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Written by Hemavathy Guha
By the time, one exits the Latitude Gallery in Lado Sarai after seeing the exhibition and viewing the works of the Afghani artist, Khadim ali, one’s mind is full of queries- to know the history of the tribe of Hazaras (to which community, the artist belongs),the life and adventures of the legendary hero, Rustum and the epic which narrates the story of kings-the Shahnameh, penned by the poet Ferdowsi. The little bit of knowledge that we Indians have is about the Persian hero Rustam and the epic battle with his son Sohrab in which he accidentally kills his own son. But as Khadim Ali enunciates, the book shahnameh is not just a historical one with narratives pertaining to kings, but it holds a special place in the history of Persian literature and its characters are melded into the Hazara people’s instincts.
Hazaras, literally meaning ‘a thousand people’ are an ethnic community in Afghanistan and traditionally the Bamian valley has been home to them. They were severely persecuted throughout the period of Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001.
Khadim’s family fled to Pakistan to escape the Taliban prosecution during late 1970’s and Khadim was brought up as an Afghan refugee in Quetta, Pakistan. One can very well empathise with the plight of a refugee family as well as the sensitive thought of an artist’s child brought up in such violent and tragic circumstances. Between 1988-89, he studied mural painting and calligraphy in Tehran, Iran and then went on to do a course in traditional miniature painting at The National College of Arts, Lahore, Pakistan earning his BFA and then moved to Sydney in 2010 and received an MFA at the college of fine arts, University of New south wales in 2012.He has held several solo shows in Australia, Singapore, Hongkong, Pakistan and also participated in several prestigious exhibitions including the documenta (13) Kassel. He also participated in an art residency at Fukuoka Asian art museum (2006) and Asian arts initiatives, Tokyo (2007). However most of the exhibitions he has been a part of do allude to Asian art, cross art, refugees and the east and west paradigms.
In this particular exhibition titled as ‘Forlorn Foe’, Khadim has exhibited 10 gauche paintings on wasli paper laced with gold leaf and a single tapestry in wool, cotton, natural and chrome dye and gold leaf. While we have been witness to several artists from the National College of arts, Lahore working in the miniature tradition on wasli paper, Khadim has worked similarly but has used subdued colours in the form of grey, turquoise green, little bit of orange and the gold leaf unlike the others .The figures in the paintings, as Khadim says, are the characters taken from the epic Shahnameh. While he speaks of different characters, they have all been depicted with similar facial features, expressions, drooping and defeated looks, two horns, flowing beards, wings or hallows and elongated ears. Khadim explains that the conditions portrayed by the hero Rustam and the other characters of Shahnameh in actuality are similar to the “condition of ‘hazaras’ in history who are demons of their geo historic location and of their displaced identity”. While he was painting the characters of Rustam, Sohrab and Esfandiyaar, he was trying to reveal the historical animalization of heroic characters and the systematic demonization of minorities like Hazara through out history. Even the hero, Rustam, accidently killing his own son in the battle equals to killing of the ‘future’ and his character has special significance for Khadim ali.
While the family of Khadim shifted to Quetta as refugees, they were not initially accepted by the local community and were isolated. This lead them to earn a livelihood using the knowledge of weaving known to them. During the nights, there were customs of storytelling and he used to listen to his grandfather singing verses from the Shahnameh. The child grew up seeing the illustrations in the book and was fascinated by them. Amalgamating the memories of the illustrations which he had seen as a young boy with the miniature painting techniques which he learnt in the college, he evolved his own style of miniature painting in a contemporary manner. Tapestry and Afghan war rugs was nothing new to him and he had been involved in designing war rugs during mid 1990’s. In 2011,in a tragic event of bomb blast, he lost all the things he had inherited except for a rug which had been passed down during generations within his family. He is wary of mediums which are easily prone to destructions and feels tapestry is a more resilient medium.
Today when the entire world is poised on the threshold of war and war like situations, the exhibition ‘Forlorn foe’ is a portrayal of the ridiculousness of war from a neutral perspective. Khadim feels that it is a metaphysical moment when after decades of bloodshed and tragedy, the actors ‘foes’ and ‘friends’, reach a conclusion that the war is never ending and he particularly refers to the failure of peace talks in Afghanistan to end the strife of four decades. I shall quote him here: ‘forlorn foe depicts that stage in war where the narratives of conflict, the heroism of ‘friends’ and the demonization of foes become empty signifiers.’
The exhibition was on view at Latitude 28 gallery, Lado Sarai, New Delhi till 29th October 2016.