How do you read a body completely covered in patterned fabric? This artist obscures culture, race, and gender to unveil our assumptions about identity.
Yemeni-Bosnian-American photographer Alia Ali’s work features figures covered in swaths of patterned fabric, melting into similarly adorned backgrounds or standing with full visual force against a black or contrastingly-colored textile. Having traveled to over 60 countries, Ali uses fabrics and methods of folding which seem to resonate with and depart from intercontinental traditions, looking at one moment like a Creole tignon, at another like a sari, or perhaps a hijab, a Klan hood, or Andean chullo. Fabric conceals any direct gender or racial signifier—yet we as viewers are tempted to take the visual or cultural cues of the image as tools to classify the bodies depicted. Given the sartorial patterning or posture of the subject, one might make assumptions as to the identity of those pictured, but we don’t know who can be found beneath the fabric’s folds or what their story entails.
Toying with our concepts of elected disguise and inevitable visibility, these bodies resist classification through cultural ambiguity and anonymity. The textile that conceals them serves as both a metaphor for national borders and language barriers in addition to functioning as a literal barrier against the viewer’s gaze. That same fabric also exists as a tangible, ubiquitous, and unifying element in the human experience. “Textile is significant as it is something that we are born into it, we sleep in it, we eat on it, we define ourselves by it, we shield ourselves with it and, eventually, we die in it,” Alia says in her artist statement.
Delving into her numerous series in this mode of creation, I wonder whether this bodily covering robs something from the figures (such as their sight, breath, or capacity for efficient movement) or whether it restores their agency in protection from the viewer’s gaze. Historically, the white gaze has seen bodies of color as objects or animals for colonialist exploitation and plunder. The male gaze has devalued the worth of women’s bodies to mere landscapes for fertile possibility and social ownership. In their private, faceless mystery, do these figures claim their agency, independence, and strength?
I myself come from an American-Italian Catholic family, and this heritage informs my taste for Italian food, ceramics, stationery, high-end fashion, and espresso makers. I love these things as objects and signifiers of the culture I share with my family, but at what point does cultural propensity devolve into the perpetuation of cultural tropes? Our accouterment, the fabric we are “born into”, as Ali says, can both index our cultural identity and eclipse our subjective individuality. With the covered bodies of Ali, the artist seems to say, “If you saw their face, what more would you really know about them, anyway?” By leaving the curtain veiled, the identity of the figure at hand remains beautifully loaded with limitless possibility. Like the whimsical “Soundsuits” of Nick Cave or the figures unseen behind sweatshirts and jackets in John Edmonds’s “Hoods” series, these covered bodies implicate us and the identity we assume and project onto them. How we read this fabric and the implied bodies beneath likely says more about ourselves than those in the photograph.