A Poignant Poet: Anida Yoeu Ali and the 1700% Project

The headlines are hard to ignore: “Muslim Cabdriver Stabbed in New York Bias Attack;” “Vandalism at Madera mosque one of several incidents under investigation by Justice Department;” “Obama Weighs in as Plan to Burn Quran Sparks Debate.” These are just to name a few stories of hate that seem to be a part of the never-ending attack on Islam and Muslims.

Fighting back against this anti-Muslim rhetoric and against these acts of violence is a most unlikely character. Her name is Anida Yoeu Ali and she is utilizing her creativity to peacefully battle xenophobia and intolerance in America.

On her personal blog, Anida Yoeu Ali describes herself as a, “first generation Muslim Khmer woman born in Cambodia and raised in Chicago.” She is a performance artist and a writer who has this to say about her work:

“My work reflects a hybrid cultural experience as a refugee from Cambodia trying to understand what home means, as a loud feminist woman of color learning to love and be loved, as an American citizen with Asian features too often accused of “being a foreigner,” as a Muslim woman in America on a spiritual quest, as a citizen critical of our government, as a survivor of war, and as an individual striving to find the artistic, spiritual, and political junctures of these identities.”

Ali’s latest piece of performance and visual art—the “1700% Project”—addresses this “hybrid cultural experience” and the feeling of being on the receiving end of xenophobic sentiments.

In the midst of a heightened Islamophobic climate catalyzed by the proposed Park51 center, CNN invited Anida Yoeu Ali to explain the video entitled “1700% Project: Mistaken for Muslim.”

1700% Project: Mistaken for Muslim from Anida Yoeu Ali on Vimeo.

The video calls direct attention to post-9/11 anti-Muslim violence as Ali, in a grim voice, sites a laundry list of violent acts against Muslims and non-Muslims who were mistaken for Muslims, amidst flashing faces of a rainbow of American-Muslims. It was heartbreaking to find that even its title is a reference to the percentage increase in crimes committed against U.S. Arabs and Muslims since 2001.

In her CNN interview, Anida Yoeu Ali tells viewers that the video was meant for anyone who could stand to be educated about the diversity of the American-Muslim community.

When asked if she thought her art would make a difference, she said that she has a lot of hope. She said also, that she creates these pieces because art is a way to transform ideas through an experience and without having to drill a “didactic message” into people’s minds. Ali believes she has the opportunity to reach a wider audience using art.

That is exactly what she is doing. The “1700% Project” video has a visual art counterpart which received some publicity, albeit negative, earlier this year. This counterpart is a visual art representation of the 1700% Project, composed of a white wall covered with white vinyl letters forming statements such as “Kill all Arabs” which were taken from hate crime reports filed in the United States by Muslims and Arabs.

Those angered by the message conveyed in Ali’s art, proceeded to deface her artwork while it was on display in a gallery of Chicago’s School of the Art Institute.

In response to her vandalized work, Ali wrote, “This work of art is at the center of a critical point where xenophobia, violence and fear intersect. It is disheartening to see my work defaced, but it is not surprising considering its politically charged content. This is not just an assault on me as an artist, this is an attack on multiple communities to which the work speaks for.”

Despite attempts to silence Ali, the incident only gave her work more exposure, inciting local police to categorize the vandalism as a “hate crime” and garnering the support of The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago.

Further proving that she will not be silenced, on the anniversary of 9/11 this year, Ali typed up her manifesto, stating:

“This is part of my legacy as a Muslim in America living in this global economy. The position is very clear for me. I am a Muslim and now more than ever it was crucial to take action. Now more than ever it is about standing in solidarity with the Muslim community as much as standing in opposition to all forms of terrorism, racial-profiling, fundamentalism, and oppression — and yes that means even the kind imposed by the U.S. government as much as some ‘Muslim’ nations. My work as a performance artist in which my body is central to the work, is now more than ever an important and distinct choice. Being Muslim has become more than a cultural identity, it is a political statement!”

As American Muslims are faced with increasing acts of violence and hatred, their self-identification and communal solidarity is nothing short of a political statement. It is Ali’s form of activism to “redefine the image of the Muslim woman” through “art-making.”

In the final statements of her post Ali urges people to pass around the “1700% Project” video in hopes of educating people.

Anida Yoeu Ali, this one is for American Muslims!