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Dialogue of the Times

Author: Marjorie Husain      Publications: Dawn - Gallery (p.7)      Dated: 28 Aug 2004

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Khadim Ali told me of a strange story addressing his recent work. He described the customary celebrations in Afghanistan, his ancestral homeland, when people gather at Mazar-i-Sharif on the March 21 to celebrate Nauroz, the New Year. An intrinsic element of the tradition was the common enjoyment of the beautiful tulips that abound in the area. The mass of flowers in full bloom and myriad colours appeared to rejoice in a new beginning along with the congregation.

Coinciding with the destruction wrought by the Taliban in the area came draught. The rains ceased, there were no more tulips and only the indomitable dandelions were seen on the parched earth. Where previously there had been cause for celebration a massacre took place. 9,000 people were slaughtered and their blood spread across and into the barren soil. With the rout of the Taliban came the rains and the dormant tulips blossomed again from the soil; enormous, magical blooms as if the spirits of the dead rejoiced once more.

Throughout art history, artists have been moved to express their deepest feelings on the effects of acts of violence. With roots covering centuries of ancestors in the region of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, from the windows of the family home, Khadim Ali grew up with the view of the historic Buddhist sculpture carved on the rugged mountain rocks. He was born in Quetta in 1978, and began his art education with Fazil Mousavi, a fine watercolourist and teacher. There were frequent visits to Bamiyan where his grandfather taught him the history of their homeland and the family.

“According to my grandfather, our ancestors were believed to be sculptors in those early days and the tradition is that the valley was visited by Emperor Ashoka, who brought Buddhism to the region and ordered the creation of the sculpture carved in the rocks. The work continued for three hundred years.”

Inside the rocks, there was a village with inter-connected houses and numerous windows lit by lamps at night.  These are delineated by the artist as threads connecting dark rectangles, no longer shining in the darkness. As children, Khadim Ali and his cousins loved to explore the ancient dwellings and wrote numbers on the windows to trace their paths in the labyrinthine structures.

The artist studied mural painting in Iran, and in 2000 joined the National College of Arts, Lahore, from where he graduated in 2003. There he was taught the techniques of miniature painting by Bashir Ahmed and Imran Qureshi. In his first solo exhibition of paintings tiled jashne Gule Surkh (celebration of the red flower) at Chawkandi Art, Karachi, he displays a collection of delicately executed artworks that, although contemporary in idiom, are executed in a traditional miniature format. The subject of the work focuses on the destruction of the historic icons as a symbol of the mindless forces of   aggression.

Articulating his thoughts in a dialogue of the times the artist is contemporary in his approach. Traditional elements are continued in the practice of preparing wasli surfaces, making brushes from squirrel hair and using organic pigments. Colouration includes the green-tinged earth tones soaked from walnut skins; gradient colours of paper washed in tea, tints made from vegetable hues. Scarlet and blue predominate, referring to innocent bloodshed and the colour of the mosaic tiles at Mazar-i-Sharif – a colour echoed in the blue burqas worn by women.

Juxtaposing motifs of peace with symbols of war and destruction sensitively rendered, his is the outcry of a peace loving man touched by war. Three globes that appear in the paintings allude to the Buddhas three stages of purification and portraits of the great Moguls haloed with gold and silver circles. The delicately blossoming almond tree, triumphant tulips and dandelions – considered messengers of good news – are interspersed with the litter of war. Shell cases, broken stones, fragmented forms, and the text of the artists letters.

References to the Vitruvian man of Leonardo Da Vinci compare Leonardos study of anatomy and human proportions to the work of the sculptors of the Bamiyan Buddhas. In the region where Firdosis Shahnama is an oral tradition, the artist incorporates Rustams victory over a black devil with an arrow from a divine source. Transforming the legend to a modern fable, Khadim Ali paints a wounded landscape looked down upon by relics of history where through centuries of change the mountains remain.