Quetta, Pakistan born 1978
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Materials & Technique: drawings, drawing in black pencil, watercolour and gouache, and gold leaf Support: smooth white wasli paper
Manufacturer's Mark: no manufacturer's mark.
Written by tenth-century Persian poet Firdausi, the Shahnama or Book of kings is a poetic account of Iran’s ancient history, from mythical creation to the more historical Arab conquest of Iran in the seventh century. The stories of the Shahnama—sung, read aloud and illustrated—comprised artist Khadim Ali’s principal boyhood amusement, and he has used its legends in his art to present the plight of his people, the Hazara, who have been persecuted by the Taliban for decades.
Although a trained miniature painter, Ali’s works do not function in the same way as the delicate miniature paintings traditionally adorning the Shahnama. Elusive rather than didactic, Ali’s subjects fall in and out of focus, alternately materialising then dissolving. Black lines ordinarily used to delineate the compositional elements of miniature paintings instead erratically encircle them, concurrently composing the images and cancelling them out. Whereas the Shahnama was written at a time in which Persian national identity was being edified, Ali’s work sees it falling apart.
Beneath the flailing limbs of lions, the serene countenance that once would have adorned the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan (the cultural capital of the Hazara) may be grasped. The ancient figures carved into a cliff in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan were systematically destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. The unconscionable ruin of these cultural icons haunts Ali’s paintings, the Buddha’s face, bust or body appearing intermittently at intervals throughout the Evacuation series and in the artist’s work at large.
Ali was born in 1978 in Quetta, Pakistan, as an Afghan refugee but has achieved great success as an artist to date. His paintings are held in galleries such as the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Guggenheim and were exhibited in Documenta 13 in 2012. This work is the first by Ali, now living in Sydney, to enter the national art collection.
Elspeth Pitt, Assistant Curator of Australian Prints and Drawings
in artonview, issue 81, Autumn 2015