Themes of migration, displacement and identity have been informing contemporary art since some time now. Currently, some of the best works in this regard are being created by Middle Eastern artists whose continued efforts to make their predicament on displacement known has earned them a prominent space on contemporary art’s spectrum. Pakistan has uniquely emerged on the art map over the years, with its own fair share of fascinating art, ideas of which have been borrowed and fused with themes in political ideologies, philosophical movements and crisis of humanity. Pakistan shares her borders with Iran and Afghanistan, the latter has seen intense migrations and mass displacement of people happening due to political unrest. Artists whose heritage roots belong to both of these lands have seen and heard perhaps a tad bit more than an ordinary citizen and it is with that experience, that Khadim Ali brings his art titled ‘The Otherness’ to the table.
For Ali, the otherness is a sense of being. The others are the sufferers of political and human rights crisis, disbanded all over the globe. These people are abandoned when displaced and can only rely on the efforts of the privileged human beings. However, while the others might be scared and at a loss at aiding themselves, they are also the oppressed or the ‘image of the oppressed’ as Ali puts it. It is thus that imagery of ‘demons with horns’ occupy almost every painting of Ali, where the subject matter is clearly a portrayal of the loss and the senselessness that comes with dislocation. Are these very victims turning into demons because of their circumstances? Or is the ruling authority a devil, that is actually the culprit behind the demonizing of the oppressed?
Khadim Ali comes from Quetta, Pakistan, with heritage belonging to Afghanistan. He has witnessed turbulence in the times of the Taliban when hordes of people were escaping for their freedom and lives to neighboring countries, especially Pakistan which today is home to a large number of Afghan refugees. Amidst the unrest, Ali was able to complete his education in Fine Arts and subsequently exhibit in not only Pakistan but Japan, Germany, Australia and UK. He has been painting themes in theology, global migration and poetry. Imagery of Afghan children and refugees have also been a major part of his artistic endeavor.
So what makes his current work compelling? In one painting we see four ‘demonic’ individuals, lying on the deck of a ship. With all the time in the world, the individuals represent the plight of the refugees who board ships to cross over oceans from their homeland to foreign territories. Oppressed, plagued and finally demonized to be capable of almost anything, the people in Ali’s work represent not only their crisis but also their geographies and the culture they are a part of it. In one painting another of the demonic persons sits on a couch upon something that resembles guts and blood. At the back is a painting of what seems to be the Buddha. Ali high lights how every sect and religion has demons of their own which also seem to be angelic in their guises. Chaos and confusion seem to be one of the agenda with no boundaries when it comes to determining what is right and what is not.
Is it fair though to compare the stranded people with demons? Are they nothing but a product of their circumstance or can they be something more? Perhaps we will see to that in more of Ali’s works in the future. For now, he has established his hold on the subject with works that bring out food for thought, laden with symbols, calligraphy and horns. Ali leaves us pondering over the identities of the angels and the demons.