A Bright Future for Afghan Art – Spotlight on 6 Talented Artists

Afghanistan’s artistic landscape is undergoing a profound transformation. After decades of conflict, during which the majority of artistic activities were repressed or banned, Afghan artists in all disciplines are reconnecting with their craft once again. Today, thanks to renewed local interest in arts and culture as well as greater international financial support for these activities, Afghanistan is home to both an exciting contemporary art scene and a reinvigorated traditional arts and crafts practice. Read on to learn more about six artists and artisans who are changing the rules of the game and showing the world the best of Afghan art.

Azim Fakhri

Having spent most of his childhood and youth outside of Afghanistan, Azim Fakhri returned to the country in 2002 with a passionate commitment to helping develop his country and represent his generation through the arts. His works, which he creates under the name Kabul Knights, span a variety of disciplines, including painting, stenciling, sculpture, and graffiti. Often compared with artists like the controversial street artist Banksy, Fakhri creates art that is playful and political at the same time, using surprising visual substitutions—like replacing grenades with pineapples or tank guns with clarinets—to puzzle and provoke his viewers. Once of Fakhri’s most recent projects is “Street Angels,” a photo series dedicated to Afghan children, which he discussed when he was a featured speaker at the TEDx talk series in Berlin.

Akram Ati

Based in Herat and a graduate of the Fine Arts Faculty of that city’s university, Akram Ati mixes traditional subjects with non-traditional materials and techniques to create paintings that are both stunning and subtle. Instead of using conventional, store-bought paints, Ati creates his own paints from natural materials like mud, dust, stones, and brick, which he grinds down and mixes with a type of homemade glue. According to Ati, these natural paints are not only more durable and less dull than artificial paints, they also represent and reflect the true essence of Afghanistan’s character and struggles. The subjects he captures in his monochromatic works are traditional scenes of everyday life in Afghanistan, including villages and country landscapes, the national game of buzkashi, and traditional dances and celebrations.

Mohsen Hossaini

Born and based in Kabul, Mohsen Hossaini draws the inspiration for his challenging works from everyday life in modern Kabul, which he describes as being difficult for ordinary people. His paintings use dark colors like black and dark green contrasted with stark red to represent what Hossaini views as the alienation of the individual in contemporary society, and the effect that solitude and lack of relationships can have on modern Afghans. In addition to painting, Hossaini is a director and an animator; his short film “Shelter,” a paper animation, was an official selection at a number of international film festivals.

Arif Bahaduri

Arif Bahaduri’s work stands out, literally, due to its three-dimensional texture. Bahaduri works with materials like bandages and crumpled paper to bring a sense of unevenness and tactility to his pieces, which typically represent abstract images of familiar things, like homes or tombstones. According to Bahaduri, his use of bandages and plasters is a specific choice, made to represent the pain and unhealed wounds that he explores through his art. In addition to his larger works, Bahaduri is a skilled sketch artist. His sketches of street life in contemporary Afghanistan are striking snapshots of a particular political and cultural moment.

Nasser Mansouri

In contrast to the artists above, Nasser Mansouri reaches back into the past for inspiration. As an artisan affiliated with the Turquoise Mountain Institute, master woodworker Mansouri is one of many traditional arts and crafts specialists working to restore Afghanistan’s artisanal legacy and rich crafting heritage. And while Mansouri may talk about being unsure of how to describe his own practice—artist, woodworker, carver, teacher, and businessman are all terms he uses—there’s little question as to the beauty and artistic value of his work. Through extensive study of historic Afghan buildings, Mansouri replicates and recreates intricate carvings and latticework, building beautiful, interlocking designs that are put together without nails. Recently, some of Mansouri’s work was featured in the exhibit “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan” at the Freer Sackler gallery in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

Abdul Matin Malekzadah

Another teacher at the Turquoise Mountain Institute (and also featured in the same Smithsonian exhibition as Nasser Mansouri), Abdul Matin Malekzadah is the newest artisan in a line of potters that stretches back hundreds of years. Malekzadah is based in the village of Istalif in central Afghanistan, which has many rich seams of clay, natural materials for glazes, and wood for firing kilns. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that Istalif has become known as a village of potters. In recent decades, the village has been destroyed three times, but the villagers, including Malekzadah and his brothers, have always rebuilt their homes and workshops. Today, Malekzadah is proud to continue the artisanal legacy of his village, and to provide an important link between Afghanistan’s past and present.

What You Need to Know about LEARN & Play

right to play logoChildren learn best through play. That’s the major principle behind Right to Play, a global organization that uses sports and games as tools to help teach kids the essential life skills they need to overcome challenges like poverty, conflict, and disease, and to create better futures for themselves and their communities.

Recently, in its capacity as secretariat to the Sport for Development and Peace International Working Group (SDP IWG, an initiative of the United Nations), Right to Play published a report showcasing a number of different SDP IWG initiatives and looking at the transformative effect these programs had on local children and their communities.

Among these programs was LEARN & play, a program launched in Kabul and Parwan province and spearheaded by the German development organization AfghanistanHilfe Paderborn. Read on to learn more.

What were the objectives of LEARN & play?

With more than half of Afghanistan’s entire population currently under the age of 18, initiatives that target children’s welfare and development are an absolutely vital part of the country’s rebuilding process. Street children are a special focus of many initiatives, as estimates indicate that in Kabul alone, as many as 20,000 children are living on the street with no permanent home or adult care.

The objectives of LEARN & play were to provide disadvantaged children in Kabul with the opportunity to attend school regularly and to participate in sports and games, to provide street children in particular with a safe environment for learning and skills development, and to teach them skills essential to future success like reading and writing and computer skills. The program also sought to teach participants about cooperation and conflict resolution skills through football.

How was the LEARN & play program designed?

The target demographic for LEARN & play was children aged 8 to 12 who were either living on the street, had been orphaned, or were from struggling single-parent homes. In Afghanistan, many children who fit this description have to help provide financial support for themselves and their families, and are therefore able to attend school. Furthermore, life on the streets carries many risks, including the greater likelihood that children will become involved in crime and drugs.

The LEARN & play initiative used football to attract children to the program; the idea being that the program’s participants would come for the football and stay for the academic training. As part of the program, children received one meal; three hours of academic lessons in fundamental subjects like reading, writing, computers, and English; and two hours of football practice.

All classes were taught by instructors approved by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education and were held in the safe environment of buildings belonging to AfghanistanHilfe Paderborn, the program’s lead organization. Two centers for the program were established—one in Kabul and one in the eastern province of Parwan—and classes were held in shifts so that more children could attend. For maximum effectiveness, eligibility for the LEARN & play program required a five-year commitment from the participants.

What organizations were involved in the delivery of LEARN & play?

While AfghanistanHilfe Paderborn was responsible for overall administration and project coordination, a number of other groups provided additional support for LEARN & play. These included the Afghanistan Football Association, which organized football teams and tournaments; Handicap International, which provided training clinics for team coaches; Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education, which oversaw the teachers employed in LEARN & play’s non-formalized schools; and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), which provided financial support for the curriculum design of the program, as well as much-needed moral support for project staff.

What impact did LEARN & play have?

LEARN & play reached approximately 600 of Afghanistan’s most disadvantaged children: 400 in Kabul and 200 in Parwan province. At the start of the project, only about 10% of participating children were enrolled in a formal school; by the end of the project, that figure had grown to 60%.

Based on reports from project staff members, LEARN & play participants developed greater self-confidence and became more energetic and more cooperative as a result of their football training. Because of the teamwork involved in playing football, children also had plenty of opportunities to practice problem solving and positive conflict resolution, and to boost their communication and interpersonal skills by interacting with a diverse range of people, both peers and adults, with whom they would not likely have had contact before the program.

The children also enjoyed greater recognition from their neighbors and peers as a result of LEARN & play’s respected community status; street children and orphans are often marginalized in Afghan society. Finally, LEARN & play provided important health benefits for participants, both through the provision of a daily meal and through the regular physical activity at football sessions, which helped improve their strength, stamina, and coordination.

What You Need to Know about Traditional Islamic Gardens

For well over a thousand years, gardens have occupied a special place in Islamic culture. Viewed as an earthly symbol of paradise, Islamic gardens can trace their origins as far back as the 7th century, when Persian gardens were established. Today, beautiful examples of historic Islamic gardens can be found throughout the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, including the gardens of the Taj Mahal in India and the Alhambra palace in southern Spain.

In Afghanistan, the most famous example of a traditional Islamic garden is Bagh-e Babur, or “Babur’s Gardens”. The beautifully restored gardens in the heart of Kabul were originally designed and created by the Mughal emperor Babur approximately 500 years ago. Following a long period of neglect and disrepair, a comprehensive restoration of the gardens was launched in 2002 with the support of the Aga Khan Development Network. Today, Babur offers locals and tourists alike a glimpse of a peaceful and beautiful part of the Islamic cultural heritage.

Like most other traditional Islamic gardens, Bagh-e Babur carefully follows the key principles upon which all such gardens are based, incorporating the vital design elements common to Islamic gardens of all sizes. Read on to learn more about how these gardens were designed.

Basic Principles

Islamic gardens are much more than pleasant green spaces. They are sophisticated, living cultural artifacts that reflect key elements of Islamic tradition and culture. Following are seven important principles on which all Islamic gardens are based.

gardenDiversity—Islamic gardens are unique in that they bring together disparate elements while at the same time celebrating their distinctiveness. In particular, gardens explore and reflect the connection between urban and natural, tangible and symbolic, and physical and metaphysical.

Beauty—In the Islamic culture, beauty is a goal rather than a luxury. Aesthetic considerations are therefore of prime importance in garden design, encompassing everything from the types of plants that are chosen to how the garden structures are decorated.

Conservation—This is an important tenet of Islam. In garden design, it manifests itself in the careful consideration of how water in a garden is used and controlled.

Context—Islamic gardens should not be viewed in isolation. Rather, the gardens’ design should be created in response to the surrounding architecture and planning elements, ensuring that they will fit in harmoniously with their environment.

Individualism—While they are common spaces, Islamic gardens are designed to encourage visitors to have their own individual experiences with and their own responses to the design.

Multi-functionality—The ideal Islamic garden serves many purposes. It should provide food and water for visitors, as well as for the animals and birds that live in it. Its trees and shrubs should not only produce fruit and herbs, but also shade and scent. A range of both active and passive activities should be possible in the garden.

Moderation—Islamic gardens demonstrate restraint and moderation in that they are all about finding a balance between humans and nature.

Design Elements

A number of key design elements are common to all Islamic gardens, regardless of their size and location. They include:

Water—Water is at the heart—both literally and metaphorically—of Islamic gardens. Given that the gardens developed in arid countries and were typically designed by desert dwellers, water assumes an almost sacred importance. Indeed, water is actually a more important part of an Islamic garden than the plants. Many Islamic gardens feature a fountain at the center with four water courses radiating outwards. The water courses are often lined with green or blue tiles that enhance the interplay between water and light.

The number four—Four is an important number in the Islamic culture, representing the four directions and four elements that form the order of the universe. As such, traditional Islamic gardens are laid out in a quadripartite design. That is, they are shaped like a rectangle divided into four parts (the divisions are usually created by the water courses described above). The layout is traditionally referred to as “chahar-bagh,” a term derived from Persian and meaning “four gardens.”

Greenery and shade—The geometric lines of the traditional Islamic garden are softened by greenery, which is planted first and foremost to create shade. Fruit trees are some of the most common plants featured in Islamic gardens, as they not only provide crucial shade, but also nourishment and a pleasant aroma.

Walls and gates—An Islamic garden, much like paradise in the Islamic tradition, is an enclosed space protected by walls and accessible by gates. In physical terms, enclosing a garden serves three main purposes: it helps to keep out the encroaching desert and allows the area within it to be organized and maintained more effectively, it concentrates visitors’ attention on the garden rather than its surroundings, and it designates the garden as a special area separate from its environment.