The new art installation at the National Arab American Museum in Dearborn, “al-Falaq”, defies easy explanation. Resembling a cross between a spaceship and an octopus, the sculpture’s 35-foot tentacles twist across several floors of the museum, with computer screens in place of suction cups. His glowing “head” hangs 20 feet above the ground in the museum’s atrium.
You really have to see it to believe it – and to be fully understood.
Its creator, Alia Ali, recently toured the installation – which she describes as a “museum within a museum” – when it debuted 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 said. In the 1990s, his two ancestral homelands were ravaged by conflict, and in 1998 his family moved to Hamtramck in metro Detroit, since his grandfather found a job at Chrysler.
“During this time, I remember thinking about this word ‘alien’, being an alien, and what does it mean to have extraterrestrial powers…to be from two cultures and speak two languages “Ali said looking at her. sculpture, adding, “only to find out later that being a foreigner in this country legally meant I was a sub-human.”
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 degree in fine arts at the California Institute of Arts, dozens of Yemeni children were killed in an airstrike carried out by the Saudi Arabia on August 9, 2018.
Ali says she found herself shaken by the incident and became transfixed by the conflict.
“After seeing all of this, I started looking at Google,” she says. “I have become quite obsessed with searching Google. When you type in ‘Yemen’, all I see [was images] of suffering. But Ali says she also couldn’t learn much about Yemen by reading books, since her history was written by colonizers.
“When I started looking at books, I saw that history was not the history we were writing, because we came from an oral history,” she says. “I saw how language was manipulated. I never saw it as a tool. In fact, I saw it as a weapon, how a person can change a story, choose to erase something, or choose to include something else, or choose to interpret.”
These experiments culminated in the launch of what Ali describes as her work on Yemeni Futurism, which she says is inspired by Afrofuturism, a science fiction-inspired art movement once described by the curator of arts Detroit-born Ingrid LaFleur as “a way of imagining possible futures through a black cultural lens.”
“What inspired this was rage, pure rage,” Ali says, “to turn something that’s toxic to me, toxic to my community, toxic to the way we see ourselves, into something handsome.”
She says that with her art she wants to create a new narrative for the Yemeni people.
“If all Yemenis permanently exist in this kind of dystopian present, just to cling to this beautiful nostalgia of only looking to the past, then the only thing you’re going to… look forward to is a dystopian future.”
She adds: “Don’t exist in the narrative that is offered to you, because you only exist in a position to defend something, you will only respond to someone else. Start a completely new narrative. ”
She describes “al-Falaq” as “a monument for Yemenis, first and foremost”. She also describes it as a sort of critique of the Arab-American National Museum; Despite the fact that people of Yememi ancestry are one of the largest groups in Metro Detroit’s Arab-American population, the museum had few artifacts representing Yemen, she said.
Ali says the shape of the sculpture is inspired by spiders, considered sacred in Islam because they are said to have woven a web over the entrance to a cave where Muhammad hid, protecting him from enemies. as well as the elusive glass octopus, a rarely seen species. creature spotted in the depths of the Arabian Sea.
The outer space theme was also inspired by a 1997 news report that three men from Yemen had sued NASA, arguing that its Pathfinder spacecraft and Sojourner rover were encroaching on the planet that was rightfully theirs. The ancient Sabaeans, who lived thousands of years ago in today’s 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 mocked in the West. “That’s a ridiculous claim,” CNN reported, after a laugh, NASA chief information officer Brian Welch. “Mars is a planet in the solar system that belongs to all of humanity, not two or three types in Yemen.” CNN ended its brief report with a joke: “We didn’t know if they had paid the proper inheritance tax.”
“People were scoffing and laughing, like, who are these primitive people?” Ali said. “In fact, they are heroes, because what does it mean to not only occupy our land, but now there is also an occupation of our myths and our dreams?”
“Do not exist in the narrative offered to you… Begin a completely new narrative.”
The sculpture’s 81 tablet screens, located on its tentacles, incorporate a number of Yemeni pop culture references (the late singer Ofra Haza, a Yemeni Jewish star known as “The Israeli Madonna”, is featured) as well as Arabic folklore (including creatures like jinns or genies, represented by a glitch effect on the screens).
Perhaps controversially, the displays also include images of Yemeni artifacts gleaned from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
“These are items that are still considered looted,” Ali says, claiming 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, because it’s somehow related to war.”
The project was sponsored by the AANM, with support from the Mellon Foundation.
The project involved a large team of artists and makers to bring it to life, including an architectural consultant, electrician, animator and installation team. The installation took four days, Ali said.
It will be visible for two years in the 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 as she was inspired by her research on Yemeni culture.
“For me, it’s a letter from our ancestors to the future,” she says. “Because if I can feel 3,000 years ago, then surely we can imagine ourselves 3,000 years from now.”
The National Arab American Museum is located at 13624 Michigan Ave., Dearborn; 313-429-2535; arabamericanmuseum.org.
Stay connected with Detroit Metro Times. Subscribe to our newsletters and follow us on Google News, Apple News, TwitterFacebook, Instagram, Reddit or TikTok.