Artist beats the odds to create art

Updated 29 January 2013

Artist beats the odds to create art

Charred bodies lie scattered against blood-stained walls and debris covers the ground. For Afghanistan, the only unusual thing in this gruesome scene is that the blood is red paint — and part of an art installation.
It’s a work by 23-year-old Afghan artist Malina Suliman, who risks her life, sometimes working by flashlight after dark, to create art in southern Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taleban and still one of the country’s most dangerous areas.
Her pieces, which range from conceptual art to paintings and sculpture, are bold representations of the problems facing her generation and have drawn praise from top officials in Kandahar, making her exceptional in a place where women face even greater restrictions than in other parts of the country.
“Many people had never seen an art installation... Some were offended and others were hurt because they’d experienced it before,” Suliman said of “War and Chaos,” which was in an exhibit last year and depicts the aftermath of a suicide bombing, an all too common event in Kandahar.
Her haunting, powerful pieces earned her an invitation last year to President Hamid Karzai’s palace in Kabul, where she showed her art to the Afghan leader, who is also from Kandahar.
Suliman’s artwork is now making waves in the Afghan capital of Kabul, where she lived after fleeing the violence of her native province as a child. In December, she had two exhibits there, a highlight of which was a sculpture of a woman in baggy clothing with a noose tied around her neck.
An exhibit in Kandahar, where the Taleban and tribal elders dominate public opinion, was the first there in three decades. She drew a mostly male crowd of around 100, including Kandahar governor Tooryalai Wesa and some of Karzai’s relatives.
“I was taken aback by her work. I had only seen great art abroad, but never here,” Wesa later said, recalling the exhibit, which featured a painting of a foetus in the womb suspended from a tree and being pulled in different ways. “I hope it persuades more women to do the same.” Suliman said this piece, called “Today’s Life,” reflected the frustrations of her generation.
“Before a child is born, the parents are already thinking that a son can support them and a daughter can be married off to a wealthy suitor. They don’t stop to think what the child may want,” she said.
Thirty years of war and conflict, starting with the Soviet invasion of 1979, effectively shelved Afghanistan’s art scene. The austere 1996-2001 rule of the Taleban then banned most art outright, declaring it un-Islamic.
Since the Islamist group was toppled by US-backed Afghan forces almost 12 years ago, large Afghan cities have resurrected something of an art movement, but progress is slow.
Herat city, in the country’s west, now has art studios for rent, while Mazar-e-Sharif in the north has an artist collective and a lively graffiti scene.
Suliman, who is self-confident and energetic with almond-shaped eyes, joined the Kandahar Fine Art Association, a relatively new, all-male group whose goal is to support and exhibit local art, one year ago.
The small collective of 10 artists caught the eye of the Ministry of Information and Culture, which funded and last year opened Kandahar’s first art gallery, where Suliman has exhibited. Since she joined the collective, several more Kandahar-based female artists have come on board.
But the stakes remain high.
“One of our biggest fears is that people will mistake us for creating art for foreigners or working with NGOs. People who work with NGOs get shot without question in Kandahar,” she said.
Despite her success, Suliman has received threatening phone calls warning her against attending her own exhibits, and the Taleban have spoken out against her.
Even creating her art must take place away from public view. She often waits until after dusk, working with a dim flashlight.
Suliman recalls her first exhibit in Kandahar last year, and how she trembled as she made her way toward the gallery, in fear of it being bombed.
“I was so scared... Whenever there is a gathering of government officials it becomes a target,” she said. But one of Suliman’s greatest challenges lies at home.“The night of my first exhibit my family told me ‘if you go, don’t come back’,” she said with a wry laugh.
While her sisters and mother now support her ambition and passion, her brothers and property developer father remain fiercely opposed — attitudes typical for Afghanistan.
She is now looking to expand Kandahar’s budding art scene to nearby Helmand, hoping to secure locally sourced funds for workshops and training.When asked if she is scared, she mentions her sculpture of the hanged woman and smiles.
“That’s what happens to women when they ask for their rights in this country,” she says, impudently.

‘It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination’

Syrian band Tanjaret Daghet (which means ‘pressure cooker’ in Arabic).
Updated 19 April 2018

‘It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination’

  • Syrian artists-in-exile discuss their absence from their homeland and its impact on their work
  • For many exiled Syrian artists, their work is an expression of grief

DUBAI: “Being away from Syria is difficult,” young poet Maysan Nasser said. “Seven years later, it still feels like a phantom limb. It feels like the echo of white noise that is reverberating louder by the day.”

Nasser, a Beirut Poetry Slam champion, was talking separation: The idea that the loss of Syria is like an amputation. After seven years, she is still looking for answers to questions of home and belonging.

The first time I saw Nasser perform was last year during Zena El Khalil’s ‘Sacred Catastrophe: Healing Lebanon,’ a “40-day intervention” designed to permanently kick open the doors of Beit Beirut, a museum to the memory of the city in Sodeco. Her performance was raw and emotive.

The second time was in the basement of Riwaq Beirut, a coffee shop, cultural center and bar all rolled into one. She was addressing a small but appreciative young crowd and looked nervous. It was just a few weeks after she had launched the open-mic night ‘Sidewalk Beirut’ and the anxiety and jitters remained. In reality they shouldn’t. The crowd loves her.

“In this enforced distance from Syria, such communities have become my anchors,” she admitted. Yet her work, although deeply personal — sometimes painfully so — never directly discusses Syria or her home city of Damascus.

“I believe the distance of separation was the birth of my work,” she said. “It was in this distance that I was able to reconsider who I am, what my relationship to my family is like, what my relationship to my body is. I believe my poems to be attempts at understanding myself and my surroundings, but also my past.

“So when I speak about my mother and my relationship to her, I am also considering my mother’s past and the traditions she has internalized and passed on to me, which inevitably cast light on a time and place in Syria, and which inevitably expose my own connections and roots — or lack of, at times. This separation, in a sense, has coincided with a coming of age.”

At the same time as Nasser was hosting her early edition of Sidewalk Beirut, a mile or so away at The Colony in Karantina Zeid Hamdan, a pioneer of Lebanon’s underground music scene, was preparing to perform at Sofar Sounds. The venue —hidden up three flights of stairs in the Dagher Building — was little more than two empty rooms and an adjacent terrace. With him were the Syrian band Tanjaret Daghet (which means ‘pressure cooker’ in Arabic).

Hamdan has been performing with the trio since they left Damascus in 2011. Theirs is an energetic, sometimes harsh, alternative-rock sound, although that is changing. Their soon-to-be-released new album, “Human Reverie,” is as much about electronica as it is guitars and vocals.

“This pressure we’re living is kind of unique,” said Tarek Khuluki, the band’s guitarist and sometime vocalist. “You see people who are nagging about it or who are trying to use this pressure as a tool to escape the reality we’re living in, which can lead to unbalanced results. At the same time, you see people who are making the best they can with the little amount of nothing that they have. All they want is to see their ideas manifest themselves in art or in any other shape. 

“Psychologically, we’ve learned not to think too much and not to play the role of victims, but to focus on our own language, which is music.”

It’s hard to discern whether the war in Syria has had a direct impact on Tanjaret Daghet’s work, or whether the wider woes of the Arab world are partially responsible for their sound and lyrics. They sing of political oppression and societal pressure, the absence of feeling and the loss of voice.

“We do not live the state of war in the real sense of the word,” says Khaled Omran, the band’s lead singer and bassist. “What we’re living is a kind of internal war, which has arisen from our instincts as humans. It’s our right to express ourselves through art and music because it’s more humanistic, and this has allowed us to meet several artists and to exchange expertise. Who knows, maybe if we had stayed in Syria, none of that would have happened.” 

Outside of Beirut, up in the mountains of Aley, a series of old Ottoman stables have been converted into a residence for Syrian artists. Since it was first opened by Raghad Mardini in May 2012, Art Residence Aley has hosted numerous artists, including Iman Hasbani and Anas Homsi. Both now live in Berlin. Beirut, for some, is only transitory. 

“It has given me a wider vision of the world,” says the artist and film director Hazem Alhamwi of his own exile in Berlin. “Maybe it’s more painful, but it’s more real. It is training for how to change pain into creative energy. Since 2014 I have been painting a collection I call ‘Homeland in the Imagination’. It might be our destiny to have Syria only in our imagination.”

Alhamwi is best known for “From My Syrian Room,” a documentary in which, through art and conversation, he attempts to understand how Syrians have learned to live with the distress and anxiety caused by war. It was while editing the film in France in 2013 that he realized he could not return to Syria, he said.

“I feel tired,” he told Arab News. “I feel as if I have one leg here — where I have to integrate, and want to — and the other leg in Syria, where I cannot stop being interested in what is happening. My family, my friends and my memories are still there. On the other hand, I feel like I am discovering another kind of violence, moving from living under a military dictatorship to the dictatorship of money. It’s a smooth violence written on smooth paper and put into a clean envelope. I feel myself in the stomach of the capitalist machine.”

For many exiled Syrian artists, their work is an expression of grief; a way to portray an overwhelming sense of loss. For others, those expressions are more subtle.

“We watch so many lies on TV, that it looks like art could be the only honest witness to modern times,” said Alhamwi, whose next film, produced by Zeina Zahreddine and Florian Schewe, will examine issues of identity. “Even many people’s facial expressions are not real. But good art is not only a mirror of the artist, but also of the spirit of the time they live in; or it’s at least the result of this reaction (of) the artist (to) the era.

“Art always tries to get people to pay more attention and not to repeat the same mistakes, but to learn from them instead. In wars, where the feelings of people are ignored and all the focus is on weapons, killing, fire and iron, art protects people’s real memory, away from any agenda or propaganda. It is this complicated memory that reflects the events, the emotions and the point of view of the artist. That is why art is needed in war as a special documentation. To tell the stories of people who didn’t get involved, because of position or fate,” he continued. “Art is a way for artists to survive in a world controlled by violence.”