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Art that Transcends Borders
"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." Mohsen Hussaini
Khadim Ali and Sher Ali, The Haunted Lotus (Nexus Website)
MARZHA/BORDERS is a unique exhibition, housed in the tiny downstairs Nexus Gallery next to the Nexus Multicultural Centre. The title refers to the displacement and chaos created by various socio-political events that have affected the lives of Afghans inside and outside of the country, particularly over the last three decades. The five artists in this exhibition are all responding to this situation, in the context of the ongoing conflict in today's Afghanistan.
Khadim Ali speaking at the opening talk at the Hawke Centre
When I went to the Artist and Curator talk at the Hawke Centre that preceded the opening of this exhibition, I was only vaguely aware of the ancient artistic traditions that are shared by Iran and Afghanistan. I also knew little or nothing about contemporary art in Afghanistan – I wondered if it was possible to continue any kind of normal art practice in such a war-torn nation.
Elyas Alavi, the exhibition's curator who is himself an artist and a poet, fled Afghanistan with some members of his family (some were left behind) to Iran when he was a young child, and sought asylum in South Australia as a young man. He is now completing a Masters in Visual Art at the University of South Australia, and this exhibition grew out of the research he undertook for this degree. He explained in his talk that he, like all the artists in this exhibition, belongs to a persecuted minority in Afghanistan called the Hazara. Although the whole nation of Afghanistan has suffered brutally in the past 30 years, the Hazara have been victims of discrimination and vicious attacks for centuries. All Afghani artists are now finding themselves in a similar position, and many of them are only able to find a voice by living and working in exile. But three of the artists in this exhibition are still based in Kabul, and it is thanks to Elyas' efforts that these artists' works are now able to be viewed by the outside world.
The other speaker at the opening was one of the exhibiting artists, Khadim Ali, a Hazara who was born in Pakistan and now lives in Sydney. His project Transitions / Evacuation is a cross-cultural collaboration with Afghani artist Sher Ali, which he says "engages with the tense political climate of my native Afghanistan through the creation of traditional Indo/Persian miniature painting and Afghan rugs." The result is a stunning series of works much larger than miniature paintings, which feature both demons and lions.
Khadim Ali and Sher Ali, Haunted Lotus (Nexus Website)
Khadim told us that the demons are the victors in the epic poem Shahname by the Persian poet Ferdowsi. When he read this poem he felt frustrated that the hero of the poem was not the victor, but he now associates the concept of demons with the demonising that his own culture has long suffered from, and the demons in his pictures are heroes, not villains.
Sher Ali studied miniature painting alongside Khadim Ali, and his lions are also noble and handsome rather than threatening. The work of these artists has the glowing, jewel-like quality of Persian manuscripts, but the message is nevertheless a modern and a powerful one. Khadim Ali says: "I think I am going back bridging myself to my own dark history to the history of Hazaras. I am trying to hear all those screams and shouts where they were unheard on those dark nights where the massacres started in Afghanistan; I am trying to connect and listen to those voices."
Khadim Ali and Sher Ali, Transition Evacuation (Nexus website)
The works of the other artists in this exhibition are even more arresting, combining to produce an uncompromising assault on the senses. Kubra Khademi creates disturbing videos where she now lives in exile in Paris, and in her piece Ongoing Moment, there is no escape from her suffering: like Munch's 'the Scream' all we can do is stare at it, knowing we have no power to stop it happening.
Kubra Khademi's video installation, 'Ongoing moment',
Kubra Khademi recently staged a public art demonstration in Kabul, which created such a violent reaction she had to escape from the crowds after eight minutes of harrassment.
Hamed Hassanzada's works also have the small scale contemplative quality of Persian manuscripts, but the figures that are painted in blood red or charcoal grey over the elegant Dari script are far from peaceful.
Hamed Hassanzada, image from the 'Marthieth' (Unnamed) series
Mohsen Hossaini's works are perhaps the most graphic of all. The images of bloodied embryos and pain wracked mothers are not easily found on the Internet, and perhaps that adds to the power of this exhibition: you have to go and stand quietly in front of them to absorb their full impact. Both Hossaini and Hassanzada remain in Kabul, unable to exhibit their work, and only able to communicate their art practice through exhibitions such as this one.
The Nexus Gallery is a small, quiet space, and perfectly suited to showing these images. I recommend that you read the accompanying essay by Andrew Hill , Adjunct Associate Professor at the School of Art, Architecture and Design, University of South Australia, either in the gallery or online via this link before you go. These artists deserve a much wider audience, but above all, a thinking audience.