Khadim Ali has been drawing for as long as he can remember. As a child living among the exiled Hazara community in Quetta, he used to put charcoal from the bakeries into his pockets and draw with this on the walls and floor of his home. Of course his mother objected since she had to wash his charcoal-stained clothes, but now that he has become a celebrity in the world of art she is glad that she didn't stop him. The Hazaras were driven out of their native Afghanistan in large numbers in the late 19th century, and for a while they sought sanctuary in British-ruled India. His grandfather took with him a copy of the 'Shahnama,' from which he used to sing poetry in the evenings, while crowds gathered to listen. This and the beautiful Persian and other miniatures presented in the illustrated edition obviously had a strong influence upon Khadim Ali. But 2 generations later the monster of sectarianism again made them outsiders in their own country. Many left and settled in Quetta, but found discrimination there also, partly because when the Taliban lost power in Afghanistan, and after 9/11 many of them moved to Quetta: furthermore, even today we learn from the news media of attacks on the Hazara community.- And Khadim Ali for example, born there in 1978, had to pay a huge bribe to the authorities to obtain a national identity card. What is more, when his work started to become known abroad his family were in danger of attack.
When the family splintered under this threat, he slipped over the border into Iran, where for a while he lived from hand to mouth doing various odd jobs. Fortunately he met master painter Ustad Safari, who after seeing his work, taught him the art of mural painting, which they worked on together. These murals mostly figured Ayatollah Khomeini and slain martyrs, which was about all that was tolerated in public art. Khadim also attended classes in miniature work, and at Tehran University studied calligraphy. The latter is an important element in his work today, lending class and dignity to his miniatures.
However feeling that he was regarded with suspicion, as his passport was from Pakistan while his face was clearly that of an Afghani Hazara, after a while he left Iran and made his way to Lahore, where he won a scholarship from NCA Fine Arts Department's miniature section. But seeing his work today, it is difficult to reconcile it with the miniatures he produced as a student under the tutelage of Imran Qureshi. The delicacy and gentleness of detail was impressive even when he addressed the theme of the destruction of the Buddha statues which had stood in his native Bamiyan,in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan, since the 6th century. These Buddhas are a recurring image in his work today, being very much in his consciousness, along with characters and stories from the 'Shahnama.' .
His luck began to change when Suheiya Raffel from the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia, spotted his undoubted talent when he was studying in Lahore, where she had gone to look for new artists to exhibit at Queensland's Gallery of Modern Art. Thus began his destined introduction to Australia (where in fact a number of Hazara folk have found refuge) on a Distinguished Talent visa, which enabled him to live there, and to arrange immigration for his parents, besides doing his M.A. from the University of New South Wales. His increasing fame also brought him an invitation to membership of the Board of Art Galleries of New South Wales.
His work nowadays addresses issues such as displacement, migration, meaning and identity, events such as the civil war in his country, while also encompassing historical imagery, politics,literature, poetry and mythology, in order to explore contemporary events in Afghanistan, plus the demons that have haunted him personally. And he has been an articulate advocate for his people. 'It's very difficult to fight with that identity crisis in your own self,' he says. 'You are not an Australian, not Pakistani, not Afghani. You are a Hazara.' He maintains a studio in Kabul, though it's difficult to travel between Australia and Afghanistan, but he has by this means been able to make rugs in partnership with traditional carpet weavers, to whom he has taught new digital techniques to accommodate his complex designs.
He has been awarded 2 residencies in Japan, one of these arranged by the renowned Pakistani artist Naiza Khan, and as part of his residency in Tokyo he arranged a workshop for children in Bamiyan, focusing on the impact of war on children's minds. He worked with children born in bunkers, children who grew up in a war zone during the Taliban rule, and whose drawings were full of weapon imagery. Later he did a series called 'Absent Kitchen,' a commentary on how Afghanistan is a cooking laboratory for international powers fighting their proxy wars. 'Which of your projects has been the most satisfying?' I asked, and he answered, 'It's thrilling, it's challenging, but I'm never completely satisfied with any of my artworks.' His work is to be found in prestigious galleries such as the Guggenheim in New York, the British Museum in London and in Fukuoka, Japan, as well as in Australia, and in private collections in the U.K., the U.S.A., Holland, Hong Kong, Canada, Japan and Pakistan. Meanwhile, his recent miniatures exhibition held in Karachi at the Chawkandi Gallery and titled 'The Otherness,' was a collection of untitled gouache and gold leaf on wasli pieces, in which demons figured very largely. These white-winged demons appear throughout his practice, their wings bringing to mind the Biblical words, 'Beware of those who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravening wolves.' But there are also a few whose heads are encircled by halos, perhaps reflecting their better nature or the purity of a nearby Buddha. - And of course in some eastern cultures there are benign demons, such as those of Mahayana or Vajrayana Buddhism, who stand watch over monasteries and stupas, preventing attacks by minor demons. Meanwhile, the guardian demons of the four cardinal points are a prominent sight on the temples and monasteries of Ladakh, Tibet and Mongolia.
In Khadim Ali's work, while alluding to both good and evil, these winged demons draw on the figure of Rustam, heroic warrior of the 'Shahnama,' and known throughout Afghanistan. The artist has restored Rustam - from appropriation of his image by Taliban youth in Quetta - to his poetic context, updating the epic narrative to reflect contemporary political and cultural issues, and the shifting nature of heroism in a war-torn region.
Meanwhile, if we look closely at his depiction of demons in 'The Otherness,' we note that many of them represent the dark side - the alienated, the targeted, the traumatised - things which have been a tangible part of his own existence. One of these works shows a boatload of somewhat ungainly demon warriors, the boat sails represented by red umbrellas featuring borders and other areas decorated with beautifully flowing calligraphy. (It is interesting to note that in his work the black text is in Arabic while the red is Persian.) Concerning the faces of these demons, the artist explains that they are actually taken from those people around him who were responsible for the massacres of Hazaras. They also reflect the demons in the 'Shahnama,' so he paints Hazaras as their collective portrait through the eyes of others. Apart from the faces and so on,the picture somehow brings to mind the innumerable boatloads of refugees fleeing to Europe, Australia and other parts of the West, where they may not be welcome.
A similar group of demons is depicted in another composition, against a rich background of red and black, while the lower part of the picture is filled with flames rendered in a style reminiscent of Buddhist art. A number of megaphones, which feature in many of Khadim's pictures, and are often used for broadcasting hate speech and other unhealthy propaganda, appear above their heads. Two demons are reaching up to the mass of electric cords above, to switch on, strangely, wears a gold halo bearing a star. This is indeed food for thought.
An interesting piece shows a single demon against a backdrop full of opium flowers. Khadim has used these flowers, he says, as a symbol of the stigma attached to being from Afghanistan, since people assume that they are carrying opium or other drugs. In this one piece he has included, with a subtle touch, a number of different elements, among them of course the megaphones. Elsewhere, we see a demon who has succumbed to opium addiction, lying surrounded by robust opium plants, and observed through a trapdoor by 2 of his kind. In Afghanistan it is mostly poor farmers and landless labourers who grow opium out of desperation. And even if they are encouraged by the government to grow other crops the laws of economics will always draw some back when prices rise, or when the bottom falls out of the market for their alternative ventures. It is not known how or when opium was first introduced to Afghanistan, though its native range was probably the eastern Mediterranean area.
Then in rather a dark atmosphere we see a huge Buddha surrounded by a cave or niche - obviously one of the destroyed Bhamiyan Buddhas - with a cloud of the ever-present megaphones obtruding above, one supported by a dead tree representing the death of faith in or tolerance of Buddhism by so many in Bhamiyan and other parts of Afghanistan. The demon in front of this Buddha wears a halo - signifying what? - and reclines comfortably on a sofa decorated with symbols of the faith of the Taliban.
The story of Khadim Ali is itself an epic, with heavy blows and considerable rewards dealt by fate. It is our good fortune to have seen his remarkable works, and having seen his tumultuous past we wait to see what the future will bring him.