Yemeni artist Alia Ali creates explosions with remote, futuristic installation at Arab American National Museum | Art Stories and Interviews | Detroit

click to enlarge Like a cross between a spaceship and an octopus has

Lent by the Arab American National Museum

As a cross between a spaceship and an octopus, the “al-Falaq” has 35-foot tentacles that extend through the museum’s floors, equipped with 81 computer screens. Ali describes it as a “museum within a museum.”

The new art installation at Dearborn’s Arab American National Museum, “al-Falaq,” defies any easy explanation. The sculpture’s 35-foot tentacles, which look like a cross between a spaceship and an octopus, wind their way across several floors of the museum with computer screens instead of suction cups. Its glowing “head” is suspended 20 feet above the ground in the museum’s atrium.

It really needs to be seen to be believed – and to be fully understood.

Its creator, Alia Ali, recently gave a tour of the installation – which she describes as a “museum within a museum” – when it made its debut last month.

Ali was born in 1985 in Yemen to a Yemeni father and a Bosnian mother, both linguists who spoke seven languages ​​between them, she says. In the 1990s, both of her ancestors’ homelands were ravaged by conflict, and in 1998, her family moved to Hamtramck on the Detroit subway station since her grandfather got a job at Chrysler.

“During this time, I remember thinking of this word ‘alien’, being an alien, and what it means to have extraterrestrial powers … to be of two cultures and to speak two languages,” says Ali, while he looks up at her. sculpture and added, “only to later find out that being a foreigner in this country legally only meant that I was subhuman.”

Ali ended up getting a scholarship to study art and political science at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. In 2014, a new civil war broke out in Yemen, and while Ali was studying for his master’s in art at the California Institute of Arts, dozens of Yemeni children were killed in a Saudi-led airstrike on August 9, 2018.

Ali says she was shocked by the incident and was confused by the conflict.

“After seeing all this, I started looking at Google,” she says. “I was pretty obsessed with looking at Google. When you type ‘Yemen’, I just wanted to see [was images] of suffering. “But Ali says she was also unable to find out much about Yemen by looking at books when its history was written by colonizers.

“When I started looking at books, I saw that the story was not the story that was written by us, because we come from an oral story,” she says. “I saw how language was manipulated. I never saw it as a tool. In fact, I saw it as a weapon, how one person can change a story, choose to delete something or choose to include something else or choose to interpret.”

These experiences resulted in the launch of what Ali describes as her Yemeni Futurism work, which she says is inspired by Afrofuturism, a sci-fi-inspired art movement that was once described by Detroit-born art curator Ingrid LaFleur as “a way to imagine possible futures through a black cultural lens. ”

“What inspired this was rage, pure rage,” says Ali, “to turn something that is toxic to me, toxic to my community, toxic to how we see each other, into something beautiful.”

She says with her art that she wants to create a new narrative for Yemeni people.

“If all Yemenites somehow exist in this kind of dystopian present constantly, only to cling to this beautiful nostalgia of only looking to the past, then the only thing that comes to you … is to look forward to a dystopian future. . ”

She adds: “Do not exist within the narrative that is set for you because you only exist in one place where you are defending something, you will only react to another. Start a whole new narrative completely.”

She describes “al-Falaq” as “a monument to Yemenis, first and foremost.” She also describes it as a bit of a critique of the Arab American National Museum; despite the fact that people of Yememi descent are one of the largest groups in metro Detroit’s Arab-American population, the museum had few objects representing Yemen, she says.

click to enlarge Artist Alia Ali gives a tour of her new installation

Lent by the Arab American National Museum

Artist Alia Ali gives a tour of her new installation “al-Falaq”, which fills the atrium of the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn.

Ali says the shape of the sculpture is inspired by spiders considered sacred in Islam because they are said to have spun a web across the entrance to a cave where Muhammad hid, protecting him from enemies, as well as the elusive glass octopus, a rarely seen creature seen in the depths of the Arabian Sea.

The outer space theme was also inspired by a 1997 news report that three Yemeni men had sued NASA, arguing that its Pathfinder spacecraft and Sojourner rover had intruded on the planet that rightfully belonged to them. The ancient Sabers, who lived thousands of years ago in modern Yemen, worshiped the planets.

“We inherited the planet from our ancestors 3,000 years ago,” they told the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Thawri.

The trial was laughed at in the West. “It’s a ridiculous claim,” CNN, NASA’s news director Brian Welch, reported after laughing. “Mars is a planet out in the solar system that is the property of all mankind, not two or three guys in Yemen.” CNN ended its brief report with a joke: “There was no word on whether they had paid the appropriate inheritance taxes.”

“People mocked and laughed, like who are these primitive people?” says Ali. “In fact, they are heroes, for what does it mean not only to occupy our country, but now there is also an occupation of our myths and dreams?”

“Does not exist within the narrative set for you … Start a whole new narrative completely.”

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The sculpture’s 81 tablet screens, placed across its tentacles, incorporate a range of references from Yemeni pop culture (the late singer Ofra Haza, a Yemeni-Jewish star known as “The Israeli Madonna,” is featured) as well as Arabic folklore (including creatures as jinner or spirit, represented by a glitch effect on the screens).

Perhaps controversially, the displays also include images of Yemeni artifacts taken from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

“These are items that are still considered looted,” Ali says, saying they were stolen from Yemen by British colonizers in the 20th century. “So this project is also about questioning the military-industrial complex, but also the museum-industrial complex, as it is a kind of hand in hand with war.”

The project was commissioned by AANM with support from the Mellon Foundation.

The project involved a large team of artists and manufacturers to bring it to life, including an architectural consultant, an electrician, an animator and an installation team. The installation took four days to complete, Ali says.

It will be seen for two years in AANM, which reopened in January after being closed to the public for almost two years due to the pandemic.

Ali says she hopes the art installation will inspire other Yemenis in the way she has been inspired by her research into Yemeni culture.

“To me, this is a letter from our ancestors for the future,” she says. “Because if I can feel 3,000 years ago, then we can definitely imagine ourselves 3,000 years from now.”

The Arab American National Museum is located at 13624 Michigan Ave., Dearborn; 313-429-2535;

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Arab American National Museum

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