Afghan graffiti artist Malina Suliman is on the run from the Taliban,and currently staying in Mumbai. She talks about her art and her future in Afghanistan.
Malina Suliman stands out among her batch-mates in the hobby class at the metal department of JJ School of Art,Mumbai. And thats not just because of her headscarf or her distinct Afghan features. She is particularly reticent,and unlike her other classmates who are socialising after the class is over,she wants to rush from the campus,away from the media glare and to her hospitalised father.
A few days from now,Suliman will return to her hometown,Kandahar,Afghanistans Taliban heartland,where she fears the ultra-conservative organisation may threaten or attack her or her family. After all,the 23-year old artists father is undergoing treatment at a Mumbai hospital for a broken foot,the result of a mysterious accident last December. He was driving on an empty street,when he was hit by a man on a two-wheeler,causing grievous injury to his foot,and a trip to Mumbai for treatment. My father had just stepped out of his car,when something heavy and stone-like hit him, she says.
Suliman suspects the Talibans hand in it. A few days before the accident,she had drawn a graffiti on a wall in Kandahar. It showed a Taliban-style turban as one of the evil forces that made Afghanistan their playground,she says. The next morning,the bold graffiti was discoloured,and a threat delivered at her doorstep. Our helper knocked at our door at 6 am to inform my parents that she had heard that the Taliban were angry with my work. It was a shock to my parents for they didnt even know that I was a graffiti artist, she says. The Talibans reaction to her graffiti was so swift,she says,that nobody got a chance to see it. It also made me realise how powerful a weapon art is. More powerful than a real weapon, she says.
It was not the first time she had angered the Taliban. Early last year,when she had made the sculpture of a young limbless child,she was censured,for making idols was un-Islamic. But that was perhaps just the trigger for them,because,since 2010,when Suliman graduated with a Bachelor in Fine Arts from Art Council,Karachi,and attended a workshop on graffiti held by an American artist in Kabul that year,she has been making politically explosive graffiti in Afghanistan. Her first work was a womans veiled head,with a key and a lock placed on it,symbolising that the key is in your mind,and you can do anything if you put your mind to it. After people began talking about it,she was emboldened to make similar-themed graffiti such as a skeleton wearing a burqa,a game board with two chess pieces on it,signifying that Afghan womens lives are a game in which men try to control them and play as they please,etc. A burqa-clad skeleton is a recurring motif in her graffiti.
Graffiti,though,is only one of the few forms she dabbles in. She had a liking for paintings from her childhood. Although it never received nurturing in Afghanistans repressed environment,it shaped the foundation of Sulimans art. It was,however,in graffiti art that she found her voice. At a small workshop on graffiti in Kabul,Suliman was the only woman among the few participants who didnt leave the course midway. In the large canvas and public exposure that come with graffiti art,Suliman saw an opportunity to address important issues. It makes people feel connected to one another. And it makes them know that they are not alone, she says. In the last one year,especially after the Taliban threats,she has become sort of a symbol of repressed voices of the youth. Art can be the best possible outlet for the pent-up emotions of Afghan youth. Many get disillusioned and pick up guns or drugs,and get a wrong sense of freedom, she says.
It helped Suliman that Afghanistan,where 34 years of conflict,beginning with the 1979 Soviet invasion,denied people exposure to art,was beginning to finally get a fledgling contemporary art scene. While the more liberal Kabul has the National Gallery and Art School,where 210 paintings were destroyed by the Taliban,Kandahar had no art gallery. In October 2011,Suliman founded the Kandahar Fine Arts Association to support,promote and exhibit works by contemporary artists,and worked towards opening the citys first art gallery. Foreign embassies and the current government are facilitating art exhibitions,too,even though they are still infrequent. In fact,Suliman had learnt about the JJ School from the Indian ambassador during one such exhibition. President Hamid Karzai has also been openly encouraging art in the country. At an exhibition of paintings at the President’s Palace,the only two paintings Karzai had bought were of Sulimans. Ironically,one of them was an allegory of the fragility of the presidents post; it was made from a broken glass slab that came off from a window of Sulimans house after a bomb blast. She painted on both sides of the glass: on the one with the bomb-induced cracks,and the other,which was plastered and intact. The cracked side was to show how futile the ministers position eventually is. The other side was to show our country,the one that survives till the end, she says.
Even as she has made bold strides in her art,her family has been reluctantly supportive of her work. Despite the fall of the Taliban in 2001,prejudices against women still run deep in Afghan society. Fighting their concerns,her parents have time and again submitted to their daughters wishes and let her make her own choices. But after the recent episode that caused the family to come to India,Suliman doesnt know what awaits them once they return to Afghanistan. My father has told me to vent out all my art here,for once I am back there,I may not be able to practise art again, she says,adding that she got a call from her housekeeper in Kandahar,warning her of an imminent Taliban threat. Some strangers have been doing the rounds of our neighbourhood,asking about us. I think it is a reaction to my talking to the media, she says.
Her family has applied to renew their visa,and if granted an extension,Suliman wants to spend more time in Mumbai,before going to Delhi,the last leg of her visit. We had come to Mumbai earlier for medical treatment. We always feel safe in India, she says. As she looks at the sprawling campus of JJ School,she says,I envy artists in India. Here,going to exhibitions,making art as they want,is a part of daily life. In Afghanistan,if we decide to even attend an art exhibition,we leave our homes touching the Quran,in constant fear that we might be attacked with acid or stones, she says.