Alia Ali's Borderland at Bluesky
Borderland is one of the best shows Portland has seen all year and today is your last day to see it at Bluesky Gallery
. Alia Ali's exhibition doesnt sit neatly into any genre and as such provides welcome relief from all the twee, "treat the gallery as a studio" shows that masquerade in pseudo-proustian shallow palimpsest hood. It also wont award anyone their woke merit badge. It interrogates nothing and in general treats language and labels like the training wheels of understanding that they are. There is a sense of international border hopping and thus relates to the immigration issues of the day but those are not new topics and Ali treats that interpretation that way by obliquely referencing the prophylactic boundaries of culture and country in the title and nowhere else.
With Borderland there's no pretention here and no breadcrumbs, just whole loaves of bread that defy slicing. You see Alia Ali is a Yemeni-Bosnian-American who hails from Austria (labels arent helping are they?). She says she grew up in, "Sana'a, Sarajevo, Istanbul and Bloomington, Indiana." Also, later in life she, "lived in Wales, Vietnam, the United States and Morocco." Nope that doesnt help set expectations either. Thus, to dig into her background is to be be repelled by easy monikers and her art is similarly hostile to the label maker of language. It also keeps her work from any self congratulatory wayfaring where the viewer picks up trails and navigates the map of the exhibition... being rewarded by each Amuse Bouche
the artist has laid out. None of that here, if you want to be congratulated... see another show. This is about getting lost and the heightened state of awareness that experience produces.
Instead, Ali's photography captures what we might assume are humans, garbed in colorful patterned cloth. If you know your fabrics some are clearly Moroccan, Ankara (African wax prints), Kente Cloth and Barkcloth etc. But instead of framing faces and highlighting form these cloth types repel any deciphering (it even bucks the trend of fashions appropriation). Here, the faces are obscured giving the show a sense of being like a wedding, a funeral or some other religious function. The formality ultimately consumes the individuals to the point where the formality of culture itself breaks down. We are left with reliquary or statues here in the photos, which are further complicated by installations of cloth.
Ali always tries to make each exhibition unique and she has succeeded wildly here. For every person who asks where a figure came from and what is their story there is an artistic win... each figure exists in a kind of cultural purgatory... waiting for some defining status. Does the pattern bring good luck, signify they are looking for marriage or is mourning a loss? Who knows? Ali has obliterated all of that... making each figure ultimately less interesting than the assembled nameless host. Do they have families? Are they in need? Do we admire the skill in patterns? Like the silent sentinels we bring our own baggage to the exhibition.
Bravo, we cannot slice this bread, there are no crumbs to follow on the borderlands. It defies language as a poor substitute for understanding, something this critic applauds. Borderland is thoroughly engrossing and wonderful in in its indeterminate and liminal inscrutability. Perhaps it is the boundary that is the strangest of places in that it remains unsettled and challenging as a negotiation of topography, culture and statehood. Is it unsatisfying? sure if you seek satisfaction. But if you were looking for answers you were bound to be let down. Then again, if you enjoy getting lost this is one of the best exhibitions of its kind. In Borderlands not everyone is an immigrant? In these times it is important to not see everyone in zero sum either or ways. Perhaps a rebus of identity is the only native of Borderland... a place of puzzles in times that lack nuance?
Through July 29th
Blue Sky Gallery
112 NW 8th