The South Asia Channel

The Artist

In Afghanistan, one artist combines the trauma of a war zone with art to free himself of limitations.

Sher Ali

This project was made possible by support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Name: Sher Ali Hussaini

Age: 31

Ethnicity: Hazara

Province: Maidan Wardak

From his quietness, one cannot make a guess even remotely close about who he really is. But when Sher Ali Hussaini starts speaking, he opens another world: one made by a virtuosic combination of his traumatic life experiences during Afghanistan’s civil war, his deep understanding of the time he lives in, and his knowledge and connoisseurship in art. His simple white room, which also serves as his home studio, bestows a unique benignity to the milieu. Talking with delicate composition, Sher Ali lives in his world free of the limitations and mundane concerns many around him draw for themselves.

The followings are the words of Sher Ali as told to and translated by Moh. Sayed Madadi.

Back then, there was only the national TV and very few people had television sets at their houses. Some nights, I was going to one of the neighbors’ homes and nothing could interest me more than cartoons and drawing programs for children. As far as I remember, I’ve always had a passion for painting. At school also, my best subject was drawing. I’ll never forget the smell of pencil carbons in those times.

I was the first one in my family to attend school — none of my older sisters went. When war broke out, the schools closed. But my mother took me to the mosque to study the Koran and Islamic preaching — she felt that, in any way possible, I had to keep in touch with literacy. I remember one day — in those routine days with intensifying fighting in the capital — an announcement was made in the mosque that a private center in the neighborhood was accepting students from the mosque with the first month’s fee waived.

Intrigued by the opportunity, I registered for drawing, calligraphy, and English. Later, they said I couldn’t take all three courses, so I dropped English and kept the two art classes. My passion and talent in drawing soon amazed the teacher and he started to pay more attention. However, it didn’t last so long. After that first free month, I had to pay tuition. I couldn’t afford paying, but I couldn’t convince myself to leave. After several days of delay, the manager sent a note to the teacher asking him to not let me in the class anymore. Right when I thought it was over, my teacher replied saying: “This student doesn’t pay any fee, yet will attend the course until the end.” My happiness and gratitude for the teacher was boundless.

But life in the midst of a brutal civil war wasn’t all that fun. West of Kabul, which was controlled by the Hizb-e Wahdat party, was under economic sanctions and the only entrance for food was through the south; my father was a laborer carrying food to the city. When the party lost the battle (during the civil war, each party controlled an area of the capital and Wahdat was defeated in the West by a coalition of Jamiat-e-Islmai, Harakat-e-Islami, and Itihad-e-Islami), he was injured and right when he was under an operation, a missile hit the room he was in. He recovered, but very soon lost his life to a liver disease, which he got after the injury. I was only 10 years old.

Times after my father died taught me a lot about life and suffering. I had to leave my studies and start working. I wove carpets for a month and then started to weave at home instead of working somewhere else. After sometime, I bought the raw materials and started weaving for myself. But since I couldn’t sell them, I gave the carpets to my previous boss to sell in Pakistan. However, when he came back, he said the carpets had been lost on the way. This meant I had to start again from scratch.

Later, during the Taliban reign, life was even harder. Besides working, I registered at the Arts Professional School, but as many subjects did not have teachers, I had enough time for drawing and calligraphy. Artwork during the Taliban carried its own set of paradoxes and problems. Painting living things was prohibited. I remember, I had painted a nomad woman and anytime I had to take it to school to show to my art masters, the whole way was a daunting mission in and of itself. Later, I had painted a mountain, which looked like there were human faces in the rock. At an exhibition, a Taliban commander noticed and castigated me for it and I had to take it down.

In 2008, I went to Karachi for a three-month program of miniature. The course challenged my very fundamental understanding of art. Following that, I got a scholarship from the Beacon House National University (BNU) in Lahore to do a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. Those four years were an unprecedented opportunity for me to explore art and to explore myself in art. I practiced different forms and styles from installation and miniature to sculpture and performance.

After graduating from BNU, I started some collaborative works with a friend, Khadim Ali. In art, it is very rare for more than one person to work on a single piece. Because art often comes from some internal personal experiences, which cannot be shared or reproduced, it is hard to work on a piece collaboratively. But we tried to do it, not only to merge our international experiences into one outlook, but also as a way to step out of ourselves, crossing the mundane limits of human nature.

Now I think I am more stable in my work, with a clear direction of what I want to do. The element that I focus on most is the circus lion. As long as I remember, I have had a personal attachment to the lion. I remember there was an epic picture in our house showing Emam Ali, the fourth Muslim Caliphate, with a lion in front of him. Looking at the picture, I wondered about my name, Sher Ali — Ali’s lion, and what could it mean; its very symbolism is the emblem of power and bravery.

I used it for the first time when I did the “Hunt” series. I was fascinated by how we humans try our best to change the nature of another creature. The lion playing in the circus, for me, isn’t a lion; it is just a human puppet doing whatever the master commands. As joyful as it could be for the viewers, it is sad and pathetic seeing the unnatural behavior of a tamed lion. It is how we humans have changed the world, how we have used our unique capabilities to make marvelous achievements. Yet it also shows how our interests, at most points, harm other elements of nature and contradict some basic principles that govern the well-being of our universe.

With that in mind, I intend my work to build a connection between the region’s glorious past and our modern concerns as human beings. This part of the world was once the center of art and literature, but now it is torn apart by extremism. I don’t want to revive that past, but I want to use it as a reference for my work about the contemporary delicacies of our world, about the concerns of a modern human.

Author Photo/Moh. Sayed Madadi

Moh.Sayed Madadi is an Afghan Fulbright Graduate Scholar at New York University and a former Hurford Fellow of the National Endowment for Democracy. He tweets @madadisaeid.

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