Zainab Haidery never planned to become an artist, but it was only through painting that she felt free.
“Art is a kind of real life which gives you this possibility and power for choosing,” she said in an email to ThinkProgress.
Growing up in Afghanistan, the ravages of war and constraints on women kept Haidery from feeling free to determine her own fate. As an artist, she’s decided to exercise her freedom by taking on a range of styles — from detailed miniatures that have been produced in the region for centuries to abstract takes on traditional motifs or patterns borrowed from folk art.
Her works bear little resemblance to the images of Afghanistan printed across newspapers, but Haidery insisted, “My focus is…my reality.”
A desire to represent what they see of their country — and how their country sees them — is a major force behind the works of many of Afghanistan’s women artists. Although few of the artists depict the war-ravaged landscape of Afghanistan, many can be read as portraits of its war-weary people.
Largely beaten back by American forces in the past, the Taliban have revived a campaign of bombings, assassinations, and kidnappings. More than 3,500 Afghan civilians were killed last year as a result of war, making it the most deadly year for civilians on record. Aid organizations have warned that this year may well end up to be even worse.
“If you are from a country as troublesome as Afghanistan, you are bound to be affected by [its political failings],” Jahan Ara Rafi, another artist, told ThinkProgress.
Like Haidery, however, she said that her work reflects the impressions the country’s ongoing conflict has cast upon her more than actual circumstances.
Rafi, who began painting more than a decade ago while living in Islamabad, Pakistan, added, “I believe that it is every artists’ duty to portray their society’s realities, because…artists are like a bridge that connects various unconnected societies.”
The notion that art might be able to bring disparate people together is a compelling one in a country that has seen so much bloodshed across ethnic lines.
“I always wanted to be an artist,” said graffiti artist Shamsia Hassani, “because the language of arts belongs to everyone, it does not belong to a tribe or specific language.”
Hassani’s work has become easy to spot in Kabul. Her characteristic sky blue swirls and figures of women adorn long-abandoned and bullet-riddled buildings across the capital city.
When asked why she decided to make the city her canvas, she said, “To introduce arts to people, to remove memories of war from the walls of Kabul, to bring back women to the streets for reminding people that women exist in the society, to change the damaged faces of women in the society, and give women a powerful face.”
Women who raise their voices against social norms tend to be dealt with in especially harsh ways, and not just by militant groups. In March, a 27-year-old religious scholar who questioned the sale of amulets at a shrine in Kabul was beaten to death by more than a hundred men. Women now have far more rights than they did under the Taliban, but many women are kept from going to school, finding work, or marrying freely. While dozens of women servein the Afghan parliament, many of them do despite threats on their lives from militants and pressure from their families to leave their posts. According to one U.N. official, the physical, sexual, and, psychological abuse of Afghan women has reached an epidemic level.
“Knowing that galleries in Afghanistan are only for the educated and rich,” Hassani added, “I believed that the only way everyone can enjoy arts, is to put it outside in every wall of the city. That is why I started doing graffiti.”
Her work isn’t just strewn across the city. Much of it appears to offer an escape from it. Through lettering that appears to float whimsically over sandstone houses, or a series of buildings that seem rise up from a tiled floor, Hassani’s work extends beyond Kabul and into the imagination.
That’s a part of her mission as an artist.
“I want my artworks to give positive energy to people,” Hassani said. “I never introduce and talk about my artworks and what they represent, I let people to get an idea, their idea, of what they see.”
But while Hassani’s work has drawn increased recognition within the country, others noted that their work is not received favorably.
“I was not able to work and paint the paintings of my interest, because the society is very extremist,” Faiqa Sultani said. “I was threatened many times.”
Despite the risks, however, she has continued to paint — and has not shied away from work that falls afoul of the strict social mores to which many in Afghanistan adhere.
Currently, Sultani said, she’s working on a series of paintings on mirrors, mainly of nude women.
Although she’s pleased with how the works have progressed, she said, “I have not made the paintings public because they are very sensitive.”
In order to pursue the themes and styles without having to censor herself, Sultani has decided to disregard the local art scene and hopes instead for an international audience.
For some artists though, Kabul is affording more and more possibilities.
The Kabul Art Project, which has featured the work of all the artists mentioned here, has been key in promoting contemporary Afghan artists around the world.
“Until thirteen years ago most of artistic work was prohibited by the Taliban regime under penalty of death. Contemporary Art had to be re-discovered by the new generation of Afghan artists,” Christina Hallmann, the Project’s founder said in a statement that accompanied a gallery show featuring Afghan artists at the Penticton Gallery in Canada.
Hallmann said that while their work has gained international attention, the work is still viewed with skepticism in Afghanistan.
“Within the last two years some of our artists experienced several cases of deliberate destruction of their artworks, even by government institutions such as the National Gallery in Kabul, and some artists were attacked and threatened by Taliban,” she said.
Still, Jahan Ara Rafi said that there has been a bit of a “ray of hope” for her and fellow artists in Afghanistan.
“Opportunities are being made,” she said, “and such opportunities are making the young artist motivated to work harder than ever.”