by Nagham El-Rawi
An artist’s canvas has always been known to be their voice and their free form of expression, often serving as a reflection of social and cultural conditions in which they exist. As a result, their art becomes a gift, a voice, and a mic connecting them to world speakers. Unfortunately, many parts of The Middle East have resorted to silencing opposing voices which sadly leads to their amplification elsewhere. One of the most current exhibits of this phenomenon is the Afghan artist, Kubra Khademi who has recently made several headlines with her current exhibition at The Eric Mouchet Gallery. The solo exhibition is a “celebration of female sexuality” as expressed by Khademi herself. Additionally, it is her first exhibition since the beginning of her now 5-year exile in France which she earned after her performance piece “Armor.”
“Armor” was a solo parade down the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan in which she was clad in a steel breastplate that emphasized her feminine body parts and earned her a life-long exile from her home country. The politically charged piece was an attack on and a denunciation of the harassment and sexual oppression of Afghan women which was cut short by angered Afghan men that forced her to seek shelter. Needless to say, her solo display at the Eric Mauchet’s Gallery does not stray far from the Afghan artist’s provocative feminist style and exploration of female sexuality.
In her latest exhibition the Afghan Artist’s canvases are dominated by bright female figures that dominate the canvas as much as they dominate the strongly contrasting male genitalia floating around them. The female bodies play, suck, and insert all types of phalluses and phallic symbols in and around their bodies in active motion. Even more interesting, is their ironic combination with ancient verses abstracted from the 18th century poems of Jala Al-Din Mohammed Rumi. The verses take different stage roles in their decoration of Khademi’s paintings, but nonetheless serve as a bold form of expression and an ode to her cultural heritage.
In an interview done with France24, the feminist artist expressed that her mission is to “feel free,” a feeling which has been very crudely denied in her place of birth. Khademi’s artwork is currently pedestalled and celebrated in France, but remains condemned in her own culture. In other words, her speaker is displaced and her art is silenced, obstructing her attempts to rectify the deficiencies of her culture. It is denied the power of change, and instead made a threatening example to others. Her criticism of the denial of female sexuality falls on deaf ears when it should instead inspire reconsideration and encourage societal growth.
A close examination of Khademi’s work unveils subliminal innate oppressions that highlight her own conditioning. The dislocation of the male genitalia in her works can almost be seen as a concealed attack on the patriarchy which she concours with the divinity of her female figures. Additionally, their detachment renders them powerless once removed from the male body and the patriarchal narrative surrounding it.
While in some paintings the patriarchy is more subtly condemned, in others it is directly ridiculed. Examples include ““Bagage de Route #1” and “Baggage de Route #2,” in which both a female figure can be seen roasting a phallus. The image is a point-blank obliteration of “dick-power” that simultaneously forefronts “pussy-power” in an alternate universe than the one Khademi grew up in. It can almost be perceived as a vendetta against the men that forced her to seek shelter while walking through the streets of Kabul 5 years ago.
One of the most interesting elements of Khademi’s collection is her incorporation of 13th century Rumi poems in her canvases. In a 2021 interview with Katie Kheriji-Watts for Hyperallergic, the feminist artist explained how they reference a coded language used as a form of relief amongst Afghan women when discussing the “taboo” topic of sex. Far from a mere ode to the ancient poet, it reclaims the patriarchal heritage and transforms it into a feminist language of communication that denounces the societal values that once suffocated her.
As an Afghan artist, Khademi’s use of Rumi poems is another statement within itself. In 2007, UNESCO joined powers with Iran and Turkey to celebrate the poem’s 800th anniversary of his birth and completely omitted Afghanistan from the ordeal. In 1207, Rumi was born in Bulkha, Afghanistan, and granted the label “maulana” by modern-day Afghans, meaning master or lord. Moreover, Khademi’s incorporation of the ancient poet’s verses goes beyond its direct feminist expressions to deep-rooted socio-political issues of identity and heritage.
Whether through her depiction of female figures, or dislocation of male genitalia and their combination with Rumi poems, Khademi’s work expresses a terrifying reality out of which she was lucky enough to escape. Khademi’s work pin-points and highlights the socio-political oppressions which suffered by millions of Afghan women.
Although Khademi has been the subject of interviews and articles by France 24, Hypoallergenic, and has her work displayed in the Eric Mauchet Gallery, she remains a state enemy in the country she is so desperately trying to change. Apart from appreciating Khademi’s canvases for their artistic prowess, it is vital to consider and prioritize the deficits out of which it emerged. Khademi’s art is a desperate plea for help.
AFP. “Rumi Wasn’t Yours: Afghanistan Furious as Iran, Turkey Claim Sufi Poet.” The Hindu, The Hindu, 16 Sept. 2016, http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/Rumi-wasnt-yours-Afghanistan-furious-as-Iran-Turkey-claim-Sufi-poet/article14410254.ece.
Kheriji-Watts, Katie. “Kubra Khademi’s Erotic and Coded Paintings of Women.” Hyperallergic, Hyperallergic , 11 Mar. 2021, hyperallergic.com/628269/kubra-khademi-galerie-eric-mouchet/.
Makooi, Bahar. “With Female Nudes, Afghan Artist Kubra Khademi Is Breaking Taboos.” France 24, France 24, 21 Mar. 2021, http://www.france24.com/en/culture/20210321-with-female-nudes-afghan-artist-kubra-khademi-is-breaking-taboos.