Sometimes graffiti can be seen from space. In Tunisia it graces the country’s tallest minaret. In Lebanon, they are making green graffiti for the city streets. And Egyptians have converted military barriers into trompe l’oeil streetscapes. Afghan artist Malina Suliman finds her inspiration in southern Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban and one of the most dangerous places in the world. She aims to change the cultural environment through sculpture and painting that depicts the challenges of her war-weary generation.
Born and raised in Kabul, Suliman moved to Pakistan in 2007 to study with Art Council Karachi. She returned to Kabul and its nascent art scene, joining local art association Berang. The group works to promote the arts in her deeply conservative hometown.
“Many people had never seen an art installation. Some were offended and others were hurt because they’d experienced [he pain of the subject matter] before,” Suliman said to Al Arabiya, speaking of her painting “War and Chaos” which depicts the aftermath of a suicide bombing.
Suliman’s artwork is drawing attention in the Afghan capital, and internationally. Last year, she was invited to President Hamid Karzai’s palace: he’s also from Kandahar.
She describes her untitled painting of birds flying above the mountains as, “symbolic of how we rise to see a world beyond the mountains that surrounds us when we are educated.”
The image above is a sculpture she created of a child missing a leg. She says on her website, “Children in Afghanistan are often forgotten by their families or just left as victims to fend for themselves so I wanted to capture their pain in the sculpture. But really the message I wanted to get across was that nothing is forever, and as Afghans we are reminded of that daily. We’re constantly in fear that today might be the day I fall, today may be the day I die.”
Her exhibit in Kandahar, where the Taliban and tribal elders dominate public opinion, was the first in three decades. She drew a mostly male crowd, including Kandahar governor Tooryalai Wesa. “I was taken aback by her work. I had only seen great art abroad, but never here,” Wesa told Reuters. “I hope it persuades more women to do the same.”
Thirty years of war following the 1979 Soviet invasion sent Afghanistan’s art scene into hibernation. But in the past decade, with a weakened Taliban, the arts are reemerging in Afghan’s largest cities. Al Arabiya reports that the western city of Herat has art studios on offer, and northern Mazar-e-Sharif is growing a lively graffiti scene.
Modern, provocative, inexpensive to produce and widely accessible to viewers, graffiti is increasingly visible throughout the Middle East. Her art collective runs group workshops in the art form, but Suliman’s been known to venture out alone, at night, using a flashlight to illuminate her work site. Typical behavior for graffiti artists (think UK’s Banksy and Tunisian-born El Seed) but add in the Taliban and it’s a very different picture.
Last year, Suliman joined the all-male Kandahar Fine Art Association (KFAA), which opened Kandahar’s first art gallery with funding from The Ministry of Information and Culture. Her involvement has spurred more female artists to participate, but risks remain real.
“One of our biggest fears is that people will mistake us for creating art for foreigners or working with NGOs. People who work with NGOs get shot without question in Kandahar,” she said. Suliman has received phone threats and the Taliban have criticized her.
But one of Suliman’s greatest challenges lies at home. “The night of my first exhibit my family told me ‘if you go, don’t come back’,” she said. While her sisters and mother now support her ambition and passion, her father and brothers are strongly opposed.
Last year, working with KFAA, Suliman taught Kandahar’s first contemporary arts workshop and participated in Helmand’s first ever first art exhibitions. Future Projects include workshops in sculpture and graphite drawing. “My target with graphite is that Afghans wear it around their eyes, and by using graphite in art, this might change their views and minds.”
Suliman’s work knows no limits. She uses traditional paints on canvas, spray cans on walls and rock, and broken glass, tree shavings, and whatever interesting trash she picks up in multimedia collage. She believes that any piece of scrap can be turned into art.
She has a profound passion for her work. Her long-term goal is to travel throughout Afghanistan, conducting workshops, introducing future artists to drawing, painting, sculpting and graffiti. Her immediate goal is to create a platform of expression for a generation whose voices often go unheard. For more about this creative and courageous young woman, check out her website.
Images from Malina Suliman’s website