Hello. Bonjour. مرحبا: three out of roughly 7,000 ways people greet each other across the globe. The versatility of language is no secret to those who’ve traveled the world or live in culturally diverse cities like Houston. But what if language was something that went beyond words?
Though this thought might seem mind-boggling, it’s one that multimedia artist Alia Ali has been aware of her entire life. And it’s one she’s brought to Houston in Cartographies of Pattern, a photography exhibit that explores the intriguing ability textiles have both to unite and divide us in a way that defies words, which opens at Foto Relevance on July 9.
As the daughter of two migrant linguists from countries that no longer exist—her mother from Yugoslavia and her father from South Yemen—Ali grew up in an environment where learning the complexity of language was always prioritized. On top of attending a Yemeni school as a child where she learned Arabic, Ali’s mother would also take her and her brother on trips when she would travel for lectures, leading them to places like Pakistan, Hong Kong, and Mumbai, India.
In each new environment, Ali’s mother taught her and her brother about many aspects of the various communities’ cultures, including the textiles they made. In fact, on every trip, Ali’s mother never failed to take them to local fabric markets, leading to Ali’s familiarity with fabrics beginning at an early age. Her appreciation for textiles didn’t start there, however. Unlike in America, where the majority of our attire is bought off racks or online, Ali grew up seeing clothing in an entirely different light.
“In Yemen, clothes that are ready-made are usually cheaply made and expensive, so it’s really customary for people to go to the fabric market and pick out which fabrics they want,” Ali tells Houstonia. “Then you go to the seamstress or tailor.”
Because of the care that goes into crafting their clothing, Ali, like those from many communities outside America, sees textiles as more than something you wear, but as something that plays a crucial role in telling the story of who you are and where you come from. For individuals like Ali's grandmother, who is illiterate, textiles pass down historical traditions in the same powerful, concise way that words do, she says.
“My grandmother’s way of documenting was through textiles, patterns,” explains Ali, who moved to the United States in the late ’90s. “At the end of the day, that’s sort of what language is, right? We apply meaning to words that we all sort of agree on.”
Now, she uses the same tactile language and the hyper-realism of photography to share the history of her homeland—one often portrayed in the U.S. through a singular colonialist lens—and other indigenous communities around the world, combatting stereotypes by “activating thought and questions.”
That’s exactly what Ali is doing through Cartographies of Pattern, her U.S. gallery debut. The carefully curated selection of textiles on display in the pictures hail from 11 vastly different regions Ali personally traveled to, from Senegal to Uzbekistan, collaborating with multiple textile masters to select fabrics that hold rich historical and cultural meaning within their community to photograph.
Laden in each thread of those fabrics is often a complex and overlooked political and economic legacy that has spread beyond geographic borders, a reality Ali hopes American audiences remember as they marvel at the textiles’ intricate beauty and consider the powerful story about identity, culture, and humanity it weaves.
“Textile, in a very literal way, is something we all touch. It's something that is accessible to all of us whether or not you’re a migrant, a refugee, a prisoner, or a president,” says Ali. “But at the same time, it’s also a physical barrier between our bodies, and that barrier carries a lot of significance ... because sometimes textiles are not only for protecting us from the environment, but they also define people in communities.”
July 9–Sept 9. Foto Relevance, 4411 Montrose Blvd., Ste C. 713-505-1499. fotorelevance.com/exhibitions.