The Arts

Re-Imagining Contemporary Afghan Culture Through Art

A recent exhibition in New Delhi shows how Afghani artists are catalysing a new discussion on contemporary Afghan life, often presenting the colour and other aspects of and beyond the war.

New Delhi: The recent exhibition here titled ‘Afghan Art: A Land in Conflict and Hope’, as the name suggests, depicted art in and around conflict, but the narrative was not centred on the violence alone.

It showed us other aspects of Afghanistan, beyond homogenous, war-torn images of devastation and brought to mind Chimamanda Adichie’s oft-quoted idea on the incomplete truths of a myopic single story.

Given a chance to tell their stories in their own way, those who are oppressed and othered choose a palette that is richer than black and white.  This exhibition, along with online spaces like the Kabul Art Project, attempts to catalyse a new discussion on contemporary Afghan life through art.

Gallery Nootaq or Noqta

One of the artists from the exhibition, Mohammad Salim Attaie, was present in Delhi. Attaie is a master painter and owner of Afghanistan’s Gallery Nootaq (which roughly translates to starting from scratch), and he spoke of coming to India with dreams of starting an art gallery. He said, “India is a land which has great value and appreciation for art and a bigger art market than Afghanistan” which is still reeling from the after-effects of war. The other artists were Abdul Fatah Amar, Mohammad Azim Rawofi, Mohibullah Attaie (Moheb Sadiq).

Attaie said he wanted to counter the negative, war-torn and often dark imagery by purposefully infusing colour in his pieces – especially referring to the pink landscape represented below – to evoke happiness.

Artist: Mohammad Salim Attaie. Credit: Devina Buckshee/The Wire

Mohammad Salim Attaie with his artwork ‘Abstract’. Credit: Devina Buckshee/The Wire

Some of the artwork did convey the trauma Afghanistan has weathered as a country, but most were depictions of contemporary life – marketplaces, travelling, lounging men – all with bursts of colour and happiness to depict quotidian Afghan life.

Artwork by artist Ghulam Nabi Credit: Devina Buckshee/The Wire

Taliban years

In Taliban occupied Afghanistan (1996-2001), all forms of artistic expression were banned. Art, theatre, dance and even clapping were deemed immoral.

Any form of a ban creates an alternative movement, a resistance to the oppression. It’s now known that Afghan filmmakers hid their reels instead of destroying them, and artists in the Senai Art School, among other places in Afghanistan, used secret measures to preserve their ‘un-Islamic’ art from the Taliban. So art didn’t stop, it rose above – or rather below – the Taliban and just went underground.

‘Kochi’ by artist Azim Rawofi Credit: Devina Buckshee/The Wire

To preserve their work, Afghan artists carefully painted over any offending bits – which sometimes meant covering the entire canvas. As the Taliban regime fell, so did the hiding. The art and culture scene was slowly entering the mainstream and artists began the hard but long-awaited task of restoring their covered up art. They painstakingly used wet sponges to remove the watercolours they had used to paint over. The idea of subverting dictatorships and oppression through creativity isn’t new, but the way the Afghans preserved their heritage certainly is.

While truly brave, these types of steps taken should not be astonishing as artistic expression can’t ever truly be killed. And for anyone not to be awe-struck by the bravery of the protectors and upholders of art but instead be surprised indicates the influence of a single story. Afghanistan can have the Taliban and an underground art scene, and they both create and contribute to Afghan culture. Just like almost any other country, they also exist in multitudes. We’ve just seen one side, one controlled by those in power at the time and people on the outside. Artists like Attaie say they are here to show us other realities.

Afghan heritage

As the self-proclaimed authority on Islamic and Afghani culture, the Taliban tried to actively destroy any part of the country’s cultural heritage they thought was damaging to its reputation. An example of this is the March 2001 bombing carried out in the Bamiyan Valley where around 6,000 ancient Buddhist statues and antiques were destroyed.

The Buddhist sculptures in Bamiyan by artist Mohibullah Attaie Credit: Devina Buckshee/The Wire

The Buddhist structures in Bamiyan depicted a pre-Islamic Afghanistan and the cave paintings were most likely done by artists travelling along the Silk Road, the ancient trade route that connected the East to the West.

With the prime geographical advantage of being at the intersection of this route, Afghanistan was a hub of cross-pollination between different cultures and civilisation. So to now be reduced to just a war-ridden tragedy devoid of any cultural practices is sad and ironic for a land that was once a site of rich cultural exchanges.

The very existence of art dating back 2,000 years in Afghanistan underscores the country’s rich and ancient cultural heritage. Research shows that the earliest oil paintings were made in Afghanistan around the 7th century CE, before European artists used the same techniques much later in the 15th century.

Thus, to confidently announce limits to artistic expression betrays an obvious historical amnesia about the heritage of Afghanistan.

Re-imagining the Afghan – ‘Sirf jang nahi hai’

Through the exhibition, Attaie talks about presenting new perspectives of his country to the rest of the world. The stereotype of a nation extends to imagining its people in certain ways as well and Attaie re-asserts that “Acche log zyaada hai (There are more good people)” who want to help rebuild the country.

Women artists like Seema Rahnamod, who were mentored by Attaie at Nootaq, also speak of their unique journey with art carrying them through the Taliban years. As in all patriarchal set-ups, there is an added pressure on women to be ‘decent’, and in an Afghanistan still reeling from the Taliban’s conditioning, women artists are often regarded as worse transgressors than their male counterparts.

Seema Rahnamod with Attaie at Gallery Nootaq

However, there has been a rise in the number of women in the art scene, especially in urban spaces. Women like Shamsia Hassani, Afghanistan’s first female street artist, often infuse their art with questions of gender rights. All artists use art to reclaim their narrative, and Afghan women artists are using this to reclaim their space in society. For example, discussions around wearing a hijab are often devoid of the people closest to the issue – women, and Hassani wants Afghan women in the debate. Through her graffiti, she wants to shift from the western perspective of the hijab as a symbol of oppression and barrier to development, and focus on the actual barriers – the lack of access to education for women, infrastructural problems and more.

Primarily though, Afghanistan’s artists are interested in infusing their country with culture and life again, starting formerly repressed conversations and sharing the many different realities that exist along with and beyond a war-riddled tragedy. As Attaie says, “Sirf jang nahi hai (There is not only war here)”.

‘Afghan Art – A Group Exhibition from the Land of Conflict and Hope, is on display at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi from June 5-Jun9, from 11 am to 7 pm.