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 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.

Spotlight on the Amazing Phototheca Afghanica

Decades of turmoil and conflict have destroyed many elements of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, including the vast majority of historical photographs of the country. Today, a visual record of the time before Afghanistan’s troubles is all but non-existent, leaving the country with very little visual heritage to look back on with pride or to pass on to future generations as a record of the past.

However, not all photographs were lost, and one unique project is working to ensure that those photographs that were saved from destruction are safely preserved and made publicly accessible. Read on to learn more about the Phototheca Afghanica and its work to preserve and restore Afghanistan’s visual heritage.

What is the Phototheca Afghanica?

old photosThe Phototheca Afghanica is a project initiated and maintained by the Swiss Afghanistan Institute (SAI), a politically and religiously neutral institution that has been systematically researching and documenting the history and culture of Afghanistan for more than 35 years.

The image archives of the SAI have served as the primary source of material for the Phototheca Afghanica; these archives contain approximately 50,000 photographs derived mainly from collections that were lodged with the SAI or entrusted to other safe individuals and institutions for protection during Afghanistan’s conflict years. It was a common practice during this time for important cultural artifacts to be hidden or sent out of the country for safekeeping, as objects that remained in the country were at great risk of destruction.

At present, the aim of the Phototheca Afghanica is to make roughly 5,000 historical photographs available for research and accessible to the general public through exhibitions, publications, or online.

Why were so many of Afghanistan’s photographs destroyed?

Afghanistan’s photographs—again, like so many other cultural artifacts—suffered from two waves of destruction. In 1978, pre-revolutionary photographs were destroyed by communist activists attempting to erase what they viewed as the country’s bourgeois past. Then, from the mid-1990s onwards, images depicting living creatures were destroyed as the regime believed them to be blasphemous.

What has the Phototheca Afghanica been doing to preserve photos?

The practical work being carried out by the Phototheca Afghanica is all about ensuring that the photographs are preserved in as good condition as possible, and that it is easy to access and search through the collection of photos. Practical steps to this end include: preparing a comprehensive inventory of existing photographs, including albums, prints, negatives, and glass plates; scanning and digitizing all available material; physically safeguarding the photographs by mounting them in special acid-free paper folders and then storing them in acid-free boxes; compiling individual descriptions of each photograph, including the identification (as far as possible) of the people and places featured and the date of the photo; and assembling searchable databases so that photos can be found based on selected criteria such as photographer, location, etc.

What kinds of photos can be found in the Phototheca Afghanica?

The Phototheca Afghanica has already made a select number of images available online from the following collections:

The Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880)—Photos from this collection are some of the earliest photos of Afghanistan in existence, as photographic technology was unknown in the country prior to the late 1870s, when it was brought over from Europe. These particular photographs were taken by the British Royal Engineers during the Second Anglo-Afghan War; the aim was to photograph military action on Afghan territory to supplement conventional military documentation of the time.

Souvenirs d’Afghanistan—This intriguing series of photographs was initiated by the Afghan ambassador in Paris in 1924. At this time, the recently independent Afghanistan was a relatively unknown player on the world stage. The ambassador’s intention was to introduce people to his country through a series of photographs depicting Afghanistan as a modern, up-and-coming nation. The collection primarily featured buildings, cars, and bridges, with very few people appearing—and then only members of the royal household dressed in Western apparel.

Why is preserving these photos important?

Photographs provide a vital record unlike any other of a country and its culture. Particularly in a country like Afghanistan, which has seen so much change over the years, photographs stand as an important reminder of a past that has been all but lost. For example, many historic buildings that feature in some of the photographs have since been demolished or destroyed, and the photograph is therefore the only reminder of their existence.

In addition, while preserved photographs have a cultural importance all their own, they can also serve a very practical purpose in helping with the rebuilding of Afghanistan. According to the Phototheca Afghanica, photos from its collections have already been used in the reconstruction of Bagh-e Babur, the famous gardens in the heart of Kabul, as well as the buildings of the Afghan National Museum, the Afghan National Gallery, and some of the oldest parts of the Presidential Palace.