September Issue 2014
Interview: Khadim Ali
Discrimination. Displacement. Genocide. The themes in Khadim Ali’s work chronicle the history of the Hazara people. Driven out of Afghanistan in large numbers in the late 19th century, the ethnic minority group sought sanctuary in what was then British-ruled India. Two generations later, a new monster in the shape of sectarianism has once again made them outsiders in their country of birth.
In recent times, a record number of Hazaras have found asylum in Australia — a land far from home, and far from the violence and uncertainty of it as well. An ethnic Hazara himself, the Quetta-born Ali emigrated to Australia in December 2009, under the category of ‘Distinguished Talent,’ which allows international artists to live and work in the country. He hails from a generation of National College of Arts (NCA) graduates who specialised and made a name for themselves in the discipline of miniature painting.
Demons dominate his canvas. Sometimes, they are depicted as warriors, pot-bellied and grotesque; at other times as victims, gentle and passive. Almost always, there is the Buddha hovering in the backdrop, as a ghost of history or a bloodied and enchained fatality of a bigoted present.
In a Skype conversation from his studio in Sydney, the artist speaks to Newsline about his life and works.
What was Quetta like when you were growing up? Is it a different city now?
My family were settled in Quetta long before Partition. My grandparents were serving in the British army. After Partition, they chose to live close to the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, in the hope that Afghanistan would one day be free and that they would go back and claim their lands that were captured during the genocide in 1890 — most Hazaras were killed, but my grandparents managed to escape.
Hazaras in Quetta live between the cantonment area and the city. I was sent to a church for my schooling, as we lived alongside a small Christian minority population. Quetta was heaven in those days. It was a peaceful and beautiful city. I had a sense that this was my homeland.
But as I grew older, I realised that Hazaras do not belong to this land. We are discriminated against everywhere. For example, when we go to get our CNIC card or passport made, the first question we are often asked is, “Muhajir, tumhay Pakistani citizenship kisne diya? Tum kab se Pakistani banay?” Hazaras actually have to pay a big bribe just to get their identity cards issued. I often feel the displacement of Hazaras is not only geographical, but that we are being wiped out of history as well.
What do you consider home?
I’ve lived in London, Toronto, Tokyo, Tehran, Karachi and Lahore at various points in my life. At the moment, I have a Pakistani passport and identity card.
I had visited Australia five times, all for the purposes of art, prior to settling here. One of the reasons for moving to Australia was my studies. The other was because I wanted to live in a milder climate, and Quetta was too cold.
When did you first develop an interest in art? More specifically, in miniature?
I was always interested in art — drawing, painting and other artistic activities. When I was a child, I would collect charcoal from bakeries and draw on the walls and floors of my house.
My interest in miniature came from hearing the stories of the Shahnama (The Book of Kings), the Persian epic by Ferdowsi, written in the court of Mahmud Ghaznavi, in the Ghazni province of Afghanistan. It is considered to be the pinnacle of Persian literature.
When my grandfather left Afghanistan for India, he carried two books with him: one was the Holy Quran and the second, the Shahnama. I grew up listening to him singing poetry from it, as crowds would gather to hear his voice. The illustrated version of the book contained miniature paintings from 15th century Iran and Afghanistan, which was my first encounter with the discipline.
In 2006, I travelled to Iran to work on murals, and it was here I learnt that they taught miniature painting as a craft. Being an ‘Afghan-Pakistani’ — since my features were very ‘Afghan’ to them, but my passport was Pakistani — they were very discriminating, which is why I eventually left the country in 2008.
When I returned to Pakistan, someone told me that NCA offered specialisation in miniature. I was absolutely elated. I applied for a scholarship and got it.
What was NCA like?
I would say it was the golden period of my life. I have very fond memories of my time there, of the quality of training I received and the friends I made along the way. I went there with barely any language skills — since my language was Hazaragi, which is a dialectic of Persian — and my friends taught me Urdu and English.
Would you say your works are political?
I think every work of art is political. I sometimes feel my works are not politically thought, but they are politically done.
What are some of the themes you consciously explore?
It’s very personal. It is about me, but at the same time, I’m drawing a trajectory between my own past and the dark history of the Hazaras — and not just history, it’s what we are still going through. My work is about the dehumanisation and the demonisation of my people.
Were the demons in your works not representative of extremists in your midst? You mentioned in another interview that you would sometimes hear the Taliban in Quetta shouting that they were “the new Rustam” and “the Rustam of Islam,” a reference to the hero of the Shahnama…
Initially, yes. When I first painted demons, I painted them as I thought they would look. I picked the features from the people I saw around me, the people around the Hazaras, who were responsible for the massacres. This can be seen in the Rustam Series.
But then I made a switch with The Haunted Lotus. I realised that it was we who were, in fact, demons to them. And when I was listening to the stories of the Shahnama, the hero Rustam was fighting demons, who were known as the infidels who resided in the caves and mountains. I did my research and realised that the Hazaras in Bamiyan lived in the caves in the high mountains up until 2001, in the Buddhist sites. I found similarities between Hazaras and the lives of demons in that book. So I paint demons as the collective portrait of Hazaras, through the eyes of others.
When I started painting demons, there were many critics who were… almost angry at me. Why am I painting these ugly beasts? Why am I not painting something beautiful? But I was not market-conscious; I was not thinking in terms of what will sell.
And the Buddha is representative of…
I’m following the format of the Shahnama. The author of the epic mentions real places, even though the characters are fictitious. The Buddha represents the homeland of the Hazaras of Afghanistan — the land of the Bamiyan Buddhas, which were blown up in March, 2001 by the Taliban. One of the justifications used to kill Hazaras is the accusation of being worshippers of those idols.
Many of your paintings contain inscriptions. What language is it and what does the text say?
The black text is Arabic and the red is Persian. In the writing in black, the words all begin with the letter Toi (for Taliban). I got the idea from text books used by the mujahideen: Alif for Allah, Jeem for Jihad, Kaaf for Kaffir or Kalashnikov, etc. This was the time the Taliban were starting to get multicultural. There were the Punjabi Taliban, the Sindhi Taliban, Americans, Uzbeks, Chechens and Arabs. So I mixed Toi with Seen (for Sindh), with Pay (Punjab) and so on.
The text has no meaning to it. When I visited the Buddhist sites in Bamiyan in 2002, I saw the Taliban — who had made the caves their bunkers — had engraved their names on the fresco paintings inside the caves. Things like, for example, ‘Yaadgaari Mulla Naqeeb’ (In memory of Mullah Naqeeb). The names and text, which documented the number of times they visited, were overlapping each other to the point that it was not readable. So that’s the inspiration behind the technique.
You also conducted a workshop for children in Bamiyan.
That was part of my residency in Tokyo, which was set up by Naiza Khan. I worked with children who were born in bunkers during the Taliban rule, who grew up surrounded by the sound of gunfire and explosions. Their drawings were full of weapon imagery: The boys’ drawings were about war and fighting and the girls’ revolved around the kitchen and butchering animals.
I then asked Japanese students to draw over the Afghan children’s drawings. I painted over the overlapped drawings for a series called Absent Kitchen, which was a commentary on how Afghanistan is a cooking lab for international powers to fight their proxy wars.
There was collaborative artwork you did with Sher Ali, titled ‘Transition/Evacuation,’ in which Ali’s lions are ferociously attacking your demons, who seem quite unaffected…
It’s part of a series we’re working on currently. I met Sher Ali on my visit to Kabul and found him to be a very skilled painter. He was looking to do something serious in art, so I invited him to visit my studio in Karachi and to work on a collaborative project.
He started painting circus lions, because the Afghans would call themselves the ‘Lion Nation.’ Comparing themselves to lions was, in a way, discarding their own human status. I was also working on the status of the Hazara people. Both were dehumanising.
Which of your works or projects have you found the most satisfying?
Nothing is satisfying in the work of art. It’s thrilling and challenging, but I’m never completely satisfied with any of my artworks.
This interview was originally published in Newsline’s September 2014 issue.
The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.