Afghanistan: Exhibit of work by female artists in Kabul

Canadian Press
Seven years ago, the Taliban would have torn these paintings to pieces. The 93 works show the emotions and images of a war-torn country in which women are still deeply oppressed. They depict war and weaponry, violence, entrapment, hopelessness - and hope.
But the Taliban would have been most offended because the artists are all women.
Twenty-three young artists displayed their work at an eight-day show in Kabul attended by some 3,000 people, according to event organizer Rahraw Omarzad. The show, which ended Monday, now travels to the western city of Herat.

Under the hardline Taliban regime, women were forbidden from leaving home without a male relative as an escort and girls were not allowed to go to school. Figurative art was banned and even destroyed.

"I couldn't paint during the Taliban regime because I didn't have enough material, and I wasn't allowed to go out and buy paint," said 22-year-old Maryam Formuli.

Echoing the frustration, Fareha Ghezal, 19, added, "I was young and couldn't go to the art centre to learn because as a girl, I wasn't allowed to go to school."

The artists, who ranged in age from seven to 26, guided visitors around the gymnasium of a Kabul high school, describing their work and taking photographs with the viewers.

"It was like a wedding party. There were a lot of people enjoying it," said 23-year-old Maliha Hashemi, dressed in the artists' uniform for the exhibit, a black knee-length jacket and a red, green and black scarf, the colours of the Afghan flag.

"Before the exhibition, we were afraid that the visitors wouldn't be satisfied with our work, but when it opened, all the visitors were encouraging and impressed," Hashemi said.

Several paintings depicted women shrouded in the all-encompassing burka that many Afghan women are forced to wear to protect them from the eyes of men who are not related to them.

One woman described her work - a grid of woven string with a tangled knot in the middle - as the impeccable order of the world outside Afghanistan, and the chaos those outside forces have caused within the country.

One extraordinary aspect about the show was the conversation the works sparked among strangers in a society in which men and women who aren't related rarely talk to each other.

One conversation illustrated how Afghan men and women can give remarkably different interpretations of a painting - and a woman's place in society.

Khadija Hashemi, 21, asked one man what he thought of her painting depicting an enormous caravan of women wearing blue burkas and riding donkeys into the desert horizon, with men accompanying them on foot.

The visitor said to her that the painting showed how much respect these men have for the women, letting them ride comfortably on the donkeys as the men suffered on foot on the difficult trek.

Not quite, she said.

"They don't have any role in the selection of the path. They don't have the choice to change the path. Instead they just have to keep on moving where the donkeys are led by the men," she said.

-Nargis Nemat contributed to this report.

6 March 2008