Towering buddhas, fiery demons, majestic lions and boats tossed in the stormy seas. These are just some of the compelling motifs that define the dramatic works of Quetta-born artist Khadim Ali who graduated with a specialization in miniature painting from the National College of Arts. Since then he has exhibited extensively both nationally and internationally. Ali hails from the Hazara tribe and his work highlights the trauma and persecution that this ethnic minority has endured over generations. Themes of displacement and loss are addressed through his paintings, murals, rugs and tapestries.
In 2009 Khadim Ali immigrated to Australia where he currently resides. This interview with him has been conducted over email.
ZM: You visited Bamiyan, Afghanistan in 2002 after the destruction of the Buddhas. Is that what kindled an interest in the use of the Buddha figure as a trope in your paintings?
KA: The imagery of the Buddhas of Bamiyan was carved in my imagination even before visiting Bamiyan. The background visuals in most of my childhood stories, told by my exiled grandparents were set in Bamiyan. So yes, my visit to Bamiyan in 2002 inspired me to respond to the absence of the giant Buddhas.
ZM: The work that you produced in Documenta 13 shows a prone Buddha sculpture in the backdrop. It often reminds me of the Buddha figure in Nadeem Aslam’s book “The Wasted Vigil” where it emerges as a sort of fallen figure/ silent witness yet it also has the capacity to heal so there is hope. How have you used or looked at this motif in your paintings?
KA: The Buddhas of Bamiyan were the historic icon of the Hazarajat – the land of the Hazaras – living in so many songs and stories. And now the fragments of these statues recite the stories of hundreds of years of hatred and exclusion, from the “ Buth-Shekani” era of Hazrat Ibrahim to the latest catastrophe of ISIS, destroying the historical artefacts in Syria. I am assembling these fragments in my works to keep the stories of my grandparents alive.
ZM: In your works, cultural icons such as Rustam etc. have almost been subverted or robbed of their representation- they have an ominous presence. They exude authority, malice, power and at other times they are part sentinels. Who are these demons? What role do they play in your paintings?
KA: Every theology is based on good and evil; divided in black and white. Colours are lost. Shades are unknown. The unfortunate minorities have been sacrificed during the formation of this holiness. Heros were created on the feeble of blood. None of the heroes survived in the stories of Shahnamah, but the demons did. The demons are an errant emblem of the dehumanised people of the region.
ZM: What role does text play in your work?
KA: My works follow the format of Shahnamah, where text is narrating the perplexity of the work. It is not readable but then the Shahnamah is made up of many stories so my text/work is part of the bigger stories, a poem that is related to the content.
ZM: What artists or texts (apart from Shahnamah if any) have influenced or inspired your work?
KA: Two artists have inspired my works the most – the 14th century master Muhammad Siyah Qalam and in contemporary miniature painters, Muhammad Imran Qureshi.
ZM: Can you talk about The Absent Kitchen series in detail, what it was about and how it transformed or influenced your work? In one of your series, children’s drawings have been juxtaposed with the Buddha figure, did that emerge out of your workshop experience?
KA: The Absent Kitchen series was a collaborative work between the bunker born kids of Bamiyan, Japanese school children and myself. It was produced and evolved during my residency at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. I went to Bamiyan right after the fall of the Taliban regime and conducted drawing workshops with school children – there was no classroom and school infrastructure, students were sitting on the hills of their destroyed valleys to learn and look to the future. In the workshops, they were asked to draw anything they felt and imagined. The drawings they produced illustrated the violence of the Taliban such as the destruction of Buddhas, massacre scenes, house and school burnings, imprisoned family members. Then I went to primary schools in Fukuoka for the same drawing workshops their drawings were filled with video games and anime cartoon characters. I overlapped drawings from both the Bamiyan and Fukuoka workshops to come up with a body of works. The title The Absent Kitchen was actually a title of a drawing by a child who was part of the Fukoka workshop.
ZM: When did you start thinking about expanding the scale of your works and why?
KA: I was a naïve propaganda mural painter in Iran between1996-97. We better talk about the scale of miniature painting here: my classmate from NCA, a good friend of mine, Qaiser Khan, even caught me crying while struggling with miniature painting in the second year of college. So now I am experimenting with different mediums and scales.
ZM: What prompted you to change mediums and start transferring your iconography on rugs and tapestries? Was it in 2012? Can you talk about that journey/process?
KA: Tapestry and rug weaving is a traditional family practice. On 31st of August in 2011, on a beautiful morning of Eid a suicide bomber blew himself in a car next to my parents’ house. Luckily both my parents and my brother survived after being critically injured. We lost all our belongings, but a pair of rugs in our family room survived the destruction. This event made me think of changing to a more resilient medium as I lost all my artworks on the Wasli paper. Also, when I look at the Afghan war rugs, they were woven during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan by Afghan refugees on their way to Pakistan. The content of the rugs emerged from the schoolbooks of the refugee children studying about Jihad in the camps – later they became known as the Afghan war rugs.
I was born and lived with tapestries and their significance. I had painted murals before I was a miniaturist. I think it came out as a work of art at a time that I was able to deliver my content and meaning because the medium accepted it.
ZM: You talk about the persecution of the Hazara community yet the work also mourns the loss of collective identity. Do you think your work has the potential to carry a sort of universal message since you constantly refer to “good” and “evil” or are you questioning those ideals?
KA: In my works, I carry the voice of my plight. My community has been shedding blood and giving sacrifices for a man-made narrative of good and evil. It is a repeated pattern in the tragedy of human history – we can all see it, some of us can feel it, and maybe a few can relate to it.
ZM: Can you talk about the title and concept behind the series of paintings titled “Transition/Evacuation” (2016)? What is it about? Were you referring to your life/events in your life when you titled this series?
KA: The year 2014 featured national and international headlines that covered Afghanistan’s transition and evacuation of forces. More than 100,000 international forces were evacuated and security was transferred to the Afghan forces. International organisations shrank their humanitarian works across Afghanistan. Infrastructure projects were downsized and job opportunities declined. The Taliban returned with even more fighters and enlarged the scale of their violence. It was an intense period where the change was for the worse, from hope to hopelessness. The 2014 deadline to wrap up the War on Terror in Afghanistan and withdraw forces resulted in a power and security vacuum that left the people of Afghanistan even more devastated with a dark picture of their future. Hence the title and content of the work.
ZM: You have also recently started addressing issues of displacement and migration more directly in your works. Has the experience of living in Australia also affected your cultural or artistic sensibilities in any way?
KA: I was born as a displaced person in a displaced family, and now four decades later, I belong to a community of the displaced people. When I was attending school in Pakistan I was referred to as an outsider as the school was located outside my town. And then attending college as an art student at a national level, I could still feel the displacement and was not able to root myself as a local artist with a history and a future. And now in Australia, my convenient title is ‘refugee artist’ – although I did not come to Australia as a refugee – but I am seen from the community of the displaced and the refugees. Hence, displacement and migration are inseparable from my being.
ZM: Your recent works such as The Arrivals #6 and the Arrivals #7 exhibited at Brisbane’s Milani Gallery seem to give voice to issues of migration and displacement through a global lens and even a political lens seen through a global perspective. Can you talk about these works and their concepts?
KA: Currently, there are more than 60 million refugees in the world. Refugees from different places have always existed and for various reasons. But it was the political atmosphere of the time that framed the narratives of the refugees. “The Arrival” series refers to the current narrative of the demonization of the refugees. The refugee crisis is a humanitarian plight, not a political decision. Humanity is lost when human suffering is scaled into statistics.