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Issue 151

Gham, Private Spheres, and Informal Support Systems: A Conversation with Hangama Amiri
by Muheb Esmat

Muheb Esmat: It feels strangely appropriate to begin this conversation by asking if you have heard the song “Gham Daram Gham” by Taher Shubab? It came to mind immediately after I began thinking about “grief,” which is echoed in the song by the Persian word gham (مغ).

Hangama Amiri: When this song was popular in 2008/2009, I lived in Halifax with my family. It was also when my father was reunited with our family. He was able to join us in Canada after spending almost eight years in refugee camps in Europe, so the song really takes me back to those memories. But besides the good memories, it also resonates deeply with feelings of displacement that were painful.

ME: It’s incredible how such personal memories could be attached to a song, even years later.

Even though the music video would attribute Shubab’s grief to his separation from the woman he loves, clearly his lamentation deeply resonates with other losses too. How has the recent turmoil— end of American occupation, fall of the republic, return of the Taliban, humanitarian crisis currently unfolding in Afghanistan—affected you and your work?

HA: I have lived away from Afghanistan for a long time, so this sense of distance and separation has been a part of my life. But observing the events of the past several months from afar does not make the grief any easier. Witnessing the changes in the country affects those of us living abroad (whether by force or by choice), emotionally and mentally. I still feel like I have lost something—a safe space or a place I had hoped to visit in person or reconnect with again.

Judging from the videos and images reported by journalists, we can see how ordinary people fear being caught by the Taliban. That fear and the fear of survival is hugely taxing, mentally and physically. People have been rightfully scared of returning to the previous Taliban era of the ’90s.

Amid this dark moment in history, one of the only lights has come from the women in Afghanistan who continue to protest for their rights despite the immense consequences. The return of the Taliban has meant a sudden loss in social and political realms; even their rights to education and employment have almost disappeared overnight. While it is easy to speak and judge from the outside, what these women are doing on the streets of Kabul is extremely courageous, and we must listen to and amplify their voices. For example, women in Kabul used their own lipstick to write on walls with slogans such as “Removing women is removing human beings,” and “My love is going to school.” These actions and words are so powerful and brave that they will have long-lasting effects on Afghans in the country and abroad.

With these emotions of rage, loss, and constant fear on my mind, it is inevitable that they have shaped and will shape how I think and practice in the studio.

ME: Can you talk a little about how this distance and separation from home (place, culture, language) feeds your practice?

HA: Lately, I have taken a turn toward narrative in my studio work. I have been thinking a lot about the domestic spaces that Afghans create and are subsequently shaped by. Using textiles as the medium, I search to define, explore, and question these spaces. My work tends to be very figurative because I am drawn to the power of representation—things that are ordinary to our everyday life, such as a passport, a vase, or celebrity postcards. I am thinking here about two works that I recently exhibited at the NADA FAIR 2021, Still-Life with Papers (2021) and Eight Seated Women (2021), both of which drew from my experience of connecting with my relatives in Kabul before the American withdrawal.

Living in the diaspora, I often feel that I live in multiple places at the same time, especially when watching the news about Afghanistan and thinking of my family. Therefore, I have always been interested in how visual translation shapes this in-between space for me. Using the visual vocabulary of popular culture in Afghanistan is a way for me to connect to myself. Including Bollywood postcards in my work beside the figures adds a fantastical space for the figures’ emotions, loves, and inspirations. They create an unknown, imagined space for my characters to escape to. Such elements help me structure not only the material but also the spiritual worlds in my work.

I am always learning about how my personal relations to Afghanistan shape what’s happening in my studio.

ME: What I find fascinating and also admire in your work is your thinking around and illustration of smaller spaces and moments, whether it be the social space that a beauty salon creates or this cordial and introspective moment framed in Eight Seated Women. But all of these spaces and moments have witnessed a dramatic change, even the most intimate and private, in the past couple of months. As you remember, in the early days under the Taliban last summer, defaced images of women in public spaces—like the beauty salons in Kabul—were circulating widely. Has this sudden turn added a new meaning to the works you have created for the past couple of years?

HA: Those beauty salons and the glamorous posters of women were all torn down or spray-painted, at times by the owners themselves, acting in fear for their own safety. This erasure definitely has long-term effects on society.

In my series Bazaar: A Recollection of Home (2020), which was mounted at T293 gallery in Rome, I focused on the cultural, political, and economic spaces that women carved in Afghan society and used to empower each other, including a number of scenes in beauty salons. I see these projects as archival, as if I documented visual evidence in contemporary history itself, which has changed tremendously for Afghan women now.

The intimate exchanges between my family in Afghanistan and me over the past two years have also brought new perspectives to my work. My series Spectators of a New Dawn (2021) depicts a range of stories and personal accounts that were shared with me by friends and family still living in Afghanistan; I had begun to document conversations with cousins, aunts, and close friends about the possible return of the Taliban regime amid the ongoing US-Taliban peace deal process. They were and are predominantly concerned about maintaining their rights and the progress Afghan women have made in education, employment, and overall in society. I brought my figures to have dialogue both in public settings, such as Portrait of a Lady in a Cafe or Woman with Red Lipstick, and in private, as in Poet or Night Visit. Using the lens within domestic spaces was also something new to me; I used to consider them to be untouchable, unimportant, or insignificant to talk about, probably because those were the common perceptions that I grew up with.

ME: What is it that draws you to the domestic space?

HA: It’s surprising how much public spaces shape our personal ones. As far as I remember, growing up as a young girl in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and later in Tajikistan, I was always surrounded by women, including my cousins and distant relatives. While my father was seeking asylum in Europe, my mother was left to take care of four young children on her own. But she found incredible support in these informal spaces and communities that women had created for each other, wherever we went. And I grew up being shaped by and aware of these spaces’ vital role.

I also think a lot about how Afghan women’s sexuality has always been hidden and confined to the domestic space, and how its expression in public is shameful. What language have I been taught to express my desires and wants through? And what structures and forces are they bound to? Here, I am especially referring to the overwhelming passion for Bollywood movies and Bollywood ideas of love, intimacy, and pleasure, which my mother and my aunts used to admire. On the one hand, these things are strictly private, while on the other hand, we consumed so much media that visualizes them; I find this dual reality fascinating. My aunts would fantasize about being in a relationship like Shah Rukh Khan or Kajol from the film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998). It shaped their understanding of love. My current body of work explores women owning their bedrooms as a space for celebration, healing, laughing, or simply coming together. These domestic spaces present us with glimpses into how the social and cultural boundaries that restrict and shape women’s sexuality are effectively subverted. I see them as a form of self-empowerment practiced on a smaller scale.

ME: In light of all this you have shared, I am curious to know how textiles came to be the primary medium in your practice?

HA: My relationship with textile is also closely related to the experience of being around women. Cloth or fabric is very important to me. Growing up in an Afghan household, the first thing my mother taught me was how to sew a running stitch for patching ripped shirts or jeans, or how to stitch a button on a shirt. I remember my sister and my close cousin would find two sticks from outside and wrap them in old cloths to make stick dolls for us to play with at a tea house. It was a very creative process, sewing tiny dresses for our dolls. It was nothing fancy, but those were some of my happiest memories. My mother loved to tailor her dresses, so I grew up observing her.

When I first started, I mostly made paintings. That was partly due to my art education, which was very Eurocentric. I never felt comfortable in painting; deep down, it was missing originality. I felt very removed from it. I somehow felt more connected to the raw canvas itself than filling it with ready-made paint tubes. It took me some time to realize, but that’s how I finally found myself working with textiles as a medium—and also as a subject, in ways.

I work with different types of textiles sourced from New York, Afghanistan, ikat-print fabrics from Uzbekistan or Tajikistan, and punjabi/sarees from India and Pakistan. Being surrounded by a diverse collection of such fabrics also resonates with the world I grew up in as a refugee. Having a variety of them in my pieces is a way for me to unite with my own identity as an Afghan in the diaspora.

ME: I know we all have different relationships to grief, in regard to both expressing and coping with it; have you found any solace in making work?

HA: Indeed, I have. My studio has been the only space for me to cope with this continuous grief these days. Keeping my mind and hands active helps me a lot to transform some of the feelings in my work. I’ve also been patient and understanding with my own work and with myself; the creative process has been a very meditative journey for me in the past months.

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