Khadim Ali and assistant in his Sydney studio. Photo courtesy: Matthias Arndt, Arndt Berlin

ON THE white plasterboard walls of Hazara artist Khadim Ali’s box-like western-Sydney studio he has just painted larger-than-life – if grotesque, bestial heads. Part-horned creatures with long goat-like tubular ears and exaggerated cranial bones, they do, however, retain some human facial characteristics; sharp aquiline noses and long wavy chin beards beneath piercing demonic eyes. Paint runs in multiple rivulets from these bodiless heads down to splash cloths spread across the floor where tins of domestic paint gape open.

Dressed in a black t-shirt and midnight blue shorts, Ali is playing with ideas for a commission that will see him paint a huge mural on the foyer wall of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) as part of The National: New Australian Art, a new biennial in all but name that began on 30 March and marks a unique collaboration between Sydney’s MCA, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and Carriageworks, the city’s newest art hotspot currently celebrating its 10th anniversary.

The demonic heads on Ali’s studio wall appear benign rather than fiendish, and the trope which can be found in all his art, and which represents the ongoing conflict between good and evil has, if anything, become less demonic over recent years while retaining a place as a central leitmotif in his practice. The creatures portray minority Afghan Hazaras, who are Shia Muslims – and of which Ali is one, as dehumanised people who have been persecuted and vilified by Afghanistan’s majority Sunni population for centuries. Through the use of delicate watercolours in the style of Indian Mogul painting, richly coloured and lush with detail drawn from both Eastern and Western art-historical sources, to large-scale rugs designed to hang on walls, Ali continues to paint these demons, most recently using them as an allegory on the global diaspora of refugees who seek shelter flee from violence and persecution.

In works such as The Arrivals #6, exhibited at Brisbane’s Milani Gallery last November, they crowd the deck of a flimsy wooden sailing boat adrift in a turbulent sea. More recently seen on the floor of his Sydney studio is a six-panel water colour and gouache work that riffs off the same imagery, but now the demons plunge into the ocean as the boat sinks amid discarded life jackets, the model for which hangs on the studio wall.

The demons in Ali’s earlier works are ‘the dark side of humanity’, Ali explained, but have now come to represent the Hazara themselves whom Sunni Muslims regard ‘As infidels, ugly and rebellious rat eaters’, Ali told Asian Art Newspaper recently with more than a touch of irony. The Hazara is a Persian speaking minority in Afghanistan and the region.

There has never been a good time to be Hazara, the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan which, because of their Mongolian ancestry and Asian features (they do not grow beards or moustaches) stand out from other ethnic groups. There is a deep cultural divide between Sunni and Shia; they do not marry, sometimes they will not share food or even pray together. For Sunni Muslims, the Hazara are dirty and degenerate. ‘For the Hazara there is a lot of discrimination,’ Ali said.

Ali’s grandfather fled Afghanistan as a child, crossing the porous borders into India before it became Pakistan, following Hazara massacres by Pushtun Afghans ruled by Sunni Muslim Amir Abdur Rahman Khan. He later returned to Afghanistan to marry, only to permanently flee the country in the 1960s. He carried with him two books: the Qur’an and the Book of Kings, a 1,000-year-old epic known as the Shahnameh, which tells the history of Iran, home to many Hazaras, and is rich in tales of demons and heroes and fabled allegorical characters with mythical powers. ‘My grandfather was a Shahnameh singer,’ Ali explains. ‘When refugees came to Pakistan, a lot gathered in our house and my grandfather would sing for them, stories of heroes and demons, the bright and the dark sides of humanity. I always thought of myself as a hero. But then when the story ended the hero gets killed and this was very painful for me. What survived in the book were the demons,’ Ali adds, stoically.

‘In 1996, when I went to Iran the Taliban (the Sunni Islamic fundamentalist group that for years has been fighting for control of Afghanistan) were at their peak in Quetta, which was one of their recruitment points.  I was a labourer for a while then I met an artist in Iran, who painted religious propaganda murals, and I joined him but had no legal status in Iran. Everybody in Iran called me an Afghan donkey and I was beaten on the street many times. One day the police arrested me and put me in jail and deported me after one year,’ Ali remembered.

Hazaras have repeatedly been targeted by the Taliban and now Hazara blood is very cheap. When they kill Hazaras the Taliban remain unaccountable. ‘There is no trial, no questions asked, no charges laid,’ Ali stated.

The indiscriminate violence spills across those porous borders into neighbouring countries. In April 2011, an 80-kilogram car bomb exploded outside the home of Ali’s parents in Quetta where the family had lived since Ali’s grandfather had settled there. The bomb killed 14, but the death toll rose as the wounded later died. Ali’s mother was in their house at the time and his father was just along the road; both were badly injured but survived because their house, made from mud, flexed in the explosion when others made from brick, collapsed. At the time, Ali had been in Sydney for almost 18 months on a distinguished person visa, but rushed back to Quetta. Eventually he was able to relocate his parents to Australia where his mother spent months in hospital.

Dozens of Ali’s fragile and delicate miniature watercolours and gouache paintings inspired by Persian history were destroyed in the explosion. ‘One of the few things that survived was a carpet which inspired me to weave my own carpets that I could hang on walls,’ he said.

The very first carpet he made, in 2012, hangs in his studio in Sydney’s Parramatta. Woven from Afghan wool and Australian merino wool it features two horned demons embracing. He considered it an experiment at the time and now keeps it confined to the studio.

Ali was born in 1979 in Quetta, Pakistan, and as a child would draw with charcoal on the smooth rendered walls of the mud houses. ‘There were a lot of complaints from neighbours trying to stop me from doing it. One day I saw bulldozers refining the dirt road and I found this very exotic and used a stick from a tree and drew in the fine surface. The workers caught me and beat me. I was about 7 years old,’ he recalled.

He went on to study at the National College of Arts in Lahore – where his mentor was artist Imran Qureshi – graduating in 2003 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts with Distinction. Since then his work has attracted increasing attention globally and today can be found in several international museums including New York’s Guggenheim and London’s Victoria and Albert and British Museums.

In Australia, he is represented in the National Gallery of Art, Canberra; the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane. He has been included in the Venice Biennale 2009, Documenta (13) 2012 and QAGOMA’s 5th Asian Pacific Triennial in 2006.

But such widespread artistic recognition does not necessarily correlate to economic success. Having kept a studio in Kabul for several years last August shortage of cash forced Ali to shut it down. ‘I needed to pay assistants and studio rent, and the experiment I was doing in making large-scale tapestries in an attempt to visualise the dehumanised Hazara was very expensive,’ he commented.

But fate intervened in the shape of two recent non-outcome driven Australian arts grants; West Sydney Arts Fellowship 2016 worth AUS50,000 over one year and the Sidney Myer Creative Fellowship, worth AUS160,000 over two years. The awards gave Ali ‘the confidence to know that I am under the spotlight given that I am just relatively new to Sydney,’ he said.

In August, there was other reasons that made Ali leave Kabul. Life there was becoming precarious and discrimination against Hazara all too common.  Ali recalls an incident last year when he was in Kabul preparing work for his recent The Arrivals exhibition at Milano Gallery. He wanted to use two Australian flags as canvases and had washed them and hung them outside the studio to dry. They were overlooked by a mosque that was under construction.

The mullah was suspicious and sent people to investigate why Australian flags were on display in a country racked by hatred of anything European or American. ‘They came and searched the house looking for Australian and American flags or anything connected with Europe. There is still a great deal of hatred for Europeans and Americans,’ Ali explained.

But Ali remained undeterred and the pull of Kabul was hard to ignore and the recent grants have given him the resources to re-establish a new studio in a friend’s house in Kabul. ‘Little more than a room’. Regrettably the political climate in the city has brought to a close the exquisite rugs that Ali had been weaving and his final rug was exhibited in The Arrivals exhibition, which shows two demonic faces over which hangs a shower of golden eucalyptus leaves. ‘I will not be able to do any more because of security matters in Afghanistan. When I finish a rug, it is very rough and I have to take it to a special place in Kabul to have it washed and shaved. I cannot trust the shaver anymore and it has become a security risk for me’.

Ali thought that a safer option for him in Kabul, rather than making rugs, would be to concentrate on large tapestries which can be easily woven on a machine. He showed me photographs of one in the early stages of development, spread over the floor of the new Kabul studio.  Still at the black and white cartoon stage the theme shows ‘the Mughal King of India beheading an enemy’. He was planning to show it later this year at an exhibition in Lahore. ‘But I do not think I can continue with tapestries anymore either – again because of security,’ he said.

This year dozens of innocent people have been killed in Kabul by Taliban suicide bombers and outsiders are increasingly viewed with suspicion. One recent attack by the Taliban targeted a busload of security officials that killed 38 and wounded 72. Two of Ali’s studio assistants – part-time artisans and full-time policemen – fled to Europe joining the diaspora of refugees from the region. ‘Casualties in the police department are high in Afghanistan and their families were worried about their vulnerability,’ Ali explained.

Ali first visited Afghanistan – the spiritual and traditional home of the Hazara – as a child, travelling freely back and forth across the borders. ‘In 2002, when I was studying at the National College of Art in Lahore, I became so upset over the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan (carved in the into the local cliff faces of the valley during the 4th and 5th centuries they were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 who claimed they fostered idolatry) that I visited Afghanistan to research the statues,’ he said.

Ali confesses to finding it difficult to portray exactly what is in his mind. ‘When I work, I do not think of the art market, or of people, or of the audience. I myself am both the audience and judge, and often I feel very dissatisfied about putting that work before the public and prefer to discard it. My audience is not Afghanis. They do not know me there.  The works are often my failures never quite portraying exactly what is in my mind. These are just pictures of my personal struggles,’ he said.

Ali prefers working in the solitude of the studio listening to Hazara  music as he does so. Even so his engagement with an audience en mass was tested last week when his latest work, The Arrivals 2017 was unveiled at the MCA. It is his largest and most public work to date and the audience were by turns, engaged and captivated.

Ali was nervous although composed at the event and smiled mischievously as he told me an anecdote. ‘The other day a cleaner knocked on the door of the studio, it was slightly open. “Are you alone?”, she asked. I said, “you just made me alone”.’




The Arrivals is on show at Sydney’s MCA for the next year, after which it will be painted over.

National: New Australian Art 2017 is at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art (until 18 June),  Art Gallery of New South Wales (until 16 July 2017) and Carriageworks (until 18 June 2017)