Khadim Ali

In Issue 40, Michael Young discussed the complex, politically-fuelled practice of Khadim Ali.

A member of the persecuted Shia muslim Hazara ethnic minority, Khadim Ali has been a resident in Australia since 2009 when he came here on a distinguished person visa sponsored by several local art luminaries. Since then his reputation has grown quickly from a relatively unknown artist to one whose work has attracted global attention.

On the day Pakistani artist Khadim Ali and I met he was busy practising what looked like calligraphy in his Parramatta studio. He sat cross-legged on the floor surrounded by sheets of white paper and, using a broad-tipped Copic marker, drew swirling arabesques that shifted from an impenetrable black line to scratchy but beautiful translucent curlicues. They seemed to mimic Farsi script but Ali explained they were actually incomprehensible, they were simply rhythmic linear patterns and their innate beauty resided in the line’s repetitive and free-flowing rhythm. It was quite mesmerising.

Ali’s delicate watercolour and gouache paintings are held by New York’s Guggenheim and London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and The British Museum as well as several Australian institutions including the National Gallery of Art in Canberra, the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, and the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) in Brisbane. He has participated in exhibitions too numerous to name but these include the Venice Biennale 2009, Documenta (13) 2012 and QAGOMA’s 5th Asian Pacific Triennial in 2006.

Ali has also picked up numerous grants and prizes over the years, most recently the Western Sydney Arts Fellowship 2016 worth A$50,000 over one year and the Sidney Myer Creative Fellowship, worth A$160,000 over two years. His most recent exhibition at Milani Gallery in Brisbane last November sold out. QAGOMA bought for its collection as well as commissioning a work. It seems that Ali cannot put a foot wrong.

Ali is an artist known primarily for his paintings of demons and I was not surprised to see painted on his studio wall three larger than life heads of Rustam the hero of heroes – now turned demon in Ali’s oeuvre – from the towering 10th-century Iranian epic poem, the Shahnameh. Rustam in all its manifestations has occupied and continues to occupy centre stage in Ali’s practice.

The heads were early studies for what is Ali’s largest work to date the monumental The Arrival of Demons (2017), a 15 by 7 metre mural painted on the entrance level wall at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) as part of the exhibition, The National: New Australian Art. The faces are lugubrious, the heads horned and lumpen, the ears tubular and animalistic and their long blue beards curl in the manner of Taliban fighters. It is a personal and painful reference, Ali says.

Ali’s family are Hazara, a Shia Muslim ethnic minority whose spiritual home is central Afghanistan and the mountains around Bamiyan. For centuries Hazaras have suffered violent persecution at the hands of Sunni Pashtuns throughout the region. Many live in the now relatively peaceful Bamiyan but many other live in exile overseas.

Ali was born in 1978 in the city of Quetta in Pakistan, not far from the border with Afghanistan. His parents were born there too, as were his two brothers. They have lived in exile in Quetta since Ali’s grandfather fled Afghanistan as a child in the late 1890s, following massacres of Hazaras.

Quetta was the family home but violence always lurked close by as the city gradually became a recruitment centre for the Taliban, the Sunni Islamic fundamentalist group that has waged war in Afghanistan since 1989 and hold the life of Hazaras in little regard. Life in Quetta for a Hazara family was and still is today, precarious.

Ali’s grandfather eventually returned to Afghanistan to marry, but permanently fled the country a second time in the 1960s. He carried with him two books: the Quran and the Book of Kings, the 1000-year-old epic known as the Shahnameh written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi. This tells the history of Greater Iran and is rich in tales and illustrations of demons and heroes and fabled allegorical characters with mythical powers. The central heroic character in the Shahnameh is Rustam.

‘My love of poetry stems from my grandfather reading to me from the Shahnameh,’ Ali says. ‘He was a Shahnameh singer and when Hazara refugees came to Pakistan, they would gather in our house and my grandfather would sing the stories of heroes and demons for them, the bright and the dark sides of humanity. I always thought of myself as a hero, as Rustam. But then when the story ended the hero gets killed and this was very painful for me. It was the demons who survived,’ Ali says, stoically.

Ali has gentle, wistful brown eyes and talks in a soft and precise English that often tails off into a whisper. I asked him if as a child he was artistic. His eyes clouded with memories and he paused before replying.

‘When I was a child I didn’t have pencils. I used charcoal picked up in the dirt street from outside a bakery near where we lived in Quetta. The mud houses had rendered walls and when I found a smooth wall I would draw on it with the charcoal. There were a lot of complaints from neighbours. One day a man caught me and beat me. He called me a sinner.’

In 1996 when the Taliban began killing Hazaras in Pakistan as the civil war in Afghanistan intensified, Ali fled to Tehran in the back of a ute, but he wasn’t welcome there. The locals called him an Afghan donkey, he says. For several months he worked illegally helping an Iranian artist paint propaganda posters before being arrested by police. He was deported back to Pakistan after spending six months in jail.

He went on to study Persian-inspired miniature painting at the National College of Arts in Lahore, producing work that explored contemporary events such as the Afghanistan civil war and the centuries-old Hazara discrimination and massacres – through the historical prism of mythology. They were richly coloured and lush with detail drawn from both Eastern and Western art-historical sources. His mentor at Lahore was artist Imran Qureshi. He graduated in 2003 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts with Distinction.

The transformation of Rustam the hero into a demon in Ali’s work followed the destruction by the Taliban of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001 that had been carved into the cliff-face during the Fourth and Fifth centuries. ‘The Taliban claimed they fostered idolatry. I became so upset over this that I visited Afghanistan to research the history of the statues, and of the Hazaras,’ he says.

Reading extensively in Kabul’s national library, Ali was astonished to learn how Sunni muslims regarded Shia Hazaras. ‘There were books that said Hazaras are considered infidels and ugly creatures and that they lived in caves in the mountains like demons. Sunni Afghans on the streets of Kabul referred to Hazaras as rat-eaters and they believed that if you killed a Hazara in Afghanistan you were a hero. If Hazaras were rat-eaters then I was also a rat-eater. I was a demon. My hero from the Shahnameh became a demon,’ Ali says.

Demons were to play a crucial role in Ali’s advancement onto the global art stage and they still feature heavily in his work. In 2005 he was in Karachi and cold-emailed QAGOMA when he learned via the internet that they were about to open a new gallery of modern art. ‘I introduced myself and my work via email and told them I’m in Pakistan and wanted to make contact as I heard the curators were coming here to see artists for the Asia Pacific Triennial (APT).’

Suhanya Raffel, then director of the APT, met Ali in Delhi. ‘I told her my history and that my grandfather was a Shahnameh singer and that my work connected to the mythology of Persian literature. She asked if I could paint something on Shahnameh for APT. I did five drawings of demons and these were shown in the 2006 APT,’ he says. QAGOMA bought the work, the first of a dozen or more they have since acquired.

The first demon Ali ever painted was one of the suite of five works, Untitled (Rustam-e-pardar Rustam with wings) series (2006) measuring just 22.5 x 16.3 cm, a small delicate watercolour on wasli paper. The demon, seen against a gold background, has ghost-like wings, dark skin, a blue beard and horns and sits in fixated concentration, drawing back a recurved Persian bow ready to release an arrow at an unseen enemy.

Ali knew then that if he was to escape the weight of history that Hazaras carried with them he needed to find a safe haven in another country. After 18 months in Australia, in April 2011 he received a midnight phone call from his brother in Pakistan. An 80-kilogram car bomb had exploded outside the home of Ali’s parents in Quetta. The bomb killed 14 immediately but the death toll rose as the wounded later died. Ali’s mother was in their house at the time and his father was just along the road; both were badly injured but survived because their house, made from mud, flexed in the explosion when others made from brick, collapsed. Ali rushed back to Quetta.

Everything in the house was destroyed in the explosion including dozens of Ali’s fragile and delicate miniature watercolour and gouache paintings inspired by Persian history. ‘One of the few things that survived was a carpet which inspired me to later weave my own carpets that I could hang on walls,’ he says. The very first carpet he made in 2012 intermittently hangs in his studio. Woven from Afghan and Australian wools, it features two horned demons embracing. He considered it an experiment and now keeps it confined to the studio.

For several years now, Ali has also kept a studio in Kabul, discreetly shifting its location to avoid trouble, most recently to one large room in a friend’s house. He harbours a dream of one day establishing an arts community in Bamiyan. ‘I plan to name it the Bamiyan Art Space. I have been thinking about this for a long time. I will invite artists to come for a residency. It will be non-ideological. It will be a little like a pop up gallery. At the moment artists can’t show their work even in Kabul. It is too dangerous,’ he says.

Recently Ali’s MCA mural has attracted criticism from ultra-religious Hazaras in Australia. ‘They say I am a devil worshipper and that I am painting the dark side of humanity. When I was drawing on the walls and floor as a child, people around me were saying this was a sin and that I was a sinner. Now this criticism is being repeated. I am accused of being an infidel and of painting devils. To be seen as an infidel is dangerous,’ Ali says.

I ask Ali if his sense of being a refugee in Australia has changed in the new, Trump-influenced, xenophobic world. I wondered if islamophobia made life in Australia difficult for Ali. I am aware it is a sensitive subject and I touch on it cautiously. There was no ignoring the despair in Ali’s reply. ‘They think that all Muslims are the same and that we are all dangerous terrorists. Whenever I say my name and that my Muslim parents live with me, the first thing people say is, ‘How are your neighbours? Are they scared of you?”

In a corner of Ali’s studio, hanging at eye level on the end wall like a Duchampian relic, is a vivid orange life jacket, given to him by fellow AGNSW artist trustee, Ben Quilty. The demons stare passively along the length of the studio at it, as if they have access to a hidden truth. I have seen this life jacket before, or ones like it. They feature nightly on our television screens littering the shores of the Mediterranean, their wearers either having drowned or fled.

They feature too in several of Ali’s recent paintings such as The Arrivals #6 (2016), acquired by QAGOMA earlier this year. In the painting demons crowd the deck of a wooden boat. They wear orange life jackets. Some demons tumble into the boiling ocean, others point toward a distant but unseen land. It is a sorry story of the plight of refugees, an allegory of dispossession and racial vilification and of how governments have subtly sought to demonise refugees.

Ali seems resigned to events. ‘Now we have demons on boats. They are asylum seekers. The demons are coming,’ Ali says with more than a touch of irony in his voice.

This article appeared in Artist Profile, Issue 40, 2017

Khadim Ali | Fragmented Memories
29 June – 5 August 2018
Gertrude Contemporary, Melbourne


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