Above are two artworks by Khadim Ali, on exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/exhibitions/khadim-ali/) earlier this year. The image above is misleading in that the works are of totally different scale. The work on the right is gouache, ink and gold leaf on wasli paper, and perhaps 34 cm high. The woven wall-hanging on the left is wool and cotton, I’d say over 120 cm high. (All this is rather inexact – the individual works are untitled and I don’t have full documentation).
Prior to this exhibition Ali was best known for his highly detailed miniatures. His work is full of demons and heros, often based on his interpretation of the Shahnameh, overlaid with his and his family’s personal experiences. Ali’s family were Hazara in Afghanistan – his ancestral home was Bamiyan, the site of the giant Buddha statues destroyed by the Taliban – and he grew up a refugee in Pakistan, where his family home was destroyed by a bomb set off in front of a nearby mosque.
The move to include knotted rugs in his work was based on images after that bombing, when from under the rubble a red carpet was uncovered, virtually the only family treasure to survive and a link to the rug-making traditions of Afghanistan. Ali wanted to draw on that tradition, but use his own visual language. The exhibition included a series of drawings, woven works, and a digital video loop showing the dyeing of yarns and weaving.
Ali Khadim tells a story of loss – of cultural heritage, of humanist values – and of seeking to understand his identity – in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and now Australia, and as Hazara. He explores shifts of meaning and perspective – who are the demons? – and the perversion of words through ideology. By including carpets and hangings woven in Afghanistan, he responds to his heritage, to the dangers and losses faced by his family, to their resilience and, I think, hope.
I found the exhibition interesting, thought provoking and painful in itself. It was also very relevant to my musings on the use of weaving in art works (see for example 4-Oct-2014).
I was able to go to a floor talk by Khadim Ali and learnt more about the actual weaving process. There were challenges finding a weaving shop in Afghanistan who were comfortable with weaving Ali’s imagery and the shading and mottling of colours, for example in the skin areas, did not fit with the traditional approach. Some embroidery and what looked to me like crochet were applied after weaving. I got the impression that they really had to work hard to get through both cultural and technical difficulties.
There were areas of weft faced plain weave using different wefts right next to dense knotted areas, some of which were sculptured in clipping, other parts such as the beard left shaggy. It led to some tension issues and distortion in the fabric, but that was totally beside the point. In fact it seems that it was incredibly powerful and freeing to have one person coming in with no weaving background but a very strong idea of what he wanted to achieve, combining with weavers who having once left behind a lot of what they “knew” traditionally were able move far beyond weaverly concerns while still using their skills.
Including weaving in the works made sense, emotional, intellectual, cultural and aesthetic sense. Plus having the three types of works/experiences together (weaving, painting, video) gave a lot of depth and context well beyond what a single work could supply. All the techniques added to the work, rather than the work existing because the artist wanted to use particular techniques. Things to keep in mind.
As a contrast in response to the artist’s cultural heritage of carpets, see Faig Ahmed – http://www.faigahmed.com/ and http://www.textileartist.org/faig-ahmed-remixing-traditions/.