often flourishes in line with the economy. Cambodia is emerging after Vietnam, and the countries are now more exposed to the contemporaneity and flow of information. Young artists have started to reflect their nations’ situations with critical eyes.”
Ali is doing her part to nurture this new generation of Cambodian artists. In 2011 she set up Studio Revolt in Phnom Penh, an independent, artist-run media lab where creative minds can collaborate on performance, video, photography and installation art. Through this, Ali intends to shape a new art movement that frees the Cambodian imagination and consciousness from its fixation on war and poverty.
“We are surprising the rest of the world by saying we are done with the Khmer Rouge. We know it will continue to inform some of the things we do in the future, but we don’t want to create art that continually puts us in the past,” she says. “This is a real moment of intersection for contemporary artists in Cambodia. We are moving the conversation forward to the present moment, which, for us, is about urbanisation, globalisation and experimentation. It is really exciting to think we are finally achieving a kind of critical mass within the contemporary art scene, and it’s prompting people to take notice.”
The Wall Street Journal estimated in 2013 that there were less than 50 working artists in Cambodia out of a population of 14 million. It may be an exciting moment for Khmer creativity, but it’s still vastly challenging to survive as an artist. “The resources are so limited, there is no institutional support for the arts and very, very little financial government backing,” says Ali. “The fact that local
artists persevere is testament to the resilience of the Cambodian people and our heritage of creativity— dance and music and the arts is in our blood and I don’t see why this can’t translate to contemporary and performance art.”
Eu believes Ali’s winning of the Sovereign Asian Art Prize will have a major impact on the way the Cambodian government, and indeed other Southeast Asian governments, see and understand their arts communities. “Often governments that are very new to contemporary art are not supportive because they simply don’t know anything about it,” says Eu. “External validation is critical, especially in places in Southeast Asia where contemporary art is a new thing. It has to start from the outside in.”