Invisible Border – the most significant Australian exhibition to date from celebrated miniature artist Khadim Ali – reveals an artist whose work is deeply embedded in ancient and contemporary histories. Now showing at Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art, it offers a thoughtful dialogue about the tension between macro and micro scales in the Sydney-based artist’s work, with a suite of monumental textile works standing alongside a sculptural installation that incorporates music and text.
Liz Nowell, IMA’s executive director and the exhibition’s curator, explains that her ambition was to “chart the transformation [in Ali’s work], from miniature painting into these very large-scale tapestries. The works are so monumental, they are almost like giant history paintings, but also up close there is exquisite detail and craftsmanship. The hope is the viewer will have both of those encounters.”
Ali’s four enormous textiles, the centrepiece of the show, eloquently collapse the political and personal. Members of the persecuted Hazara community, Ali’s family escaped Afghanistan for Quetta, Pakistan, where he was born. Ali brings to his work the spectre of otherness and his experiences as a migrant in Iran – where he lived temporarily and eked out a brief career as a painter of propagandist paintings before he was deported back to Pakistan – and in Australia, where he moved in 2009 on a distinguished talent visa. These experiences as an outsider ultimately inform his career as an artist.
With a degree from Lahore’s National College of Arts, Ali is widely recognised as a master miniature painter in the Mughal tradition, with work in, among many others, the Guggenheim collection and the National Gallery of Australia. His miniatures, realised with fine kitten (yes, kitten) hair, observe traditional methods in their telling of contemporary tales. They allude to infamous moments in contemporary history, such as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and the rise of the Taliban. They also refer to The Book of Shahnameh/The Book of Kings, a Persian literary masterpiece that is a constant source of inspiration as well as a direct link to the artist’s childhood, when his father read and sang to him from the iconic text. A demon from The Book of Shahnameh is a recurring presence in the miniatures and the tapestries, a reference to the artist himself and also symbolic of his connection to a demonised people, the Hazara.
Ali’s introduction to tapestry came after the destruction of the family home in Quetta by suicide bombers – all that remained was a collection of rugs and weavings. Speaking at the IMA, the artist remembered his surprise at the resilience of these textiles. With this significant increase in scale, Ali’s textiles – which evoke the power of the Afghan war rugs that emerged after the Russian invasion of the 1970s – encourage a meditation on labour and time.
They offer a celebration of craft and the handmade, and ultimately of women’s work as well. Ali’s master artisan collaborators are mostly women, many of whom lost their husbands in the war. Something of their loss is perhaps embedded in the making; we might see the works truly as a labour of love. Ali retains a studio in Kabul, and usually travels between Australia and Afghanistan. The pandemic put paid to his peripatetic ways and necessitated a new way of working. To realise these ambitious works required the translation of his hand-rendered designs into digital images, which were then sent to his collaborators in Afghanistan and translated into weavings and embroideries, with Ali supervising through digital platforms. The fact the exhibition came to fruition at all is a feat akin to the making of the works themselves.
The scale of these works cannot be overstated. It lends them the gravitas of historical European tapestries – the 900-year-old, 70-metre Bayeux Tapestry for example – which celebrate successful war campaigns. Sermon on the Mount (2020), a standout at five metres in length, is an ode to the bushfires of 2019–20 and the loss of incomprehensibly large numbers of flora and fauna. The catastrophic Black Summer was brought home for many through poignant photographs of koalas attempting to outrun the flames. These tragic images lodged themselves in the international psyche and spurred an outpouring of sympathy and donations from abroad.
Ali’s embroidered opus reimagines a 15th-century illustration from the Anwar-i Suhayli, which is a Persian translation of the Panchatantra, an Indian fable about the lives of birds and animals commissioned by Mughal emperor Akbar. A koala sits at the top of a mountain on fire as a menagerie of animals attempts to outrun the flames. In Ali’s depiction – overlaid with the outlines of helicopters, fire trucks and a fireman – emus, camels and crocodiles struggle beside mythical animals such as dragons and a phoenix. It’s a baroque, folkloric masterpiece, both allegory and chronicle.
With its titular allusion to the Bible, this work offers a moral to the West in the form of an accompanying fable written by Ali and religious scholar, historian and writer Asad Buda. A female koala laments: “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. Worry about your tomorrow! Worry about where to take refuge. Worry about the future of your children!”
Elsewhere, the overtly political Invisible Border 4 (2020) takes inspiration from the story of the fourth Mughal emperor of India, Jahangir (1605 until 1627), who weighed his son on the occasion of his 15th birthday and then distributed his weight in gold to the poor. Ali imagines Donald Trump as a clown weighing a senior Taliban leader before an audience of other world leaders, among them Scott Morrison, as a comment on the economic profiteering that prolongs war. It’s haunting. Ali’s work reminds us that it has always been the role of the artist to make sense of geopolitical dilemmas.
Invisible Border is showing at IMA, Brisbane, until June 5, and at UNSW Galleries, Sydney, from August 20 to November 20.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 17, 2021 as "Angels and demons".
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