Brooke Hoffert with Ali El-Chaer
Ali El-Chaer’s current exhibition at FEMME in Nashville, Tennessee titled “Rabbit in Cave” explores a collection of old and new as a type of self-portrait. His work focuses heavily on their Palestinian culture, oral traditions, and intense interpersonal emotions. The newer works in this collection look closer at their tayta (grandmother) to make the connection back to their land as well as how people we love become so deeply part of us.
I got the opportunity to ask Ali some questions about their practice, inspirations, and the future of the queer community. We touch upon the queer identity, the sun, and how emotion fits into their work.
Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
I am a trans-Palestinian, who was raised in Nashville due to displacement and the colonization of my homeland. My father immigrated here in the 80s and opened different businesses. The day I was born was the day he was opening his first nightclub in Nashville so I remember growing up in Nashville, going to work with my dad, and listening to 90s music through the wall from America and also the Middle East. As I became older I took a more active role in helping my dad with his businesses by waiting for or cooking with my dad during the day. A lot of my art is very focused on familial ties, traditions, and intense interpersonal emotions as that is what I was exposed to the most growing up.
Can you tell us about the process of creating your work? What is your artistic routine when working?
My routine is based heavily on me being emotional, particularly angry or sad because it is when I feel myself working hardest to find solutions. I do not have a clear breakdown of routine but during my process, I am never afraid to entirely cut out pieces from a work or be vulgar or silly. I also enjoy hiding jokes or words in my work, particularly in my collages, where I find more flexibility to spend time thinking because I am not having to generate images in my head. When it comes to my paintings, it is almost purely instinct.
What artwork have you seen recently that has resonated with you?
I’ve really been interested in the last year and a half by The Palestinian Poster Project (https://www.palestineposterproject.org/) which has an archive of posters that I just love scrolling through. There is also a page on Instagram called @bedouinsilver, who I am unsure of her ethnicity, but does extensive research and documentation on jewelry in the Middle East. I really obsess over her page because she makes frequent posts about Palestine and presents designs I have never seen or I have only seen in their contemporary form. These pages are in my mind right now due to discussions of the past with the present; rather than presenting it as a means of you have to do what everyone in the past thought they simply show you the evidence of someone having been there before us and we can take it or leave on our own.
What inspires you?
As much as I have talked about culture, I think that is the most obvious answer, but beyond that: reading, bird watching, and gardening excite me. If you look at some of the larger scale pieces you can see where I leave these works outside to be rained on and you can catch little leaves that are stuck or footprints. The works Your Land and Who Am I? are the two prime examples of these; I mean I left them outside rain or shine to soak up as much sun as I possibly could let them.
At the risk of sounding silly, the sun is sort of the end all and be all of my work. I love the moon, I love eyes, I love halos, I love women, I love the land but all of these things I don’t think would hold their same beauty without the sun being part of them. I want the sun to do that for my work when I can let her.
How does your queerness interact with your art?
I do not believe I could separate them if I tried; Pinkwashing is a glaring example of this because it is painted on transtape that I had worn for a week and the white in the backgrounds on each piece are parts of my body I painted white and pressed onto them. I had received death threats one summer from zionists who kept sending me messages of “be trans in the West Bank” which is stupid considering I am already trans in Tennessee. I have never received any hate messages about my being from other Palestinians but I cannot reiterate enough that I am Palestinian and then I am queer.
When I am making work I am keeping that in mind and the history of queerness in the Middle East that has been buried due to colonialism. I am considering how Western culture makes queerness around sex as if that is the only way for us to measure queerness. With all of that, when I am navigating my work I am thinking okay so this is definitely not going to make sense for western people but I know another person closer to home may look at this and understand. It is about the subtleness sometimes. It is like a secret to other queer Arabs who are not out but that can look and say I understood that reference in the flower I chose, the background imagery, the shared interactions between different works in a series.
My queerness is not meant to be understood by everybody, but for people who want to see, I do not have to beg them to look.
What would you like the future of the queer art community to look like?
This could be an endless list but I will go with a few: I would like to see more BIPOC specific queer spaces. I would like white queer spaces to stop assuming everyone is okay with their photo being taken (I certainly am not okay with my photo being posted unless I give explicit permission). I would like to see mask requirements. I would like to see people stop telling each other they’re not as gender nonconforming if they are not on hormones. I would like to see some real action for/from the queer community past GoFundMes and petitions.
I want a more radical future for the queer art community because the way it stands, at least in Nashville, white queers dominate that conversation based on Western standards leaving room for nobody else, no criticism, no right to secrecy, no real action, and lastly and quite frankly the queer art community has been eating away at each other with irrelevant criticism based in ableism and classism. I want people to take a step back and consider if telling someone they can’t be a he/him lesbian or that a nonbinary person can’t be femme unless they are AMAB is really where we want to put out energy at this time.
What is one of your goals as an artist?
My greatest goal is to make a sustainable practice for myself where I can make enough income to sustain myself and keep working towards the liberation of Palestine and encourage people to return land to the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island. I want people to understand that decolonizing is not going to be pretty when they view my work and at the same time know it is going to be okay–this has to happen.
I think something I have been successful in which had been a previous goal was to make artwork that would attract a specific crowd of people. It has never been easier for me to introduce people to each other now. I wanted a community and now I have it.
Now I want to sustain it.
Is there anything in the pipeline you would like to talk about?
April is Arab Heritage Month and there will be a chance to view my work again at Femme as well as other queer Arab Artists. This show will also be bleeding into Random Sample, which is a space that has been allowing us to do movies every third Saturday of the month (you can find more info about movies on Instagram @nournashville. I will also be part of a folio for the Asian American Writer Workshop, which you can get more info about from my Instagram as it comes to an end. Lastly, I will be doing the Nakba vigil in May like I do every year; if a business would like to host a spot for an altar that month please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org .
You can learn more about Ali and his practice on his website or Instagram.