Contemporary Afghani Artists
Khadim Ali, Kubra Khademi, Hamed Hasanzade, Mohsen Hosseini, Sher Ali
Andrew Hill — Adjunct Associate Professor at the School of Art, Architecture and Design, University of South Australia
Artist and Curator talk with Elyas Alavi and Khadim Ali — Thursday June 11 at 5pm at the Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre’s Kerry Packer Civic Gallery, University of South Australia.
Opening at Nexus Arts at 6pm, following artist and curator talk.
Exhibition open June 11 — July 16
Tuesday — Friday, 9am — 5pm
This exhibition is supported by The Hawke Centre
At the borders identities collide, certainties turn to uncertainties and permissions become transgressions. At the borders life may become death, tolerance may become intolerance and physical attributes may be used as a rationale to deny and to exclude. Yet at the borders there can also be slippages which allow transformation and remaking, and those innumerable elements previously cast as dichotomy may be unraveled.
It is within this space that Marzha/Borders seeks to operate, recognizing the border as an arena of positive personal, and ultimately collective, transformation located between peoples and between nations, where the border is viewed as an occupied space, able to be subverted and redefined, a third space from which to build new understandings by undoing old understandings and pre-existing patterns of activity. As established frontiers are breached, new “conditions of emergence”, are created, rewriting the previous certainties which had bolstered and consolidated prevailing power structures.
By seeking to expand this third space via an exhibition of contemporary art from Afghanistan, the curator, Elyas Alavi, himself part of the Afghani Hazara diaspora, was well aware that in a time of war and ethnic, religious and gender division there has been practically no leeway for Hazara artists in Afghanistan to negotiate inclusion nor the embracing of difference. For Hazara artists in Afghanistan their practice has been marked by their suppression and their exclusion, and they have been quarantined from social opportunities. For these artists their histories have been marked by discrimination, fear and periods of exile. And whilst national borders may have provided some sanctuary from hostile forces, internal borders were almost never breached, but rather used as a basis to consolidate Hazara marginalization. In a similar fashion Afghani artists in general have found themselves constrained by inflexible social traditions as well as by the sheer lack of supportive arts facilities.
As a nation Afghanistan is a relatively recent formation, being only created by imperial powers at the end of the 19th century, however it has been over the last thirty years that the country has been subjected to the incessant warfare and social division which has seen Afghani people butchered and families split and scattered. Whilst we are now familiar with the relatively recent conflicts spread across the Middle East, and within Islamic populations in particular through the New Spring uprisings which have brought into contestation previously suppressed beliefs and values, what we see in Afghanistan are conflicts that reach across generations, with the world’s mightiest powers invading and ideologies expressed through the barrel of an AK47 or innumerable home-fashioned IEDs. When children fatally pick up cluster bombs, when babies are seared to their mothers in market bombings, when the whole population deals with amputation by blast and death to their most precious and dear, when families are split or destroyed it’s no wonder the root of today’s art is political, and that persecuted minorities are evermore demanding attention and change.
Indeed the political nature of its genesis, maturing and exposition stands as a beacon before the contemporary state of Afghani art. From outside the country we recognize the highly contested territory represented, for example, by the malevolent destruction of the Bamiyan statues and decry such wanton actions which not only rob a people of a significant part of their cultural heritage but diminish the whole world. We rarely hear details such as that of the Taliban suicide bombing of the French Institute of Afghanistan (IFA) on 11th December 2014 which killed and severely injured several people yet also had the concomitant effect of closing one of the most vibrant gallery and theatre complexes in Kabul, and was one of the motivating factors for this exhibition. Thus Afghani artists, and Hazaras especially, find themselves in a position where their lives and cultural values are everywhere under attack and being destroyed by ignorance and zealotry, but also by innocence (in the case of young suicide bombers) and blindness to the beauty of the material world and the spiritual virtues it can bring.
In speaking of their art, these artists are well aware of the high stakes for which they are playing and, morosely, of the violence embedded in their lives’ predicament. The language itself is violent and refers to a future in which nothing changes. There are references to gun-smoke, to being disfigured, to tension and suspension, to an endless unknown, alienated future. Mohsen Hossaini speaks not only of being without a country but of his art coming from “the bullet that gets fired from a gun” and Hamed Hassanzada speaks of faces blind and veiled, of suffering and torture, of lies and “faces playing identity while holding none”. Khadim Ali says that the history of the Hazaras is “always related to ‘loss’” and that they are forced “to live in the memories of the past.” Kubra Khademi expresses her angst and exasperation when she says that her work is like,
“A question asked in a melancholy atmosphere with no hope of hearing an answer. It is a simple absurdity. Maybe there is no answer to this ambiguous moment. Just like a tightened knot turning upon itself, I find it unbearable when beliefs are broken and then destroyed by the barbarity of history, religion and human ideology.”
Ironically, the heart of personal and cultural identity in Afghanistan has been defined historically by virtue of its people having being at the intersection of, at times overlapping, imperial civilisations and conversely, by their resistances to incursions by expanding empires. For thousands of years Afghanis have simultaneously been linked to the east, the middle east and the west as they both produced and traded objects and artifacts with inordinate cultural resonances, as well as great monetary value, along the silk road which linked Greek, Roman, Persian, Indian and Chinese territories. Throughout the lands which today form Afghanistan there have been innumerable human and cultural diasporas carrying pattern, narrative, skill and wisdom bound together in performances, poetry, calligraphy and artifacts that reached deep into the psyche and consciousness. For the Hazaras, who once counted as a majority of the population and who currently number approximately twenty percent, the persecution, slavery and massacres have left them constrained and today Hazara artists are cut off from not only training, funding and promotion but freedom of artistic expression.
Thus, with artists seeking to define themselves against a contemporary environment which denies their validity, and even their right to existence, we see a return to, and mastery of, some of the dominant ancient myths. In Khadim Ali’s case this has meant immersion in Persian culture and in particular the lyrical poetry of Ferdowsi’s epic Shahname. Through mimicking the style — though not the scale — of Persian miniature illustrations Ali has brought those heroes and myths into present-day focus, recalling the glory and wonder of Persia’s golden days and claiming as his birthright these cultural high waters. Whilst artists may be denied physical access to the means of proselytizing their culture, short of killing them, it is almost impossible to deny them their self-identification and the formation of their own narratives. Where these narratives have become an inherent part of a people’s history the legitimacy of the narrative reinforces the legitimacy of its contemporary expression and, symbiotically, its creator. If an artist is speaking for us all how can s/he be silenced?
Whilst both Khadim Ali and Sher Ali Hussainy look to the past to revive classical mythologies, their collaboratively created works subvert heroic icons and the depicted struggles against demons occur in the darkness that is Afghanistan today. Both colonisers and oppressors play their sinister roles, but for the artists, depressingly the struggle appears infinite.
Mohsen Hossaini’s imagery stays very much in the present, recalling flayed flesh, bodies interrogated and women cast as the object of an oppressive male gaze. Women are the sacrificial offering yet poignantly the spilling of their blood is counterbalanced by the creation and protection of life that women uniquely offer, children growing in their bodies and from their blood. However a funereal sadness envelops his traumatised subjects who stare blankly across each other, or the child who stares blankly towards us. This world appears hermetically sealed, a sense of resignation fills the atmosphere, and each person is beaten back into their own shell. Despair at an inability to offer protection to the vulnerable permeates this inward-looking, wounded world.
Hamed Hassanzada’s work recalls the body assaulted, burnt and bleeding, fragmented, distorted and constrained, corpses falling and hemorrhaging into walls and the earth, dissolving into their surroundings. Primarily the figures are solitary — one dies alone after all — and the grimacing mouth seen through the void carved into flesh recalls other masters of anguish such as Francis Bacon. The physical world beyond the figures is insubstantial — we are unable to escape the confrontation with these scarred bodies, nor do anything but imagine the attacks causing their silent pain.
Inherently to be an artist is to take risks, to expose yourself physically and mentally as well as metaphorically. To be an Afghani Hazara artist is to take your life in your hands, not merely traversing your land, but in offering critiques of your time, your society, your culture.
When Kubra Khademi walked out into the streets of Kabul in February this year wearing a beaten metal suit covering the front of her torso and buttocks, she was highlighting and protesting against the vulnerable position women exist within as well as at the insidious sexual harassment they face daily. The fact that she was unable to remain on the streets for more than 8 minutes, fleeing for her life to a car which itself was physically attacked, then had this compounded by subsequent death threats, shows the immanent and ever present danger to those people both questioning and demonstrating against rigid fundamentalist mores and the attendant hypocrisies of creating victims who, in the normal course of daily existence, have no effective means to have their grievances addressed. In exile Khademi now creates harrowing and equally confrontational work, such as Ongoing Moment, in which we cannot help but identify with her suffering, wishing above all else that it would stop, but being powerless to influence it. Such an intense and penetrating metaphor renders us numb, making us all feel trapped, and points to the futility of endless escalating violence.
In conclusion let me restate the pivotal role of the curator Elyas Alavi in creating Marzha/Borders especially for Adelaide, and for Nexus Arts. Elyas’s familiarity with the contemporary art scene in Afghanistan, as well as his personal contacts, have allowed him to assemble this important snapshot of both emerging artists such as Hamed Hassanzada, Sher Ali Hussainy and Kubra Khademi through to the more established artists such as Mohsen Hossaini and Khadim Ali. It is his vision which needs celebrating, along with the insight, skill and bravery of the exhibited artists. For Nexus Arts, who has chosen to coincide this exhibition with Refugee Week, there has been a recognition of the continuing unstable situation in Afghanistan and of the persecution and fear which has led thousands of Hazara Afghanis to flee their country and to seek protection outside Afghanistan’s borders, and for many of them to find safety in Australia, itself a country with a long association with the Afghani people.
All the artists in this exhibition have crossed national borders, and their work shows personal and cultural borders may be breached, and that what at first sight appears impermeable may in fact be porous. In raising the visibility of this work the likelihood is that greater slippages will occur to enable transformation at the borders, both politically and socially, as well as artistically.
Khadim Ali Painting, Drawing
Born 1978, Quetta, Paksitan
Residence: Sydney, Australia
“Begun in 2013, my current project Transitions / Evacuation is a cross-cultural collaboration between Afghani artist Sher Ali and myself that engages with the tense political climate of my native Afghanistan through the creation of traditional Indo/Persian miniature painting and Afghan rugs.”
Painting, Drawing, Animations, Directing Born 1976, Kabul Residence: Kabul
“Three elements were effective in shaping my artistic personality: First, homelessness, a man without a country. Second, the bullet that gets fired from a gun. Third, streets of Kabul.I find arts to verse my perception of life. Art has climax and troughs, but no ending. Life is about experiencing every day, and for me, it is recreating these experiences from imagination, mine.”
Painting, Drawing, Sculpting, Print
Born 1987, Kabul
“This is the query I have asked faces for long years, but I have never got a simple answer.Having frustrated of talking to the faces, I turned to the only real person I knew ever: to myself! I asked myself of the mysteries around the faces but suddenly found out another face is standing in front of me; a blind and veiled one the same as others. Then my world collapsed down as my life became these faces! I have not seen anything excluding the trans-shaped faces and not heard anything but the sweet lies.”
Performance art, Video art
Born 1989, Mashhad, Iran
Ongoing moment (2015) “I keep up pace to connect moments and culminate with voice. I drawn in the dessert full of nothing and free my tired and invalid self from the inhalation of air filled by gun-smoke. Disfigured in the tension of suspension, I bring out an endless sound from my throat; I challenge my depth in the fence of this nothing, in the presence of a staggered glance to reach freedom and an unknown and limitless zenith.”
Born: 1981, Afghansitan
Residency: Kabul, Afghanistan
Note: Sher Ali and Khadim Ali presented their celebration paintings for this exhibition