A Beautiful Exchange

The things that linger from childhood are at once extraordinary and utterly commonplace. They are the stuff of life. Sitting in a studio at CoRK Arts District, Hangama Amiri and I talk about her work. The Afghan-Canadian artist is in Jacksonville at the invitation of Long Road Projects, a residency program dedicated to helping contemporary artists—artists of our time—incubate their work.

Amiri is enthusiastic about the city and excited that she’s been able to work cross-discipline with master printer George Cornwell. Her medium of choice is textiles, though earlier bodies of work have included paintings and videos. She uses her art to engage with her memories of pre-Taliban Afghanistan. “I love the fact that working with memory doesn’t have to be the beginning or end of the story,” she tells Folio Weekly. “It’s something where you’re putting yourself into an in-between space. And that space gives me a whole new world.”

Because the Taliban has stripped women of their autonomy and rights, small things become subversive gestures. In one video piece, a collaboration with her sister, Fazilia Amiri, a female figure clad in a burqa practices with an object of her desire. The setting, a dome-shaped tent, references both Islamic religious structures and refugee encampments. The objects depicted in Dome of Secret Desires (2012) are so mundane as to be unremarkable in America, but in Afghanistan, “beauty is a secret […] women’s beauty got abolished in terms of politics.” So to even interact with these meaning-laden objects is to commit a subversive, punishable act.

Amiri and her family left Afghanistan and relocated to Canada when she was about six years old. After receiving her second undergraduate degree from Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, she became a Canadian Fulbright Fellow. She is now pursuing an MFA at Yale. Though she is quite busy with her degree requirements, she maintains a practice partially rooted in transition and change. That is to say, she travels for her work, responding with specificity to place. When asked how it works, she explains that she’s motivated by “a kind of desire to migrate my body. I don’t find comfort right away but I get much more creative when I start a new thing and a new beginning […], but if the place connects with me, and the community connects with me, I say ‘yes’ right away. Wherever I go, I have this thing, if the places kinda clicks for me, it’s like an ingredient. If I find that kind of comfort, I am all up for it.”

In 2018, Amiri was in residency in Sofia, Bulgaria, where she interacted with a refugee community. She held workshops with the kids, a drawing project she describes as “funny and goofy.” Everyone had translucent paper and they’d press the paper against someone else’s face and draw the shapes. The result was hilarity and lots of laughter. “It was a beautiful exchange.”

For her own works, the artist sketched the residents of the refugee community. “Because you are working with memory,” she explains, “it has to be a quick gesture.” She also took photos, but explained that the drawing was a way to “take it as a memory.” Later, back in her studio, she made composite drawings and worked them into the large-scale textile work, Carpet of Migration.

She’s dedicating her Jacksonville sojourn to research and observation. “This residency is studio-based. It’s a continuation of research I started this past semester. The research is based on the representation of Afghan women and women in general in Islamic culture. It’s because I feel like we don’t have much exploration of that.”

The project involves studying centuries of public and private representations of the female figure. “I am reading erotic poetry, poems that come from the 12th century to the present day” with a special emphasis on 13th-century poet Jalal al-Din Rumi. In the poems, she is looking at the specific words used to describe women’s bodies. “When the Islamic revolution came, when they conquered a majority of Central Asian countries, the freedom of language was masked. Masked in [relation] to specifically female bodies.”

In certain works, she explains, “a female breast was named as pomegranate or lemon. Or eyes as almonds or their laughing mouth as pistachio. It’s sending the eroticism through a different form of language, not too direct … It’s private.”

Two in-progress textile works are pinned to the studio wall. Next to them is a small pile of gouache paintings, two of which will be made into limited-edition prints. All of the works evince a tropical sensibility. There are luscious greens, pops of yellow and pink, shapes that evoke the flora and fauna of Florida. But for Amiri, they serve another purpose: to underscore the beauty and playfulness of the textiles and, by extension, the women of Afghanistan. In a theocratic culture, where female modesty is a guarantor of safety, she renders visible that which has been made invisible and therefore voiceless and powerless.

It’s important, too, to note that Amiri’s works are deliberately centered in joy and celebration. Much of the artwork around Afghanistan and refugees is seated in pain and suffering, but Amiri wants to redirect the conversation in order to “look behind the veil … I see that woman who wants to be out of that world, and that’s why I am using bright colors.”

To that end, in conjunction with Cornwell, she’s been printing poetry on thin, chiffon-like cloth. This diaphanous material conjures the shifting nature of poems and language—indeed, of experience itself—while directly referencing the physical form of the veil itself.

“Memory is such a fragile thing,” she observes. “How to hold on to specific memories? Sometimes they exist in your imagination, the way you saw and experienced it, but once you put it into words, it doesn’t do it justice … But when it comes to art, it’s really interesting because you remember certain colors, shapes, expressions, and you remember that space of that existence. That’s really important because I think once you put those onto paper, or into brushstrokes, it creates its own thing, it becomes something new. It becomes something beyond words.”