+/-, a site-specific multimedia installation currently on view at SPACE Gallery, deploys artist Alia Ali’s unique blend of portrait photography, performance, and textiles to engage audiences in a visual conversation about identity and belonging. Ali, a Yemeni-Bosnian-American artist who has traveled to over 63 countries and lived in seven, utilized mathematical symbols for the exhibition’s title to serve the work’s larger, universal intentions: to explore how individuals define both self and other and how those terms become informed through personal, political, national, and cultural contexts.
Part of the artist’s larger Cast No Evil series, which has previously been exhibited in both London and Morocco, every portrait features a lone figure cloaked in fabric, set against a fabric backdrop. Each body lacks any overt characteristic or determination: gender, race, and nationality are all hidden and unspecific beneath the folds. Ali refers to these characters as “cludes” — a play on the dualistic notion of include/exclude — and leaves unanswered the power dynamics between subject and spectator in each image. As a boundary, does the fabric empower through its anonymity or control in its confinement? As viewers, are we comforted by their seclusion or eager to engage more?
+/- makes productive use of this ambivalence to confront observers with their own associations and assumptions. Some works skirt explicit reference to traditional head coverings like hijabs and keffiyeh, calling up current, loaded dialogues surrounding Middle Eastern immigration and assimilation in the West. Others play in more abstract territory, showcasing the gorgeous, myriad ways cloth can drape on the human form, feeling reminiscent of avant-garde fashion designers like Rei Kawakubo.
Five patterns are featured throughout, though the dominant contrast is between vivid florals and a black-and-white geometric design. The flower textiles can carry a kind of kitsch nostalgia to an American audience, reminiscent of the laminated tablecloths of 1950s housewives. The black and white patterns are simple and ubiquitous enough to carry multiple cultural connotations. One portrait pairs a figure robed and staged against this same black and white pattern, recalling the kind of optical illusions that defined mid-century op-art painters like Bridget Riley. The physical form energetically oscillates within this composition, manifesting a push/pull in space that benefits Ali’s inclusion/exclusion inquiry.
All the textiles were sourced from Ali’s travels in Uzbekistan, where the artist was struck by fabric’s ability to serve a home’s many needs: when it was time for a meal, a cloth transformed a table into a dining room; when a family needed sleep, linens were unrolled to create a bed. Drawing a connection between this versatility and SPACE Gallery’s fluidity as music venue, bar, film theater, gathering room, and exhibition space, Ali also wrapped benches, tables, wall panels, bar surfaces, and portions of the stage with her fabrics. Some of the textiles were altered and reproduced with support from a local partnership with Designtex to include black light outlines that glow during low-lit performances. No matter the configuration of furniture or how many people are utilizing the room, Ali’s work remains integrated and immersive.
+/-, installation by Alia Ali | Through July 29 | At SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St, Portland | www.space538.org