In mid-August 2021, two weeks after the Taliban swept through Kabul cementing its grip on power throughout Afghanistan, a Sunni Pashtun driver made his way undetected from Quetta in Pakistan, to Kandahar in Afghanistan. Having made the journey several times previously ferrying people between the two cities, he was determined not to be stopped by Taliban insurgents, who were now controlling the southernmost border crossing between the two countries. The driver was on a special mission – one that would pay him good overseas dollars. The mission sounded simple enough: he was to collect a cushion that had been abandoned at the Kandahar bus terminal by a group of Shia artisan weavers, who had fled Kabul hoping to reach safety in Quetta, a journey fraught with unpredictable danger. This is the tale of how Khadim Ali’s tapestries, through many twists, finally arrived in New Zealand.
The Hazaras in Afghanistan
The small group of Shia artisans – four men and their families – were ethnic Hazaras, a minority in Afghanistan that makes up about 10 percent of the population and one that had for centuries been persecuted by the country’s majority Sunnis of which the Taliban is predominantly comprised. The group of artisans were studio assistants of Australian artist Khadim Ali (a Hazara himself), who had for a decade been maintaining a studio in Kabul which he would visit frequently from his Sydney base, until pandemic lockdown restricted his travel.
Khadim Ali’s Kabul studio is in Dasht-e-Barchi, a settlement in western Kabul populated mostly by ethnic Hazara, and where last May (2020), the Taliban purportedly massacred 24 women and babies in a hospital’s maternity ward. Hazaras are Shia Muslims, a group long discriminated against in Afghanistan by Sunni Muslims and the Taliban. ‘Sadly, in Afghanistan many call Hazaras rat eaters,’ Ali told me when I visited his Sydney home recently. ‘There has never been a good time to be Hazara in Afghanistan. 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. Hazaras suffer a lot of discrimination,’ Ali explained.
The Art Weavers of Kabul
The assistants worked with a cohort of local women who Ali said were ‘art weavers’, who wove his lush politically charged tapestries and carpets on ancient looms in their homes in Kabul. In recent years, the tapestries (often of a magisterial size that can reach up to nine metres or more in height) and regularly alluded to the historic persecution of Hazaras by monstrous humanoid demons with ears, horns and snouts. More recently, Ali’s iconography has evolved into a narrative of war and destruction, a war that has ravaged Afghanistan for decades, if not centuries. Images of exploding car bombs, American drones, and Taliban fighters dressed as clowns were increasingly evident in the tapestries. But now, with the swift imposition of the Taliban’s Sharia law, image makers and artists were marked as sinners overnight. Many, along with writers, and musicians, have already gone into hiding as the Taliban took control. ‘Making art under the Taliban, is now a crime,’ Ali stated.
When the Taliban Entered Kabul
In the two weeks leading up to 14 August, the day the Taliban entered Kabul, the assistants made covert preparations to leave. They presciently shuttered the studio and dispersed to their homes as best they could, after preparing three finished tapestries and one ‘war carpet’ for dispatch to Australia. The women weavers fled their homes and went into hiding in safe houses lost among the city’s dusty alleyways. When I met with Ali in early August, he was overwhelmed with anxiety watching from afar as the Taliban tightened its grip on Kabul. He confessed to not having done much work for five months.
Events in New Zealand
In an extraordinary coincidence, Zara Stanhope, the new director of Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in Wellington, New Zealand, called Khadim Ali and asked if he was interested in showing some work in the gallery. He was. After all Ali thought, he had three recently completed tapestries and one carpet sitting in a crate at Kabul airport ready to be loaded onto a cargo plane. They could easily be diverted to New Zealand for the exhibition.But as anarchy descended on the city the airport became clogged with desperate people struggling to get flights out of the country. As the airport came to a standstill, the shipping company started returning consignments to senders and all four works were quickly returned to Khadim Ali’s Kabul studio.
Ali’s studio assistants decided to try and smuggle the tapestries into Pakistan disguised as cushions, as they too made their own escape. Smuggling between the two countries was endemic and Spin Buldak, a remote border crossing, had become the epicentre of black market smuggling and contraband trading. The border crossing was, according to Ali, ‘Kabul’s junkyard’ because of the amount of second-hand goods being smuggled and traded. The carpet – less able to be folded into a small cushion – would be left in the Kabul studio.
The Road to Kandahar
The road to Kandahar, 250 kilometres north of Spin Buldak, crossed an arid landscape fringed by mountainous terrain. Kandahar was the Pashtun heartland and en route there were several Taliban checkpoints. If the smuggled art works were discovered, the group would be severely compromised.
At the Kandahar bus terminal, the group was pulled aside for inspection. In a heartbeat they decided to leave the cushions at the terminal luggage depository, which was, according to Ali, largely unregulated. Within seconds, the months of creativity that resided in the finished tapestries slipped from their hands into the lawless maelstrom that was engulfing Afghanistan. With what few belongings the group could carry, the Taliban allowed them to leave Kandahar and head to the border where they could cross into Pakistan as refugees.
Late at night in Sydney, a tense Khadim Ali received a telephone call from Quetta. The caller confirmed that the studio assistants had crossed into Pakistan and relative safety, but that the tapestries had been abandoned in Kandahar to an uncertain fate. ‘The following day I received another message from the group. An official from the bus depot in Kandahar had contacted them to say that some luggage and one cushion had been found and that maybe the cushion belonged to them’, Ali said. But there was only one cushion, not three.
Ali was bereft. He reached out to a cousin in Quetta who found a Pashtun driver who regularly drove people between the two cities. ‘He is a people-trafficker’, Ali elaborated. On the matter of trust, Ali – limited by choice – explained, ‘Pashtuns are friendly to Hazaras when they want to make money and do business. I promised him a lot of money!’
Where’s the Cushion?
The cushion that the Pashtun driver was searching for looked worthless to an outsider. But what was inside was of substantial value. It hid the largest of Ali’s tapestries that on the global art market could fetch in excess of AUS$180,000 (about £94,000). Major museums around the world are interested in owning a tapestry by Ali, an artist whose work had been exhibited at the Venice Biennale and Sharjah Biennale, and they are currently in the collections of major museums such as the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York and the British Museum.
In Kandahar, the driver located the cushion at the bus terminal store and also picked up five anonymous women who needed a ride south to Quetta. Three climbed into the back of the car, the others sat up-front. They were unaware of the cushion’s value and the driver told them to simply sit on it as he headed for the border crossing at Spin Buldak.
At the border, there was a cursory search of the vehicle by Taliban insurgents. The driver was a Sunni, could speak their language and easily moved among them. ‘He looked like a local,’ Ali explained. Once bribes had been made the driver headed for the road and eventual safety in Quetta. Mission accomplished. The cushion and the art work inside had been liberated.
But the whereabouts of the two lost cushions irked Ali, like an itch that would not go away. That was until several days later, when the supervisor at the Kandahar bus depot offered to instigate a search. If money changed hands, he would be happy to pay some local men to help shift the mountains of abandoned luggage and look for the cushions. By the end of the first day the other two cushions had been found. But they had been badly damaged and slashed by knives and bayonets.
The Return to Kandahar
For a second time, the ‘people-smuggler’ returned to Kandahar and collected the two remaining cushions. But as security tightened at the border, he was subjected to searches by both the Taliban and Pakistani soldiers. He was questioned: ‘Why was he carrying these damaged decorative wall hangings? Were they from the Americans?’ they asked the driver. However, he convinced them he was simply selling the items on the black market. Eventually, he was allowed to proceed and the tapestries arrived safely in the hands of Ali’s studio assistants who were all by this time in Quetta.
Khadim Ali confirmed to me the extent of the damage: ‘Slashed with knives to see what was inside’. Ali was furious at the wanton damage to his artworks. ‘In August, when the Taliban arrived, people were running for their lives. Carrying away basic food stuffs. Some people were carrying just cushions. The Taliban are suspicious of everything’.
For the next two weeks the assistants in Quetta worked feverishly to repair the tapestries before shipping them to Ali’s gallerist in Brisbane where they were photographed and freighted on to Wellington in New Zealand for the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery exhibition of Khadim’s work, There Is No Other Home But This.
Fund-raising to Settle Weavers in Quetta
But the story does not end here. In Pakistan, there is little help available for Hazara refugees from Afghanistan and Khadim Ali has started fund-raising by selling prints of his art works to help resettle his assistants in Quetta and to help the women weavers who remain in hiding in Kabul. ‘The women are not ordinary carpet weavers. They work for me and so I feel a moral responsibility for them and will do anything to get them out,’ Ali stated. ‘I knew that I had to help my friends get out of Kabul. Even before the cushions were found I knew that I could always make another set of tapestries, even more beautiful,’ he explained.
It remains a testament to Ali’s practice that he clings to the enduring idea that good will eventually triumph over evil and freedom will raise it head above that of tyranny.
BY MICHAL YOUNG
From 5 March to 19 June, Khadim Ali’s three tapestries from Kabul are on show in the exhibition There is No Other Home But This alongside Areez Katki’s work, at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, Wellington, New Zealand, govettbrewster.com