As a law and political sciences student, I faithfully believed in the potential of finely-tuned scholarly analysis to neatly and systematically explain the world. But by the end of my undergraduate studies, I felt disillusioned – never had I been more aware of the limits of academia to make sense of political injustices and, importantly, to convince people to care.
Most probably, the problem was my own intellectual inadequacy, but possibly, I had also missed a crucial set of tools not traditionally used by the professions I was trained in. The thought that I may just be ill-equipped soothed my ego and dulled my cynicism enough to venture down another track. Searching for other ways of knowing, I wondered, could artistic expression provide a new angle, colour, and depth to political analysis?
This is the question that has me standing expectantly outside the Institute of Modern Art (IMA) on a windy autumn weekend. The IMA is housed in a nondescript concrete building in the middle of the Valley, a Brisbane suburb mostly frequented at night by millennials heading to trendy bars and clubs. At two o’clock in the afternoon, the street is empty so no one is there to see me trip down the front steps, except an IMA staff member who politely pretends she didn’t notice.
By the time my friends start arriving, I’m beginning to wonder if the Invisible Border exhibition will be worth their time. As an Afghan-Australian and a daughter of refugees, the artist’s identity alone was enough to pique my curiosity, but will his works mean anything to my friends from other cultural backgrounds, or to anyone unfamiliar with the persecution of the Hazara minority in Afghanistan?
A reverent silence overtakes us the moment we enter artist Khadim Ali’s world. Like Dorothy entering a technicolour Oz, we gape at a fire-engine red tapestry that hangs from the ceiling. It commands our full attention, being spotlighted in an otherwise dark room.
Sermon on the Mount
We don’t need to read the description on the wall to recognise the scene. Panicked Australian wildlife and mythical creatures are escaping from their burned homes to a mountain engulfed in the flames of the 2020 bushfires.
A koala with shining eyes sits atop the mount. She is delivering a prophecy that foretells the destruction of mother nature at the hands of humankind. An accompanying text written by Ali in collaboration with writer and historian Asad Buda, imagines her teachings:
I have no good news for you. I have come to inform [you] of the great extinction. I am the voice of the earth: the voice of this common mother, who will soon be destroyed from many wounds. […] Woe to the earth whose destiny is in the hands of human beings that have launched all-out attacks against this common home. They burn the forests, pollute the water, blow up the mountains, massacre the trees and turn the forests to ashes. […]
Humans think they have a sublime nature and are of a superior race. They believe animals have no right to life and deserve to be killed. The ancestors of man, have commanded to sacrifice animals before the gods. Even though we koalas are satisfied with the leaves of the tree and drink less than our share of water, a large population of us have died due to lack of water and food. This sacrifice from us is on the rise. Our extinction is near.
(Full text available on the IMA website.)
Untitled 1 continues the story, embodying the Australian public’s fear around the climate catastrophe, and our collective outrage over government inaction.
Throughout the Sermon on the Mount series, Australian animals are drawn with such delicacy that Ali opted to use brushes made of kitten hair. These gentle animals are refugees too, escaping violence as their homes are scorched and blackened by corporations destroying the natural world.
The dialectic epic
We continue through Ali’s wonderland to Invisible Border 1, a grand tapestry so alive with stories that it may well be in motion. We stand back for a moment, eyes darting around the nine-metre-long masterpiece trying to take in the entire visual experience, before moving closer to appreciate the layers of exquisite craftsmanship and characters.
People march in protest, phones and flags in hand. They are surrounded by gold embroidered flames that lick at the tail of a Chinese dragon. Blue velvet elephants trample through the landscape and mischievous demons hide in volcanic craters. A volcano erupts black lava into the heavens where angels fly. The angels and gods of Ali’s oeuvre are also mischievous and conflictual — they point machine guns and grenade launchers at each other.
Inspired by the Shahnameh, a Persian epic written in 1010 AD, the artwork convincingly collapses the boundaries between good and evil, belief and non-belief, utopia and dystopia, sense and nonsense, reality and myth. These dialectics are characteristic of one of Ali’s greatest achievements: his wondrous borderland is not an escape but a visionary take on a reality that is often far more unbelievable.
Ultimately, Ali is an artist grappling with chaos, corruption and cruelty. He tries to reconcile the good and bad sides of humanity, to understand the suffering of his people. He questions the invisible borders and categories that limit their human rights, the unseen forces that play with their lives.
Ali is an ethnic Hazara and Shiite Muslim, a group long persecuted in Afghanistan by Sunni Muslims and targeted by the Taliban and ISIS to this day. He was born in Quetta, a small town situated on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan where more than half a million ethnic Hazaras live in exile as refugees.
While Invisible Border reflects the lived experiences and personal history of a refugee, this is just one level to understanding Ali’s work. Invisible Border gives us a glimpse into the rich inner-life of a philosopher, storyteller, poet, political analyst, innovator, advocate. Ali is all of these things. ‘Refugee’ is just one part of his kaleidoscopic identity. To attribute the importance of Ali’s work to his refugee background would be to do him a disservice.
Ali’s experiences as a refugee are a portal, allowing him access into hidden depths from which he pulls out essential insights about human nature. Using visual art and symbology, Ali transfers his imagination into the real world for us to judge. In an interview with Liz Nowell for Ocula Magazine, Ali provides a vulnerable insight into his creative process:
It’s a very personal practice. It’s like a personal religion, and a very personal conversation with myself. I try not to think about the final presentation of the work or what I would say if it were displayed in the gallery. When the work is finished, there’s another anxiety that appears, about how I would face the audience about it.
Ali may place us in the privileged position of judging his art, but he makes it clear that he is also evaluating us.
Peace is power
Nowhere is this more clear than in Invisible Border 4, an Orwellian political commentary about the Afghan peace talks. For decades, the Taliban has been understood as an enemy to human rights, democracy and liberal peace. Now, the US and Australia have shifted their strategic priorities and conveniently re-evaluated. They now engage in peace talks with the Taliban. The irony is not lost on Ali.
Of the whole exhibition, this artwork is the most amusing. Ali has so far been respectful of the characters depicted in his works; they are majestic, timeless and painted with careful attention to detail. By contrast, the subjects of this piece are clowns, they evoke an undertone of ridicule.
I do a double-take when a friend recognises two of the clowns as Donald Trump and Scott Morrison. Looking closer, we realise the other clowns are also poorly disguised world leaders: Vladimir Putin and Boris Johnson are there, so is Ashraf Ghani, Imran Khan and Hassan Rouhani. They look ready to sit with each other on the Afghan carpet that ties the scene together. Meanwhile, Ali’s famous demons remain stoic observers of the charade.
There is a clever reversal of power at play in the juxtaposition between Ali’s portrayal of refugees and world leaders. The ‘Western gaze’ has traditionally looked down on the oppressed Muslim victim, but Ali bends the barrel back toward the oppressor, exposing them as a fraud. Forcing introspection, Ali does not ask the viewer for sympathy – he asks us to choose a side and take a stand.
Through Invisible Border, Ali fuses aesthetics and politics into one whole. Far from a neat and systematic exposition, it is a visceral and three-dimensional experience. When we step back outside, the cloudy city we return to feels flat next to the soulful and wondrous borderland Ali invited us into.
Images in courtesy of the Institute of Modern Art (IMA).