Review – Afghani People: Vulnerability and Richness

By Alana Lazdins

Refugee advocate Julian Burnside AO QC recently opened two exhibitions at RMIT Gallery, Melbourne addressing the ongoing plight of Afghani refugees. The collections express two interlinked, yet distinct understandings of Afghani people.

The first exhibition, Unsafe Haven: Hazaras in Afghanistan, depicts the systematic religious and ethnic persecution of Hazara people in light of the Australian Government’s decision to reject the Hazaras’ refugee status. The second, Only From the Heart Can you Touch the Sky, invites the audience to consider the rich, elegant and peaceful culture of Afghani people who face exile and demonisation as “boat people”.

Unsafe Haven focuses on the enduring subjection of Hazara people in Afghanistan through a series of photographs taken by Afghani Abdul Karim Hekmat, who arrived in Australia as a refugee in 2001.

The images depict the aftermath of decades of war and the state of technological and infrastructural purgatory poor regions such as Bamiyan experience today.

The work draws on iconography that has come to represent our understanding of Afghanistan: a country of destroyed houses, desecrated religious monuments and graves of those massacred under the Taliban regime. Thematically, works such as “Strength with Age” and “Mode of Transport” reveal the vulnerability of the Hazara people in comparison to the harshness of their surrounding physical and political landscape.

The images depict the aftermath of decades of war and the state of technological and infrastructural purgatory poor regions such as Bamiyan experience today. Most importantly, this body of photographic work by Abdul Hekmat allows the audience to experience first-hand evidence of the continuing problems faced by Hazara people in their homeland. It compels audiences to critically question whether the Australian Government is correct in deeming Afghanistan as a “safe haven”.

In contrast, the viewer is exposed to the extraordinarily rich history and culture of Afghanistan in Only From the Heart Can you Touch the Sky. The exhibition title pays homage to the work of mystical poet Molana Jalal al-Din Rumi and reflects the interweaving of poetry throughout the carpets, collages and calligraphic mounted works in the exhibition.

Only From the Heart Can you Touch the Sky … ultimately it leaves the viewer in admiration of a complex and stunning culture that is all too often neglected.

Upon entering the gallery, the visitor is greeted with “The Tree of Life”, a stunning silk Persian carpet. The rug is symbolically infused with motifs used for centuries – the lily signifying purity, the parrot meaning protection and the tree itself representing the path from Earth to Heaven.

“Siamask (Siyah masha)” by Ali Baba Awrang, a Kabul-based calligraphic artist, depicts a swirling mass of dark text. Representative not only of the devastation of Afghanistan under Taliban rule, but also of the liberating role text played as the main form of artistic expression during a time when the creation of life-like images was dangerous.

Only From the Heart Can you Touch the Sky is an exhibition tinged with the devastation of Afghan people under the Taliban, yet ultimately it leaves the viewer in admiration of a complex and stunning culture that is all too often neglected.

Unsafe Haven: Hazaras in Afghanistan and Only From the Heart Can you Touch the Sky will run until 9 June 2012 at RMIT Gallery.

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