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What does it mean to be an artist in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan?

Netherlands-based Afghan artist Malina Suliman feels that for most cultural practitioners back home, art is political and about making a statement

Malina Suliman at the Emergence festival in Sicily, italy. Photo: courtesy the artist
Malina Suliman at the Emergence festival in Sicily, italy. Photo: courtesy the artist

When visual and conceptual artist Malina Suliman saw a social media appeal by artists, including Afghan film-maker Sahraa Karimi, two weeks ago about saving artists and the arts, it took her back in time. Over seven years ago, the artist had to flee her home-town, Kandahar, in Afghanistan due to threats from the Taliban. For Malina, who now lives in the Netherlands, the appeal brought back memories of 2013, when she first realised she and her family could no longer stay in Kandahar.

Today, history seems to be repeating itself for artists, musicians and film-makers as the Taliban impose their rule over the vast majority of Afghanistan. Hundreds of cultural practitioners are in hiding, fearing for their lives.

It’s a plight Malina can empathise with. She herself had to face the ire of conservative groups for graffiti art and paintings that questioned extremism and conservatism, and advocated the rights of women. She would use keys, skeletons and the burqa as recurring motifs in her work.

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Her family too frowned upon her work. In 2009, when Malina returned to Afghanistan after completing a fine arts bachelor’s programme in Karachi, Pakistan, they virtually placed her under house arrest, with no access to outsiders or the internet.

But when she was attacked with rocks and got death threats, they left for India in search of refuge. In Mumbai, she enrolled for a short course in metal work at the Sir JJ School of Arts. “India, to me, will always represent safety,” she says. They moved back, to Kabul, in 2014. Her family stayed there, while Malina moved to the Netherlands, pursuing a master’s in arts from the Dutch Art Institute and winning a fellowship under the Artist Protection Fund.

‘Beyond the Veil: A decontextualisation' (2015)
‘Beyond the Veil: A decontextualisation' (2015)

Today, as scarring images emerge from Afghanistan, Malina is praying for their safety. During the interview, she ponders on how her life’s moments have informed her practice. “Artists can’t create without drawing on their lived experiences. I respected my family but there were limitations and restrictions, such as on education,” she says in a video call.

Her portfolio states: “[But] She immersed herself in contemporary and street art in order to raise awareness around youth’s and women’s rights. Her work generated a healthy discussion around the issue of violence against young women, resulting in mobilisation for social justice.” Malina’s work was about finding a voice first within her family, and then in society. But the conservative groups didn’t see her work as one woman speaking for herself, but as a catalyst who would make more women think like her.

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She rues the fact that the media’s attention has always been on the depiction of the burqa in her work and not the overarching intention behind her practice, which is to talk about women’s rights. “Whether it is the usage of keys in paintings or my sculptures, it is all about the agency of women. Burqa is just one element of it,” says Malina. “In Kandahar, not all men ask you to wear the burqa. Some women do it of their own choice as they feel naked without it. So, does that mean they are liberated? No, they are repressed in other ways. I am talking about this suppression beyond the burqa.”

Over the past decade, Malina has based her practice on notions of culture, religion and honour, and their impact on women’s lives. Sometimes, she says, culture overshadows religion. “In the name of the culture, the conservative groups say women have to cover their entire faces or not go to school and own businesses. In religion, you don’t have such taboos. My work shows the artificiality of such culture.”

But she doesn’t compare Western and Afghan culture. She views both with a critical lens, noting that the West demands refugees erase their ways and integrate with its culture. She also questions the colonisation of art. In Afghan society, where many couldn’t read or write, and where women were not allowed to visit galleries, she believes her work had an important role to play. “In that situation, my work became symbolic. I brought art out to the street so that women could at least become aware of their rights,” she says. “However, in the West, art is taken as property. Here, people decide what is art or not. This question, for me, is ever-evolving.”

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A graffiti work from Dusseldorf, Germany. Image: courtesy the artist
A graffiti work from Dusseldorf, Germany. Image: courtesy the artist

Today, her practice has diversified to incorporate conceptual, performative and project-oriented art. Away from home, her practice now examines conflicts resulting from the juxtaposition of collective identity with exiled identities. One of her ongoing research-based installation projects looks at the links of the turban with male identity and how it has come to represent male power, status, position and influence across various cultures.

So, what role can the arts play in Afghanistan right now? Practical, Malina believes the first goal has to be to stay safe. If the artist is not safe, who will make art, she asks. “If you see (the work) of most artists in Afghanistan, none are creating works around beautiful things like flowers or nature. Most of the art is political, about making a statement. Hence the first danger right now is to artists.”

She notes that artists, especially in Afghanistan, have made considerable sacrifices to create a practice for themselves. Most of them do it out of passion, with no financial support. “Nothing else is more important. If they can’t create, then they are finished. I can’t stop thinking about this,” she says.

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