Afghan female artist beats the odds to invigorate Kandahar’s art scene


Charred bodies lie scattered against blood-stained walls and debris covers the ground. The unusual thing in this gruesome scene is that the “blood” is red paint, and part of an art installation.

It’s a work by 23-year-old Afghan artist Malina Suliman. She risks her life, Suliman says, sometimes working by flashlight after dark, to create art in southern Kandahar province, still one of the most dangerous areas in the country.

Her pieces, which range from conceptual art to paintings and sculpture, are bold representations of the problems facing her generation.

“Many people had never seen an art installation,” Suliman said of “War and Chaos,” her exhibit last year, which depicts the aftermath of a suicide bombing, a not uncommon event in Kandahar.

“Some were offended and others were hurt because they’d experienced it before.”

Her pieces earned her an invitation last year to visit the Kabul palace of President Hamid Karzai, who is also from Kandahar, where she showed him her art.

Suliman’s work is now making waves in the Afghan capital, where she lived as a child after fleeing the violence of her native province. She had two Kabul exhibitions in December, a highlight of which was a sculpture of a woman in baggy clothing with a noose tied around her neck.

The work has drawn praise from top officials in Kandahar, making her exceptional in a place where women face even greater restrictions than in other parts of the country.

Her exhibition in Kandahar was the first there in three decades. It included a piece called “Today’s Life,” which features a painting of a fetus in the womb suspended from a tree and being pulled in different ways.

The artist said the work reflected the frustrations of her generation. “Before a child is born, the parents are already thinking that a son can support them and a daughter can be married off to a wealthy suitor,” she said. “They don’t stop to think what the child may want.”

Suliman’s Kandahar show drew a mostly male crowd of around 100, including governor Tooryalai Wesa and some of Karzai’s relatives.

“I was taken aback by her work,” Wesa later said, recalling the exhibit. “I had only seen great art abroad, but never here... I hope it persuades more women to do the same.”

Thirty years of war and conflict effectively shelved Afghanistan’s art scene, among other things.

The Taliban’s austere 1996-2001 rule then banned most art outright, declaring it un-Islamic.

Since the Islamist group was toppled by a U.S.-led invasion almost 12 years ago, larger Afghan centers have resurrected a semblance of an art scene, but progress is slow.

Herat city, in the west of Afghanistan, now has art studios for rent, while Mazar-e-Sharif in the north has an artist collective and a lively graffiti scene.

Suliman joined the Kandahar Fine Art Association, a relatively new, all-male group whose goal is to support and exhibit local art, one year ago.

The small collective of 10 artists caught the eye of the Information and Culture Ministry, which funded and last year opened Kandahar’s first art gallery, where Suliman has exhibited. Since she joined the collective, several more Kandahar-based female artists have come on board.

The stakes remain high

“One of our biggest fears is that people will mistake us for creating art for foreigners or working with NGOs,” she said. “People who work with NGOs get shot without question in Kandahar.”

Despite her success, Suliman has received threatening phone calls warning her against attending her own exhibits, and the Taliban have spoken out against her.

Even creating her art must take place away from public view. She often waits until after dusk, working with a dim flashlight. Suliman recalls her first exhibit in Kandahar last year, and how she trembled as she made her way toward the gallery, in fear of it being bombed.

“I was so scared,” she said. “Whenever there is a gathering of government officials it becomes a target.”

One of Suliman’s greatest challenges lies at home.

“The night of my first exhibition,” the artist said with a wry laugh, “my family told me, ‘If you go, don’t come back.’”

While her sisters and mother now support her ambition, her brothers and father, a property developer, remain fiercely opposed. It’s an attitude not atypical in Afghanistan.

She is now looking to expand Kandahar’s budding art scene to nearby Helmand, hoping to secure locally sourced funds for workshops and training. When asked whether she’s afraid, she mentions her sculpture of the hanged woman and smiles.

“That’s what happens to women,” she says, “when they ask for their rights in this country.”