Sunday Magazine ~~ September 14, 2008
Beyond the frame
In Afghanistan, where art is frowned upon, a group of young women use abstract and contemporary lines to explore themes of violence and regeneration. Their paintings will be exhibited in Kolkata from September 19 to 27.
A visual language of their own: Yalda Noori with “Life Passage” (Aunohita Mojumdar )
Yalda Noori is a contemporary artist. Her paintings reveal an engagement with social concerns. Her technique masters a variety of styles. In a haunting painting which she calls “Life passage”, a purple sky frames a landscape of cacti plants. Suspended in front is a white translucent bubble with green plants and flowers, almost ephemeral. “I wanted to show the wishes, the dreams of women. They are as fragile as the bubble against the harsh realities of the wishes of other people who do not want women to achieve these dreams.” The painting could have been from anywhere. What makes it remarkable is that it was created in Afghanistan by one of a group of young Afghan women who are breaking new ground by exploring intricate themes of violence and regeneration through contemporary art.
An exhibition of their paintings has travelled to India, the first time their paintings are being exhibited in the region outside Afghanistan. The exhibition, organised by the ICCR, will be in Delhi before travelling to Kolkata.
The Taliban ban on most forms of art along with other forms of cultural expression is by now quite well known. Paintings were dragged out of homes, offices and museums and burnt, books with art work were burnt, museum collections were systematically destroyed and film archives were purged to cleanse them of the “unIslamic” depiction of the living, especially human form.
Tradition of suppression
The damage to Afghan art did not however begin or end with them. The Soviet interpretation of art stifled creativity in the 1980s when the country was under a Soviet-backed regime. The mujahideen who replaced them in power after the fall of the last communist president Najibullah at best tolerated some forms of art and music, with the more conservative elements amongst them disapproving of it entirely.
Even when not directly damaged due to State policies, art suffered during the decades of conflict as people struggled for survival, being forced to pack their belongings and move again, again and again. Art, a luxury, became one of the first casualties of war.
Since 2001 and the removal of the Taliban there is no political repression of art. However, conservative attitudes remain entrenched in a large section of Afghan society. The long hiatus of the years of war has however meant there was scant opportunity for art or art appreciation to develop. Today the streets of Kabul and the small number of art galleries are dominated by kitsch: imitative paintings of Napoleon on a horse, Western stereotypes of Afghanistan with the mandatory Bactrian camels, burkhas and Bamiyan Buddhas. At its best, the art is well executed renditions of realistic or classical paintings. At its worst, it recreates the picture postcards sold as souvenirs.
The development of art is further constrained by the insecurity and difficult economic conditions. Fighting has steadily escalated in large parts of the south and the last three months have seen a doubling of the number of incidents of violence. Bombings, suicide attacks, kidnapping and criminality are quite routine even in the capital city Kabul.
On the economic front, despite $15 million in aid having already been disbursed in the country since 2001, the economic conditions of most Afghans is difficult if not desperate as the gains of aid have been inequitably distributed amongst peoples and regions. Food insecurity has grown and in a situation where 35 per cent of the population cannot meet its minimum dietary needs, art still remains an unaffordable luxury.
Words won't do
Nabila Horakhsh’s “Double Standards” (Aunohita Mojumdar)
It is in this milieu that the young women have ventured into the non-traditional area of modern and abstract art, while acknowledging that it does not lend itself to easy interpretations. “Realistic art feels like being within a frame. I find it easier to express myself through contemporary art. When I cannot find words for what I want to say, I paint” says Yalda. Her fellow student at Kabul’s new Contemporary Art Centre Afghanistan(CCAA), 21-year-old Nabila Horakhsh agrees. In the painting “Double Standards”, on exhibit in the IIC, Horakhsh says she wanted to show the different situation for men and women in Afghan society. “It is up to the viewer to interpret my paintings through their own understanding. Their own feelings of happiness or sadness.”
Talking to this reporter in their Centre in Kabul before leaving for India, both Yalda and Nabila expressed their excitement. Friends and family have given them shopping lists which they hope to fulfil but most of all they would like to meet artists. “Will anyone famous come to our exhibition? Where can we meet other students of art? Can we see the fine arts faculty? We want to know what other women painters paint.”
Both the young women consider themselves lucky. They have supportive families and the freedom to attend University as well as take classes in the Centre. But they are very much aware that this is not the choice that most women in their society can exercise.
Despite the removal of the Taliban, who were equated with discrimination against women of the worst kind and a new Constitutional guarantee of equality, women in Afghanistan face multiple forms of discrimination with little acceptance of their role in participation in public space. One woman dies in childbirth every 29 minutes, female literacy is 15.8 per cent, 70-80 per cent of the marriages in Afghanistan are forced marriages (including marriage of minor girls) and some aspects of Afghanistan’s customary laws allow women to be bartered as restitution for criminal acts, debts and other forms of payment. Even the “modern” law treats women as suspects rather than victims in crimes like rape and other violence, while the judiciary imprisons women who run away from abusive homes, while condoning honour killings by treating them far more leniently than murder. It is a reality that finds expression in a lot of the paintings, but not all the paintings by the young women artists are about women or their dismal situation.
Muqaddasa Yourish’s “Primary Colours” is a bold melange of primary colours in geometrical shapes on a canvas slashed through the middle with a knife. “The primacy colours are the building blocks of all colours and here they represent the fundamentals of my country. The cut through them is the injury to my country from the years of fighting,” she says.
Ommolbanin Shamsia has been painting for as long as she can remember, as a child and refugee in Iran. But this is the first time that this student of accountancy is taking classes in art. Her painting “Portal” shows a woman standing at the edge of a pool of water. Reflected from the water is not the woman but a young green tree. “This represents woman as life, as regeneration,” she says.
The young painters are aware that their paintings are more “difficult”, less easy on the eyes and even disturbing. Manezha Hewad, who will also be exhibiting her works in Delhi, says she has “sacrificed beauty for concept as I felt that to be more important.”
Most of the students have not studied art before attending this Centre started by the artist and teacher in the Fine Arts Faculty of Kabul University, Mr. Rahraw Omarzad.
Omarzad’s impetus to start the centre came from his experience in the arts faculty. “By the time the students go through four years of traditional art courses and come to the subject of contemporary art, they have already lost the ability to think out of the box.” Omarzad eschewed traditional methods like teaching the students the history of modern art or its techniques. “I just asked them to create art and we discussed each art work in the class. I didn’t want them to learn or follow any ‘isms’ but to learn to think independently”.
Omarzad has much to be proud of. A shy man, he is quick to point out that the real stars are the painters and not himself. But underneath his quiet manners is a strong core of belief, a faith that keeps him going even though till date the Centre has not received any core funding, surviving from what it makes from one exhibition to another. The concept of contemporary women’s art in Afghanistan is still too unusual for people, whether Afghans or international donors, to invest in.