Sydney, Australia – On August 31, 2011, a car laden with 40kg of explosives detonated in front of a mosque in Quetta, Pakistan, killing 11 and injuring about 20. Among the injured was Amina Amina, a member of Central Asia’s long-persecuted Hazara minority who became trapped under the rubble of her home – one of two properties decimated in the blast.
More than 11,000km away in Sydney, her son Khadim Ali, an art student at the University of New South Wales (NSW), watched with horror via Internet streaming media as rescue workers searched through the rubble for members of his family.
“Whenever they pushed aside a big piece of wood or mud, trying to pull the rubble out, I saw glimpses of the red carpet in our house,” recalls Ali, now residing permanently with his parents in Australia. “The only material object to survive was that red carpet. It inspired me to create art on a medium that could actually survive a bomb blast.”
|Ali likens the demons to the Hazara [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]|
Starting this week until June 1, the fruits of Ali’s work will be showcased at Sydney’s prestigious Art Gallery of NSW. Entitled The Haunted Lotus, the exhibition comprises of nine resilient works: five paintings rendered with ink and gold leaf on wasli paper; four wool rugs made in collaboration with weavers in Afghanistan; and a looping 10-minute video showing the elaborate process where vegetables and other naturally occurring dyes were utilised to give the wool its rich earthy colours. But these are no ordinary Afghan rugs. In place of the octagonal elephant’s foot pattern or hunting and war scenes that normally adorn them, Ali’s rugs feature images of pensive donkey-eared, bearded demons.
The demons are manifestations from the Shahnameh, a 50,000-verse poem written in 1010 by the Persian poet Ferdowsi. Blending mythology and history, the book tells the story of the epic battles between a hero named Rustam, who represents humanity’s brighter side, and demons that personify our darker side.
Among the many priceless family heirlooms destroyed in Amina Amina’s home by the 2011 bomb attack in Quetta, was a copy of the Shahnameh featuring miniature illustrations by Kamal al-din Bihzad. It was one of two books, the other being a Quran, that Ali’s grandfather, a well-known singer, took with him when he fled Afghanistan’s Ghazni province in the 1920s to evade the pogroms and persecution that have dogged Afghanistan’s Hazara since the 1500s.
“The more I learned about the Hazara and myself, the more I realised there were an incredible number of similarities between the demons in the Shahnameh and my people,” Ali says. “For example, the rebellious demons lived in caves just as Hazara people have been living in the caves at Bamiyan, the site of giant Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. The demons were seen as infidels, just as the Hazara are. And the demons ate rats, while Hazara are called ‘rat-eaters’ in Afghanistan. So I started painting demons.”
The result is an eye-catching coalescence of an ancient handmade material and iconography used to express the ongoing persecution of the Hazara. In Quetta alone, 2,000 Hazara have been assassinated by Sunni armed groups without a single criminal conviction; Ali claims the 2011 attack that destroyed his family’s home specifically targeted the Hazara.
In the Shahnameh, Rustam, the hero, fights the demons [Ian Neubauer/Al Jazeera]
“In order to translate the images from their original ink paintings into textile form, Khadim has developed a new way of working where each knot in the rug equates with a pixel from a digitally enlarged image,” says curator Macushla Robinson.
“It’s common for artists to have tapestries made, but this was not an outsourcing situation,” she adds. “Khadim was deeply involved with the rug-makers in Afghanistan. He worked closely with them over many months to refine and develop the technique.”
Complicating the process further, the work had to be done in secret because of the Afghans’ widespread deference to Aniconism – an Islamic proscription that forbids the creation of images of humans and all sentient living beings.
“One of the weavers in Herat got really offended and reported it to the religious scholars. They ordered him to burn them,” Ali says. “Fortunately, I managed to smuggle them out to a village on the outskirts of Kabul where another group of weavers finished the work.”
“We also faced enormous difficulty finding someone to shave the rug. When we finally found someone willing to do it, he made me take an oath with him that I will incur any punishment coming to him in the afterlife for sinning. Even getting them out of the airport in Kabul was difficult. We had to bribe customs officials not to unroll them in case they confiscated them and had them destroyed.”
Asked if he fears a fatwa – the Islamic legal term commonly used to describe a declaration of death on an individual as famously happened to British author Salman Rushdie in 1989 following the release of his book The Satanic Verses – Ali doesn’t blink: “As a Hazara, I have been living under a fatwa my whole life,” he says. “It wouldn’t make any difference.”