Anida Yoeu Ali’s “The 1700% Project” is a fierce, passionate response against violence directed at Muslim communities since 9/11. Using text found in hate crimes that were filed, she writes of acts of violence against the Muslim community, and folks mistaken for being Muslim, and uses her writing as a launch-point for a multi-disciplinary work. This retelling of real reports is as compelling as it is horrifying. She uses quotes taken directly from the mouths of perpetrators in her text: “terrorist,” “kill all arabs”, “go back to your own country”, “you Islamic mosquitoes should be killed”, “America is only for white people.” It’s hard for me to even feel comfortable restating those words, all shockingly similar to things I’ve personally heard in my life and stories that were shared in my community of things that have happened to people I love. I feel re-stimulated by her work, I feel hurt and saddened all over again. But I also feel challenged by Ali, to speak up louder than I have, to stand strongly in solidarity with other oppressed people, and to turn my anger into action, because as she puts it, “we refuse to end in violence.”
Unfortunately, last week the installation of her work was defaced. Some of the responses to the news spreading of what happened have been really disheartening. People have been placing the blame on Ali for being “too political,” accusing her of defacing her own work just for attention, and questioning whether the act of defacement is a hate crime at all. These questions and accusation are problematic on a number of levels.
First, let’s try to frame what the circumstances around the defacement were. When one walks through a gallery space, it’s not typical to touch the art or to physically interact with it unless there’s something in the space specifying (a sign, security guard) what is allowed by the artist. We can have lots of discussion about artist and audience here, but generally, it’s the artist who is given control of a space, and gets to decide what their intention is with their work, and what is safe and appropriate for the audience to do in their space. As a rule of thumb, this usually translates to “don’t touch the artwork!” These norms should have been followed with Ali’s installation, as there was no such invitation for the audience to interact with her piece.
With no such invitation, one or more people visiting the gallery, viewing her work, used the materials in the space (ink, rags, stick) to paint cartoonish figures on her work. The incident most likely occurred during gallery hours, as that is when most people would have had access to her work. Her work is displayed in a very large gallery with minimal traffic when there is not a special event happening. The perpetrators had a lot of time to act, as the defacement was detailed and deliberate. Her piece is in a space with dozens of (if not close to a hundred) other artists’ work. No other work was vandalized besides Ali’s, a piece that was made very clear was about hate crimes (through the title card on the wall, takeaway literature on a shelf, and of course the text on the wall). Whether the intent was malicious, ignorant, or intended to be somehow funny, this is just plain disrespectful.
But it’s much more complicated than that. Whether it was their intention or not, defacing her installation actively took away her control over the direction of her work. Someone decided that what they had to say was more important than what Ali has to say. Someone decided that Ali’s perspective is of lesser value than theirs, and acted to silence her. Because no other work was vandalized, it’s clear Ali was targeted specifically–probably for who she is and what her work says. Whether it was their intention to or not, this was an aggressive, racist act of violence. This defacement was a hate crime, against Ali, everything her work is saying, and anyone who comes from a people that have endured similar oppression and violence that her work speaks of.
This is not okay. We cannot let our silence on the matter send the message that what happened is okay. We cannot allow this to be talked about only in terms of vandalism, we must insist we talk about this as an act of violence–and we must refuse to let this end in violence. This is about art, but it is also about much more. This is about oppression and racism. This is about the silencing of communities of color. This is about how we choose to respond as witnesses of violence.