Some thirteen years ago, for this very publication, I had the pleasure of watching the recently deceased William Pope.L direct a performance piece at the Museum of Modern Art that involved a group of actors dressed as gorillas babbling nonsense while they smeared warmed-up lard on each other’s faces from Barack Obama masks. “Genevieve, there’s a bit of a nazi in your character,” Pope.L counseled one of them, “so don’t be afraid to use that in your delivery.” R.I.P., king.
So much of performance art is in the moment, but a new show at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, “Anida Yoeu Ali: Hybrid Skin, Mythical Presence” celebrates the documentation and costumes that go into the work of Anida Yoeu Ali (b. 1974), a Tacoma-based Cambodian American artist whose props become rich installations when not activated through interactions with the world.
The show revolves around two performances, The Buddhist Bug and The Red Chador, both of which have been performed in some dozen countries across the world and will of course be performed for this show as well. The Red Chador was originally commissioned in 2015 as a twelve-hour performance at the Palais de Tokyo in France, where the right to wear Muslim headscarves is a constant source of controversy for both the left and the right. The original chador was lost and eulogized, but the performance was reborn like a phoenix in 2019, in new sequined versions to be worn by a group, their multicolored nature speaking to the complexity of sexual identities as well as an Islamic one.
Ali said she strove to demonstrate people wearing the chador the way her family members had, “with fierceness,” and described performing it in Bellevue, Washington on 9/11 in 2021: “We had every right to be there; we were silent and simply walking… Yet our very presence instantly posed a threat.”
The Buddhist Bug is older and a bit lighter, dating back to 2009. In it, Ali plays the head of a long fabric worm in the bright orange color of a Buddhist monk’s robe, with someone else poking their feet out at the end. Though it, too, probes questions of the complicated self, it’s also just a great sight gag and a pleasure to see her rolling down a street in Asia on the back of a flatbed truck.
Both of these works will be performed during this exhibition, but you don’t need to see the performances to enjoy them. Their documentation is rich, their conceptual elements inviting and the materials just pleasant to look at. Lard is great, but it’s not for everyone.
“Anida Yoeu Ali: Hybrid Skin” is on view at the Seattle Asian Art Museum through July 7.