Hearts for Herat: Artist Nilofer Kamal on Art and Afghanistan

By Pritha Mahanti


Nilofer Kamal’s Instagram bio reads “You will not see me stand up for your country anymore, neither for your people, nor your rights, as you do not stand for mine”. The sense of vindictiveness displayed so unapologetically suddenly seems very inappropriate for the kind of political correctness in woke circles. However, if one were to pause for a moment and take in the totality of the crisis that besets Afghanistan, one might just be able to faintly empathise with the jarring simplicity and despair of the statement. For those of us living the “normal” every day (despite the “not normal” of the pandemic), it is a hard pill to swallow. To love your land from which you have to flee or know that you may never return to is perhaps not easy. Such a kind of love requires strength, but more than that it requires hope, however untenable it might seem.

“Saffron flowers in a pakol”
An Afghan soldier with a rubab.

For Nilofer, a young artist and Afghan from Herat living outside Afghanistan, it is her art that carries this hope. Her works are deeply attached to her nation, be it saffron flowers in a pakol or an Afghan soldier with a rubab. As you scroll down her Instagram page, you will come across something quite interesting. It is the predominance of Afghan motifs and how they are imprinted on non-Afghan subjects from Mona Lisa to Anime figures. In the context of a nation whose vibrant heritage is perpetually under threat, one wonders how much is this kind of work an act of survival? Like citizens, does traditional Afghan art need a certain displacement to preserve itself?

Nilofer : When I started creating digital art, fusing Afghan culture with popular western comics, animations and trends, my only idea behind it was to promote Afghan culture to those who don’t know much about it. I currently see many of my Afghan followers using my art works as their profile pictures. This shows how much our culture represents us.

Afghan culture is not only about vibrant colours and accessories; it’s also music, art and history. Knowing how much history we have lost during the last Taliban rule, it makes me worried for what we have now. With time, many Afghan youngsters chose to make art an important part of their lives. Through art and culture we put Afghanistan’s beauty on display, and allowed people to see how colourful and full of life it really is. In the wake of the recent takeover by the Taliban, many of our local Afghan artists’ lives fell in danger, as they were threatened and tortured. Some were even killed.

Art is history and history always leads back to art. It is a basic human right to create art, and it deserves to be respected. It is what keeps us connected to each other, to our history and culture. Afghanistan has some of the oldest art pieces, like the oil paintings in the Bamiyan Buddha caves which date back to 7th century AD. The Gandharan art made between the 1st and 7th century is an integral part of Afghanistan’s history. It is a land of rich architectural wonders that were built by various empires, paintings made by Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād, poetry written by Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi (Rumi), and famous physician and thinkers like Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna). Till this day, new underground worlds of art are being discovered, those that were inspired by the eclectic socio-religious fabric of Afghanistan where Zoroastrianism, Surya worship, Paganism, Hinduism and Buddhism were practised. This makes Afghanistan an interesting country for those who are interested in history and art. In many ways Afghanistan is the heart of Asia.

Unfortunately, many of these historical statues and art pieces were destroyed during the successive invasions, beginning with the Muslim conquest. During the 1996 takeover by the Taliban, many art pieces (like the famous Bamiyan Buddha) were damaged, looted and sold in the black market. A lot of these historical art pieces were enormous, to the point where a complete destruction of it would be the only way to erase it from collective memory. The ban on music, female rights, studies and practices in arts has already taken a big part of our culture away from us. Any ban and destruction of art, artefacts and its disciplines should be considered a cultural and historical genocide on the people and history of Afghanistan.

How, then, does an artist like Nilofer understand and address grief and trauma?

Nilofer : It is art that connects me to Afghanistan. An artist’s work is his/her emotion worked into an image, a sculpture, poem, dance, song, photograph etc. Creating art to express how strong my Afghan people back home are only makes me feel guilty and fills me with anger. Although I am always thankful for being blessed to be safe and to be able to live my life the way I want to, it reminds me of the suffering of the women and men, girls and boys of Afghanistan. It makes me aware of all the artists and how much has been taken away from them. It reminds me of how their lives have changed, how much of their hard work has gone to waste, because of a foreign regime that allows everyone to benefit on the suffering of my people.

Nilofer’s words are bare and sharp unlike the contrivances employed by the powers and interests that are. They have a deadening weight, as if unable to contain the overwhelming nature of reality. Today social media gives us access to events unfolding in real time with a kind of immediacy that was never experienced before. It is as if the world is relentlessly unfolding before us as we try to catch up. In the wake of a crisis, like the one in Afghanistan, it is important to reflect on digital art, particularly when it comes to forging global solidarity and resistance.

“Chai guy”
“Mohabbat in a void”

Nilofer : We are lucky that art is an international language to represent our emotions and feelings. Being able to be here today and support Afghanistan and the civilians of Afghanistan on social media through my art might not be much, but it means a lot to me. Today, on internet, journalists share their stories, people share their experiences and information, photographers share their photos and artists share their art. By posting art and using hash tags to raise awareness, we can allow more people to know about the actual situation of Afghanistan.

And so she does. Nilofer has been active on Instagram like the rest of her people outside Afghanistan who have been relentlessly trying to draw the attention of the world to their beleaguered nation. While it is true that grief, pain and anguish have been unfathomably in excess, we are also reminded of the fact that Afghanistan is much greater than its tragedy, like all of us are. When a regime like the Taliban throttles differences with bullets, artists like Nilofer act as keepers of a culture under siege. Art then becomes more than a medium of expression or a tool of rebellion. It becomes a choice of being in the world. As a young child Nilofer heard stories from her mom about the painters, poets and other artists of her hometown in Herat. The stories continue to be the inspiration for her art projects. The opportunity of living in a number of countries has made her acquainted with different cultures, customs and languages and taught her a lot about life, and how different, yet similar we all are. But, where is home? Nilofer shares an anecdote.

Nilofer : I remember one day in elementary school, just a few days before Mothers’ Day, we were sitting in class working on a craft project for our mums. I folded a paper in half, drew half a heart on it and cut it out. Once I unfolded my paper I had a perfect cut-out of a heart in my hand. My friend saw it and asked me if I could make one for her as well, which ended with me happily spending the rest of the day cutting hearts for my classmates. This was when I realized that no matter where I am, or what I do, I’m home where there is art.

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