Over time, messages of hate have slipped into our homes and hearts, dividing and confusing us. Where we were previously indifferent or content, we are now offended or suspicious. A cheerful “Khuda Hafiz” can get you a glare or a lecture. When there is a death you think twice before asking, “Is there a soyem?” Ashura processions, once held alongside street cricket and bystanders, are now high security events. For the Hazara community — besieged by a deeper venom — it has meant running for your life, often to where you are unwelcome.
“The Otherness”, globally acclaimed artist Khadim Ali’s show at Karachi’s Chawkandi Art gallery, explores the divisive way in which a people are portrayed. It is an idea that occupies Khadim Ali, a member of the Hazara community: tormentors have chased his family and people through continents and time. They have journeyed from Kabul to Quetta and now Australia. The Hazaras also suffer from issues of identity and belonging. In Pakistan, Khadim Ali is a “muhajir” with Hazaras paying bribes to get NICs, in Iran (both countries where he has studied) he is discriminated against for his Afghan face/Pakistani passport combo. His painted demons – grand creatures borrowed from the illustrated manuscripts of the Iranian epic, the Shahnameh, read by his grandfather to a besotted audience – have become his signature and won him international success. In fact, they have won him the right to live in Australia, with the government granting him a distinguished talent visa.
“My work” he says, “is about the dehumanisation and the demonisation of my people.” Living peacefully in the mountains and caves of Afghanistan, gentle protectors of the Bamiyan Buddhas, the Hazaras were even falsely accused by the Taliban of idol worship. So one thread that snakes (in a tangle) through this series of paintings is that of loudspeakers — weapons of choice for fire-starters and purveyors of hate speech.
Khadim’s training as a miniaturist is evident in the delicate strands of the beards, the weaves of the rope. There is Iran and Afghanistan in his colours and forms. As always the paintings have the richness of a tapestry and no wonder Khadim also works with carpet weavers in Kabul to create carpets of his paintings. Over the years Khadim Ali has created narratives and habitats for his ‘demons’. They emerge from detailed storms of foliage or waves. In this collection, they are on the move. This comes as no surprise since the news overflows with stories of Hazaras fleeing: boats capsizing, souls stranded, lives lost.
In one painting they emerge from the innards of a boat. In another they are setting sail and seem to crowd an ark, its rich red sails inscribed and hanging like curtains. The demons stand contented, looking into the distance. Winged and otherworldly, these ancient creatures born from centuries-old texts, are curiously in orange life jackets. Heavy, bulky forms, often mingling in groups, they have a certain camaraderie. Salima Hashmi calls them “paradoxical … They present themselves alternately as both friend and foe.” Khadim Ali first created this form years ago as “the Rostam” a title hijacked by the Taliban despite their aversion to Persian culture, and it gradually morphed into the dehumanisation of the Hazara people themselves. Now these creatures are more bemused and sage-like. They don’t seem carnivorous.
Khadim Ali is a member of the Hazara community: tormentors have chased his family and people through continents and time
In one painting the demon’s face stands out. It is a single portrait with gentler, softer features, a fleshy face with a soft plump mouth. The plane is bursting with foliage and flowers, and you can see the artist playing with the notion of demonising the innocent victim. An especially striking painting has the demons occupying a fiery world, gold flames licking at them. A constellation of ominous loud speakers hovers above and they have the presence of drones and bombs. Wires hang like spaghetti behind them, and one character reaches up as if to pluck a wire; you wonder if he can stop the hate that spews from it. In another the demon reclines on a couch, a blanket of entrails snugly fitted under him. In the distance a giant Bamiyan Buddha looms like a dream — a reminder of a home and history destroyed.
The Hazara cause is a lonely one: ignored by the press, police and the state. Khadim Ali said in an interview once that Hazaras are not just being driven from their homes but also “wiped out of history”. He tries to give a voice to the unheard screams in the night, lest they disappear silently forever.
Zehra Hamdani Mirza is a Karachi based artist and writer. http://www.zehramirza.com/