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Afghan women’s message through contemporary art

Jul 28, 2011

Issues confronting women find expression in contemporary art work by women at the Female Arts Center in Kabul who explore violence and regeneration as inextricable themes through paintings.

Kabul: Ommolbanin Shamsia says she has been painting for as long as she can remember, as a child and refugee in Iran and later, after her family returned home to Afghanistan. She considers herself mainly a student of accounting, but she is also attached to the Female Arts Center, a part of Kabul's Center for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan. 


One of Shamsia's paintings depicts a woman with a layer of gold jewellery covering her eyes. "I tried to show a woman who cannot see the way because of the gold," she explains. "She is in a golden cage."

Another of the young artist's works shows a woman standing at the edge of a pool of water. Instead of her own reflection she looks at a young, green tree. "This represents woman as life, as regeneration," she elaborates.

Like Shamsia's works many of the contemporary art canvases at the Center offer stark testimony about the life of women. But unlike women's fashion or sports, which have attracted abundant media interest, contemporary art by Afghan women is something of a sleeper, even though it may represent a stronger challenge to conservative concepts of women's social place.

"The sense of inner life, imagination, as a way to express one's feelings or thoughts - actually expressing oneself at all - is not part of woman's life here," says Suzana Paklar former head of Medica Mondiale, a German nongovernmental group focused on women in conflict areas.

Paklar, who works with female victims of war and violence on a daily basis, says being a woman in Afghanistan is one of the hardest roles one can imagine. "Women are expected to be an invisible part of this society; to fulfill their role of daughters and wives as 'it' rather than 'I."

In the last three decades of conflict in Afghanistan, all art has been a casualty as the country struggled for survival and cultural conservatives held sway. During the Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001 paintings were dragged out of homes, offices and museums, and burned. Museum collections and cultural treasures were systematically destroyed and film archives purged.

"Women are expected to be an invisible part of this society; to fulfill their role of daughters and wives as 'it' rather than 'I."

Suzana Paklar, women rights activist

Following the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, that began to change. But the artwork commonly on display here on the walls of restaurants, is largely produced by men and caters to tourist notions of Afghanistan. Common subjects are bactrian camels; women wrapped in voluminous, head-to-toe burkas; horsemen playing buzkashi, a version of polo where the object of the game is to seize the headless carcass of a goat or small calf.

"The concept of contemporary art, of an art that is about ideas, is relatively new in Afghanistan," says Constance Wyndham. She was the manager of cultural projects with Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a British organisation set up in 2006 to revive and preserve Afghanistan's ancient arts. "Art can provide a forum for discussing subjects that are still primarily taboo in Afghan society," believes Wyndham.

While women have traditionally created handicrafts - jewellery, carpets, embroidery - few have ventured into more individualistic forms such as painting, music or dancing. When female singers or dancers appear on TV, criticism often follows from cultural conservatives including a small but influential body of religious scholars, the Council of Ulema.

In April 2008, under pressure from the council, the government had banned several Indian TV soap operas that featured women singing and dancing and extramarital relationships. That same month, two clerics presented a parliamentary bill calling for a code of conduct to prevent women from being in the company of men who aren't relatives.

In addition to social restrictions, women here suffer some of the world's highest rates of maternal mortality, forced marriage, rape and fatal domestic violence. All of these issues find some kind of expression in the work of students at the Female Arts Center. They explore violence and regeneration as inextricable themes.

One of the most striking works 'Condemned' has been painted by Shekeba Saifi. In it, oblong blocks of colour depict grave sites. In front of them another oblong shape is unmistakable as a woman's rounded shoulders and covered head.

Shamsia and Saifi's teacher at the Center is Rahraw Omarzad, a man in his mid-40s. A graduate of the arts faculty in Kabul University, he worked in a government art centre until the Taliban era. He was living in the Pakistani city of Peshawar until returning in 2002.

He says he wanted to start contemporary art classes to break the gridlock in conventional art education. "By the time the students go through four years of traditional art courses and come to the subject of contemporary art, they have already lost the ability to think out of the box," he elaborates. But Omarzad worries that the Female Arts Center may attract public criticism if it becomes better known. "Some people will not like the idea of women artists," he says.

And yet, painting, he adds, is in some ways highly suitable to women's social constraints. It can be done in private and, if necessary, at home. And abstract art, for all its expressive potential, does not break the prohibition in conservative Islam against depictions of the human form.

By arrangement with Women's eNews. 

(Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian journalist who is currently based in Kabul. For original story, log on to:

Source : WFS
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