Afghan artists find voice in Penticton

For Ali Akhlaqi, being an artist in Afghanistan is “somehow similar to insanity.”

Afghan artists find voice in Penticton

For Ali Akhlaqi, being an artist in Afghanistan is “somehow similar to insanity.”

Akhlaqi, an artist, photographer and sculptor who attended the Faculty of Fine Arts at Kabul University in 2012, has been facing both “hope and terror” trying to join his artwork, which along with the work of 19 fellow Afghan artists and one Canadian war artist, is being displayed at the Penticton Art Gallery starting Friday.

The Canadian embassy in Afghanistan doesn’t offer visas to Afghans, so he had to travel for the first time to Pakistan.

“A strange country to me since I don’t speak their language and have no friends there,” Akhlaqi told the Western News. The interview was translated by his older brother Taqi, a writer who translated the interview from Persian to English.

“They took my passport for further process and then I subsequently found myself a stranger with no passport or residence document in Pakistan,” Akhlaqi said. “I had to stay at my not-cheap room in a hotel, waiting for an unclear period of time.”

Alone in a hotel room, in a country where he would be persecuted for his culture, he left to return to Afghanistan.

“I was scared to face Taliban or other terrorist groups, but I was lucky to convince the Pakistani police at many checkpoints,” Akhlaqi said. “I was full of hope and terror. To get my passport with the Canadian visa I have to pass the same path to Islamabad again soon.”

Akhlaqi is currently waiting to see if he will be able to make the trip to Penticton and Canada for the first time.

Getting his art displayed in his own country, let alone abroad, is a struggle for Akhlaqi.

“In a post-war, poor and traditional society like Afghanistan, the art nor artist holds a proper place or dignity,” Akhlaqi said. “Art has no border or fixed form, but my country is a place where traditions limit everything. People still remember the war memories, are illiterate and suffer from mental illnesses. They consider every new thing, including the art, as a threat to the old culture and beliefs.”

He’s been an artist for 15 years, but the profession has become a much more serious matter in the past five. His biggest obstacles are limitations that come from “the society, its beliefs, privation (and) insecurity as everyone, even a relative, could threaten us, and the polluted atmosphere among the artists,” he said.

Akhlaqi is excited that his art is being noticed abroad.

“I feel now that art is valuable wherever it is,” Akhlaqi said.

Sharing art like Akhlaqi’s is what Kabul Art Project founder Christina Hallmann was exploring when she started the project. She was curious about Afghani art, but couldn’t find much.

“(Artists) weren’t present at all, when I Googled ‘art’ and ‘Afghanistan’ I was barely able to find anything,” Hallmann said. “I researched music, I researched movies, but I couldn’t find art. As an artist myself I thought it must be really difficult for these people to make art and I was very curious what kind of art I would find.”

Hallmann, a German graphic designer and artist herself, knew a friend who travelled to the Afghan capital of Kabul. Through a connection at a high school there she was able to get in contact with artists from the region.

She founded the project in early 2013 and it started with 11 artists, it has since grown to 26, and is hosting their first-ever exhibition outside of Germany in Penticton. She said the project was initially supposed to be a single show in Germany, but continued to grow.

Many of the artists Hallmann communicates with fear for their safety in different ways. She said Kabul is open minded when compared to other parts of the region, however the city is not exempt from extremist ideologies and attacks.

“There were attacks on cultural events. Some of our artists were there directly at the theatre, and the Taliban attack people who are creators because they say that’s not part of Islam. Of course it is, but not in their view, so it’s really dangerous,” Hallmann said.

“They are not able to exhibit their art in Afghanistan, some foreign institutes would do that, but there are very much security restrictions, so they have to be careful with that too. It’s not about all artwork, some artwork is very easy everywhere, but some of them show nudity or criticize Islam, and that’s impossible to show there.”

Initially connecting with the artists was challenging enough, but getting their artwork out of the country through proper channels for the initial exhibition was a whole new obstacle.

Hallmann said getting the paintings out of Afghanistan was difficult because it was censored by the government and main pieces were deemed anti-Islamic. One artist even had to promise the Ministry of Education not to try and send his art abroad again, she said.

Hallmann funded the first two small-scale exhibitions of the project herself, and the artwork coming to Penticton marks the first time it will be displayed in a full gallery, or in North America.  The full-on exhibition was the brainchild of Penticton Art Gallery curator Paul Crawford, who found the Kabul Art Project while seeking out artists to express a point of view he feels most Westerners are dismissive of.

“I’ve always been bothered about just how dismissive we can be of lives and countries other places in the world,” Crawford said. “We’re all sort of complicit in what’s going on there, but we all know so little about the people, the country. All we know is that they are supposed to be our enemy.”

He reached out to Hallmann a few years ago and the two have been corresponding along with the artists, all over Facebook and email, to bring the project to Canada.

Crawford has been trying to bring the artists along with their work to Canada, but while Akhlaqi is still in limbo regarding whether or not he will be granted a visa, Afghani graffiti artist Malina Suliman has been denied. He said neither are able to make it for the grand opening of the exhibition as planned.

He hopes the exhibition will create connections between the two nations and cultures and plans to create small information cards with contact information for the artists, so those attending the exhibition can create connections with the artists that will continue afterwards.

“As a kid I used to love being pen pals with people around the world and I would love if we could somehow, in a small way, build bridges between our community and their community and have a better sense of understanding,” Crawford said.

While Crawford hopes to break down barriers of indifference and cultural isolationism locally, the artists hope to break the more physically tangible barriers keeping their art from the rest of the world.

“It’s a way to speak out to the world because there nobody listens to them,” Hallmann said.

She’s unsure how long the project will be able to continue operating the way it is, saying that it may be possible for someone to see the project abroad and inform authorities in Kabul.

“It’s dangerous to be an artist, that’s a statement itself, they want to show (their art) and they can’t show it in Afghanistan so they take the risk,” Hallmann said.

The work is dangerous, but Hallmann hopes the project will continue to the unsung work to the rest of the world.

“It’s awesome. I’m so thankful that Paul Crawford is inviting the project and I think there’s a really good chance the project will spread much more,” Hallmann said.

Crawford, inspired by the international connection, has already started pursing artists in Damascus, Syria for another exhibition.

“That’s just absolutely crazy to me that I can be corresponding with a guy in the middle of all that madness, which is the life they’re living in,” Crawford said.

He acknowledged that his motivations for the exhibition are slightly political, but he hopes to use the power of instant, worldwide communication to create more of a social connection between cultures than anything else.

“We have no shortage of problems here at home, but we’re all in this little marble together we need to figure out how to get along,”  Crawford said.

The grand opening of the exhibition is Sunday, July 12, and Canadian war artist Allan Harding MacKay will be speaking about his work in Afghanistan. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the event is free to the public.