Incisive works of art portray the human predicament in conflict zones
Afghanistan-based artist Aziz Hazara was in Delhi three years ago for an artist residency that would lead to a show on Afghan refugees in the Indian capital. Working with a Nigerian-American artist, Hazara’s open studio event had a video installation where children of refugees could draw lines on a canvas. “At some point, the lines would disappear and the children could draw again,” he says.
At the Khoj residency, Hazara focused on immigrants from Afghanistan, while fellow artist Tito Aderemi Ibitola dealt with immigrants from Nigeria. Their Delhi show in 2017 explored the “politics of multilayered nationalities living in the same city”. A few months before, as an undergraduate student of Mariam Dawood School of Visual Arts and Design at Lahore’s Beaconhouse National University, Hazara’s thesis was on Afghan refugees in Pakistan.
Born in the middle of civil war in the mountainous Wardak province in central Afghanistan, the Kabul-based Hazara’s works explore the human predicament in conflict zones. Violence has driven away generations of Afghans from their homes for a better future in neighbouring countries like Pakistan and India, as well as Europe. Refugees in foreign lands, most of them undocumented, they struggle to find the future they have aspired for.
“What does it mean to live on the margins of the world?” This is the question Hazara asks while he goes in search of Afghan refugees abroad. In Europe, he met a young man born in Isfahan, Iran, to Afghan parents who had fled during the Soviet invasion. “He had been deported thrice by Iranian police to Afghanistan before he went to Europe to seek asylum in Switzerland,” says Hazara.
“He required proof of identity as an Afghan citizen to apply for Swiss citizenship and asked his father in Iran for help. The father asked his acquaintances back in Kabul for an identity card, which the Swiss police found out to be fake. When I heard this story, I was shocked. It took the boy two years to prove that he didn’t make the fake identity card,” says Hazara, the first Afghan artist to join a residency programme in Switzerland with the support of Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia.
Hazara’s works include the 2019 video project Bow Echo, shot in Afghanistan as a response to suicide attacks. “The idea of Isis targeting my neighbourhood in Kabul was behind this work,” adds Hazara. One work from Bow Echo, a five-channel video installation, is part of the permanent collection of London’s Tate Modern.
Hazara’s works, which include mediums like performance installations, performances, photographs and objects, have been exhibited in Sydney, Busan, Barcelona, Denmark and Delhi. In the past two months, the artist has been interviewing Afghan refugees in Switzerland for his work at the Embassy of Foreign Artists residency programme.
Hazara is among a rare band of artists across the world working in conflict zones and addressing the human catastrophe through art. Four years ago, the well-known Indian artist Sumedh Rajendran travelled to Sri Lanka to look at life after a nearly three decades-long civil war in the island nation. The result was Half Return, a 17-minute short film about the aftermath of the civil war and the healing process. “When you live inside a conflict for 25 years, it is not easy to come out of it,” says Rajendran.
Many of the Kerala-born Rajendran’s works focus on migration, memory and identity. The Other Side, his sculptural work in wrought iron at the 2014 Vancouver Biennale, brings forth the thin line between visibility and invisibility through a fencing grill fused with a lonely human figure. “The borders become visible when we create historical and social moments,” says Rajendran, who was among the participating artists at the first edition of Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2012. “Borders are not merely geographical, they work within social, political and economic structures,” he adds.
“There is no place in the world without conflicts,” says Rajendran, whose 2018 work Sharp Air explores the crisis of identity. “We see only the physical wars… and those conflicts that are not visible, we say they don’t affect us,” he adds. “The ongoing protests by the farmers in search of justice are also a conflict.”
Art, Rajendran says, helps society learn the truth. “Whether it is writing or sculpting, art and literature is the search for truth, it is not propaganda. Art is a tool to get inside the soul, strengthen democracy and prevent future conflicts,” adds the artist, whose 2015 work Another Half Crossing, also about borders and identity, is part of the Kiran Nadar Museum collection.
“Conflict zones give the potential for creative works. A contradictory space is where people start thinking: ‘Why? What?’,” says prominent artist and Kochi Biennale Foundation president Bose Krishnamachari. “These questions are very important for understanding and addressing social and political conflicts. Art is a place for giving solutions, sensitising and making people aware,” he adds.
Seeing conflict through art
Celebrated Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s works on the refugee crisis in the world have been installed in cities across the world. The contemporary artist has put rubber life boats in Florence, Italy, garments collected from refugee camps in a show in New York and hung thousands of life jackets of refugees in Coppenhagen, the Netherlands, to draw attention to refugees fleeing their civil war-torn countries for a better life.
Mumbai-based contemporary artist Nalini Malani’s 2019 solo show in Shanghai, Can You Hear Me?, was a clarion call to the people to see and act on global conflicts. With the help of animation and an iPad, the celebrated artist created works that draw attention to conflicts that divide society. Malani’s works are powerful portraits on violence against women, civil wars and environmental degradation.
Chilean poet Raul Zurita filled up a large hall at the Aspinwall House, the main venue of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2016, with water, reflecting the dangerous crossing of oceans by refugees across the world. In 1973, after the military coup in Chile that removed President Salvador Allende, Zurita was among the thousands arrested and tortured by the new regime of dictator General Augusto Pinochet.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer