Conversation between Adwait Singh and Khadim Ali
Adwait Singh (AS): The 11th century masterwork, Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh or the Book of Kings provides the fantastic cast of characters that adorn your works and can be as such considered a primary source of reference for you. Could you tell us a little more about these characters and their relationship with you?
Khadim Ali (KA): Ferdowsi has a special significance in Persian literature. He is a poet who has advanced both the form and the content of Persian language. His poems are not just limited to an ingenious play with words, but paint the imagery of scenes of the time. It is on this timeless tableau where ideal characters are advanced, discovered, and defeated – one after another. The imagery of these scenes is so realistic, that we can relate to it and become part of it even today after centuries. Shahnameh or the Book of Kings, as the title suggests, is not just a history book fraught with narratives pertaining to kings, but has a voice for every actor and character of society, speaking for them. Thus, he – Ferdowsi – is not an author, but a collector of voices of the characters of ages (characters from different ages/times but also characters spanning across ages). This pluralistic and polyvocal nature of Shahnameh has secured it a permanent place in the pantheon of Persian literature. At least, this is true of the Hazara people. I have not only read Shahnameh, I have lived it. It’s characters are alive in my history and my present. They have melded into our instincts and patterned into our memory.
AS: The Shahnameh is unique in that it interlaces various sources and accounts (both oral and written) into an eclectic tapestry that presents the lay of the Persian Empire from the creation myth to the 7th century Arab conquest. This visual and conceptual complexity is replicated in the matrix of your own works which bear textual and iconic references to the subaltern histories of the region (such as the presence of excerpts from the epic poem or allusions to the architectural features of the 6th century Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan) and carry hagiological depictions of phantasmagorical subjects vacillating between villainy and heroism (I am referring to the figure of Rustam that both suggests a wily appropriation by the Taliban as well as a complex identification with and embrace of the demonic appended to the marginalised Hazaras). Can you shed some light on the complex process of layering that characterises your work as well as the contemporary geo-politics that it describes?
KA: The pluralistic aspect of Shahnameh holds a psychological appeal for me, and it may for other Hazaras. Since Ferdowsi was a defeated poet from a dying era, Shahnameh, one could argue, is more of a story of failure, than a saga of heroic enterprise. Almost all of the characters in Shahnameh have a defeating fate, including the hero Rustam. Hence, if we consider Shahnameh to be tales of killings in a future past, it becomes aligned with the contemporary geopolitics. The Islamic world today, just as the Persian world, is drowning in the killing(s) of future. A brutal past is destroying the heart of the present. Rustam, the legendary destroyer of adversaries who was moved to kill his own son, is not a character out of fantasy, but breathes as a killer of future amidst the present society... For this reason, the character of Rustam has special significance for me. The slow attrition of the future past is an unending loop cutting across ages. Artists manifest what is reflected in their surroundings. In a sense, I embody Rustam, caught in the tragedy of the past reaching influencing arms towards future. The dominance of this tragedy in my work perhaps keeps me from becoming a ‘modern’ artist and bring forth an art that is not adumbrated by the brutal past.
AS: The gently parleying, ruminating, languishing, gesticulating figures of your oeuvre seem to represent a society of bestial beings that appear to be somewhat disconnected (or indifferent perhaps?) to their plush surroundings. Could you speculate upon the setting as well as the content of these conversations/ meditation/idling?
KA: The figures in my works have evolved through time to reflect the paradox of history. Initially, the subjects represented heroic Rustam. However, they have since evolved to depict defeated ‘demons’. This is the portrayal of the Hazaras in history. Hazaras are demons of their geo-historic location and of their present displaced destiny. For this reason their killing is also celebrated. Their killing is not regrettable and is a self-fulfilling prophecy of historical heroes. My oeuvre records the transmogrification of Rustam into a demon. It is a mystical experience, built from layers of meanings. In the first layers of my work, I was painting Rustam, Sohrab, Esfandiyaar. However, underneath all these layers, is an attempt to reveal the historical animalisation of heroic characters and the systematic demonisation of minorities like Hazara throughout the history. This puts a limitation on them to exceed beyond their inner and outer spaces, creating a mute existence for their being.
AS: You use techniques associated with Persian and Mughal miniature paintings to address contemporary concerns. Moreover, your medium evinces a certain object specificity for instance in the case of your rugs, made in collaboration with traditional Afghani weavers after the recovery of one such from your bombed ancestral home. Tell us more about your technique and the choice of medium.
KA: It was difficult for the Hazaras from Quetta, with refugee background to amalgamate themselves into other communities. Thus they were isolated in practicing the tradition that they brought with themselves. The nights were oriented towards a culture of storytelling. Shahnameh was one of the key books for these nights. My grandfather was a Shahnameh singer, and we had a cherished copy in our family home. I grew up seeing illustrations executed by old Persian master painter Behzad. And I was fascinated! So I joined the National College of Arts with no other skill than that of drawing. However, I found miniature painting to be overly stylised and romanticised. I found it difficult to begin my own work from where the traditional artists had left off. It was some years after graduating that I developed my personal language, a contemporary re-reading of the Shahnameh of old. Both styles, the illustrations carved into my memory during childhood and learning miniature painting academically melded in my practice.
Tapestry is also a medium I grew up with. Carpet rugs or embroideries were the local medium for aesthetics. The tapestries are inspired from the Afghan war rugs. I have been involved in designing war rugs during mid 1990s. The tragic event during 2011 took away everything that I inherited. The only object that survived in the blown-up house was a rug that had been passed within different generations in my family. Producing artworks in a war-torn region has also warned me about such tragic events and I responded by switching to a more resilient medium of tapestry.
AS: What is the significance of the title ‘Forlorn Foe’? Tell us about this new body of works that are in the show. What kind of themes do these works lend themselves to?
KA: The ‘Forlorn Foe’ is a portrayal of the ridicule of war from a neutral perspective. It opens a space where one can delve into reflection. It is that metaphysical moment when after decades of tragedy and bloodshed, the actors ‘foes’ and ‘friends,’ (here I am not labelling who is a ‘friend’ and who is a ‘foe’ but retaining the ambiguity of the terms) come upon a sense that this war is unending. I am particularly referring to the failure of peace-talks in Afghanistan to end the strife of four decades. After the withdrawal of most of the international forces in December 2014, the Taliban were requested to join in negotiations with the Afghan Government. In conflict settlement, this is an expected political process, however for victims of war and ordinary civilians who have suffered from it, such talks only serve to further their sense of dislocation. Peace-talks with the Taliban is a durational recurrence that rewrites the notorious wars of Afghan history, painting the painful prophecy of the present. ‘Forlorn foe’ depicts that stage in war where the narrative of conflict, the heroism of ‘friends’ and the demonisation of ‘foes’ become empty signifiers.
The Forlorn Foe: Recent works by Khadim Ali
Exhibition dates: 29th September – 29th October 2016
Venue: Gallery: Latitude 28, New Delhi
Khadim Ali, Forlorn Foe 10, Gouache and gold leaf on wasli paper, 55 X 21 inches, 2016. Image courtesy: The artist and Gallery Latitude 28.
Exhibition view of 'Forlorn Foe'. Image courtesy: Gallery Latitude 28.
For more information on the exhibition click here.