Global Agitator: An Interview with Anida Yoeu Ali

Since the debut of Hybrid Skin, Mythical Presence in January, visitors to the Seattle Asian Art Museum have been enthralled by Anida Yoeu Ali’s dynamic performance-based artworks. Now, we speak with the Tacoma-based international artist with the activation of The Buddhist Bug behind her and the activation of The Red Chador taking place on Saturday, June 1.


SAM: Something that connects The Buddhist Bug and The Red Chador is their incredible visual impact that sparks immediate curiosity and delight: the humor and vivid color of the bug and the entrancing sequins of the chadors in all colors of the rainbow. Is this an artistic strategy?

ANIDA YOEU ALI: I know people in general don’t expect to see my specific Asiatic face, with its stoic countenance—which I have inherited from my mother and grandmother—as the visage of The Buddhist Bug or The Red Chador. I’m interested in hypervisibility and an acknowledgement of my presence. I tend to place my body in colors that evoke some kind of joy and pleasure or an infusion of “fabulousness.” For me, performance allows for a magic of reinventing the self and projecting a larger-than-life persona that isn’t imprisoned by oppressive representations. There’s an awareness of the spectacle and ultimately a power in reclaiming the gaze, which has trapped and dehumanized so many of us and our communities.

SAM: You’ve said that the sculptural garments are “artifacts” when not being performed. Tell us about the exhibition space experience you’ve hoped to create for visitors to the museum.

ALI: Many of my installations, whether wearable garments or otherwise, require activation in which the live body completes the artwork. My art form is performance-installation where meters and meters of textile act as skin, as a way for the surface of my body to extend into public spaces, and as a metaphoric device for stories to spread across an expanse. But those stories aren’t literal or spoken; they are experienced through performances and encounters. The audience will need to do the hard work of figuring out what all this might mean to them: personally, politically, and/or spiritually.

I want visitors to pay attention to the encounter they are having with the colors on the walls, the colors of the textile, the highlighted text quotations, the artifacts of performance through exhibited videos, photographs, and installations. In the end, visitors will feel something and they might even be provoked.

SAM: It turns out that The Buddhist Bug and The Red Chador have both been performed at least 16 times. What new discoveries have you made as you’ve enacted the works at different times and places around the world?

ALI: As a performance artist, I put my body into public spaces and take on people’s reactions and responses. If my work provokes, then that means people are not only thinking but they are feeling. I create out of feelings and I want others to feel as well. With every live performance, my body is so publicly accessible that I must engage in a lot of visualization and meditative activities in preparation for a worst-case-scenario situation. However, what grounds me is knowing that someone will be positively affected, whether it’s the ability to bring warmth and smiles to them for a brief moment or offering something unexpected that they will think about beyond the live moment. For me, in every location around the world children and youth have responded with the most joy, curiosity, and genuine wonder. Children have disarmed rare situations in which adult reactions have been alarming or hurtful.

SAM: And what are you excited about for the upcoming performance of The Red Chador on June 1?

ALI: Because my works are more known outside of the US context, I am excited to finally bring this epic performance to the Seattle area. There’s a freedom I feel with performing in public spaces and enacting fantastical/mythical heroines that’s extremely powerful and necessary. All I want to do is to be able to offer people inside and outside my communities an opportunity to witness, engage, and experience a glimpse of the world that I have worked so rigorously to hone.

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

This article first appeared in the February through May 2024 edition of SAM Magazine and has been edited for our online readers. Become a SAM member today to receive our quarterly magazine delivered directly to your mailbox and other exclusive member perks!

Photos: Chloe Collyer & Alborz Kamalizad.

Muse/News: Heroic Art, Eco-Feminist Trash, and Harlem at the Met

SAM News

Anida Yoeu Ali: Hybrid Skin, Mythical Presence is now on view at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. For NW Asian Weekly, Kai Curry highlights Ali’s experiences bringing sculptural garments to life in real-world contexts.

“As a society, we don’t talk enough about the heroism of artists. Of what an artist like Ali risks in order to ask the hard questions—and to force the public to ask them as well. Strip searches, theft, violence…These interactions, though surreal, are real. They give the artist and the audience insight into who the artist is—but also into who we are.”

Via Karen Ho for ARTnews: “A Vast Gift of Calder Sculptures Could Change the Seattle Art Museum—and the Surrounding City—Forever.”

Kids at home? Yulia Fiala for Seattle’s Child has you covered with “21 fun things to do for midwinter break”—including a visit to Calder: In Motion, The Shirley Family Collection.

Local News

KING5 Evening interviews artist Juliana Kang Robinson about her special edition Seattle Kraken logo created for Lunar New Year. Robinson is a teaching artist with SAM, and you can also see her work on the crosswalk art at First and University.

Via Jadenne Radoc Cabahug for Crosscut: “From 2020 to now: 4 Seattle Black activists reflect on their work.”

In the latest edition of “Artists to Know,” The Seattle Times’ Margo Vansynghel profiles Marita Dingus and her sculptures made of discarded materials. Her work is in SAM’s collection.

“Saving these materials from the landfill isn’t just a means to a waste-reducing end: Dingus considers herself an environmental, feminist artist steeped in African American art traditions and a belief in ecological and racial justice.”

Inter/National News

Artnet’s Brian Boucher on a witty gesture rendered in an asparagus stalk by Édouard Manet. 

Via Holland Cotter of The New York Times: “The Met Aims to Get Harlem Right, the Second Time Around.”

“The museum isn’t framing the show as an institutional correction, though how can it be viewed otherwise? At the same time, it’s more than just that. It’s the start — or could be — in moving a still-neglected art history out of the wings and onto the main stage.”

And Finally

“The dog who deserves an Oscar.”

– Rachel Eggers, SAM Associate Director of Public Relations

Photo: Abbey Road, The Red Chador: Genesis I, Main St. & 102nd Ave, Bellevue, Washington, USA, 2021, Anida Yoeu Ali, Cambodian American, b. 1974, archival inkjet print, Image courtesy of the artist, © Studio Revolt, photo: Dylan Maddux.

Object of the Week: As One III & IX

Historically, museums have been spaces of hegemony. My practice has often been about finding space for critique within that history. As an artist I believe that my role in museums can be to challenge our understanding of how museums and their powers operate.

– Brendan Fernandes

Many reading this post might recall the 2015 exhibition Disguise: Masks and Global African Art, co-curated by SAM’s curator of African and Oceanic Art, Pam McClusky, and Seattle-based curator Erika Dalya Massaquoi. The show traveled to the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles, and later on to the Brooklyn Museum in New York. Living in neither Seattle, Los Angeles, or Brooklyn at the time, I missed this celebrated show. However, luckily for me and others who missed it, there is a trove of reviews, writings, videos, images, and responses to the exhibition that continue to bring its resonant ideas and artists to life, five years later.

Such exhibition research provides a necessary foundation for contextualizing two recent acquisitions by Brendan Fernandes––photographs titled As One III and As One IX––who was one of twenty-five artists included in Disguise. Born in Nairobi, Kenya to a Goan, Indian family who later immigrated to Toronto, Canada, Fernandes is a truly transnational artist. Working at the intersection of dance and visual art, his work seeks to push against notions of a fixed or essential identity. Once a dancer himself, his current body of work uses movement and choreography (among other mediums) to examine issues of cultural displacement, migration, labor, and queer subjectivity.

For the video As One in Disguise––a precursor to As One III and As One IX––Fernandes selected masks from SAM’s collection and staged compositions in collaboration with the Pacific Northwest Ballet, as well as a live performance with Etienne Cakpo. He writes, “The Ballet and the Museum are pivots of Western culture that have greatly shaped our image of what counts as culture. When first placed in French museums, African culture was pictured as ‘other’––primitive, exotic, uncivilized, etc. . . . Using gestures derived from classical French ballet, two dancers address the masks with the formality and etiquette that is not how they have ever been approached before. Movements and bows in the French court were loaded with hierarchical order. Here they are offered to masks that observe these ritualized actions, but cannot dance themselves. Just as European countries like France removed masks and emptied out their meaning, these dancers now dance in a way that is deemed the epitome of elegance, but is also a representation of a power struggle.”[1]

As a direct extension of this work and line of thinking, As One III and As One IX were produced for a 2017 exhibition at the University of Buffalo Art Gallery, titled The Language of Objects. The conceit of the show was to push against Adorno’s claim that museums and mausoleums are innately connected and that, once objects enter a museum, they are removed from culture and, neutralized, cannot accrue new meanings. Fernandes deftly upends this notion, working with Lauren Post and Grayson Davis of the American Ballet Theater to animate and complicate the objects from the University of Buffalo collection.

Fernandes’s museological interventions facilitate important conversations surrounding cultural hegemony and colonial history, both within and outside of museum walls. Importantly, they also point to Fernandes’s aspirations for institutions such as SAM and the communities they serve. To quote once more from the artist, “There is a sense that as our world becomes increasingly privatized and profit-driven, and as artists make the ties between profit and violence more apparent, that [museums and galleries] should use their resources and influence to push back. I believe that one way these spaces can do this is to create space for artists and audiences to experience and experiment with new forms of agency and to imagine what future forms of freedom might look like. I think this is an important and political function of museums and galleries: imagining future freedoms, imagining future ways to show and consider art.”[2]

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate

Images: As One IX, 2017, Brendan Fernandes (Canadian, born Kenya), 1979, digital print, 34 x 48 in., Gift of Christopher and Alida Latham, 2019.27.2 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. As One III, 2017, Brendan Fernandes (Canadian, born Kenya), 1979, digital print, 34 x 48 in., Gift of Christopher and Alida Latham, 2019.27.1 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. Installation view of As One, 2015, Brendan Fernandes, Canadian, born Kenya, 1979, in the exhibition Disguise: Masks and Global African Art, June 18–Sept. 7, 2015, photo: Nathaniel Wilson. Brendan Fernandes on June 14, 2020, at the Drag March for Change in Chicago. Photo: Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune.
[1] Brendan Fernandes, Disguise: Masks and Global African Art label.
[2] “Artist Brendan Fernandes On the Dance Floor as a Space for Resistance and Resilience.” Interview with Saisha Grayson, Smithsonian American Art Museum, June 6, 2019, https://americanart.si.edu/blog/artist-brendan-fernandes-dance-floor-space-resistance-and-resilience.
SAMBlog