Chiara Di Giorgio in conversation with Hangama Amiri
Chiara Di Giorgio: What precise memories of your childhood in Kabul have marked you in the realization of this exhibition?
Hangama Amiri: While growing up in Macroyan-e Kohna, I enjoyed the routine of roaming around the bazaars every morning before going to school. I would walk around these shops taking in all of the life-sized celebrity posters, hand painted beauty salon murals, elegant fabrics, luminous jewelry, and delicious smells of different foods. I was not satisfied with going every morning before school, so I would extend my routine into the weekends from Friday through Saturday, which is when I would go with my mom and aunts. This fondness of bazaars is what inspired me to create a similar environment within my exhibition at T293.
CG:What is your relationship with femininity? How did you experience the moving to Canada and what aesthetic customs of Kabul do you bring with you today?
HA: My relationship with femininity has been defined by my experiences living in Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Canada. I grew up seeing women in my family and community in Afghanistan not having the right to work or express themselves through clothing or makeup during the Taliban regime. In Central Asia and Canada, however, the opposite was true. Women in Tajikistan moved freely within the city and shopping malls with their own fashion and hair styles. In Canada I would see lots of young woman living on their own. This was new to me because I had grown up learning women always belonged in another home after finishing their high school and college education. Seeing these young women in Canada finding their own paths and living by their own wishes was a very liberating experience because they had the right and freedom to do what they wanted.
In terms of continuing aesthetic customs since living in Kabul, I still paint my nails to this day. It is a small beautification ritual, but to me it is a powerful gesture since I have seen how the loss of this ritual affected my own mother. My mom loved painting her nails and loved doing so to the extent she became known in my family for them. An uncle of mine would ask where my mother was by simply gesturing as though he were painting his own nails. My mom lost the ability to paint her nails during the Taliban regime because women were explicitly banned from doing so. I have continued the practice of painting my nails as a way of honoring my mother and the memories of her lavishly painted nails. This aesthetic custom might seem small but having the ability to control and adorn my own body is incredibly empowering.
CG: What is the function of bazaars in Kabul, on a social level, and what is the role of women within them? In Italy, do you think there is anything like that?
HA: Bazaars in Kabul function as recreational and commercial spaces. Families visit bazaars to buy what they need for their daily lives, such as clothes and food, but also for the energetic atmosphere and people. While it is true that bazaars are environments for familial gatherings and large groups of people, it is still rare to see women out alone in the bazaars by themselves. It is a stigma for women to be seen alone in public spaces and because of that it is often unsafe for them. Women are not seen as having a role within the male dominated bazaars, so they are often harassed or stalked by men while out on their own. During my most recent trip to Afghanistan in the summer of 2012, however, I witnessed the growth of a lot of women owned businesses such as boutiques, nail salons, and tailor shops. The roles of women in these spaces have progressed, but the overall security of women is still threatened because a majority of them are still worried about going out alone while shopping.
I coincidentally visited Venice in the winter of 2012. There were a lot of stores and shops located in small alleyways were similar in terms of window shopping, but I did not witness anything like a bazaar.
CG: What reactions do you think could provoke your exhibition in Kabul? The choice to use on the fabrics of the Bazaar, the symbols of the “forbidden femininity” of the women of Kabul, is very interesting. Do you think that your exhibition can open society to a reflection on women’s rights, in particular Kabul women?
HA: If my work were shown in Kabul, I would hope viewers there experience a sense of belonging and familiarity with the work. The works in Bazaar, A Recollection of Home reflect a similar landscape, one that the people of Kabul engage with, but slightly different because they would be confronted with images that celebrate women’s empowerment in the form of shops, banners, and portraits—images which are seen less there. I do believe my exhibition can open society up to reflect on Kabul women’s rights because of how my work focuses on the way women have created new spaces or altered existing ones in Afghanistan. My family and community of Afghans within the United States and abroad have shown me that it is possible for this global dialogue to happen because we have already started to do so. Social media has allowed me to start a conversation by disseminating my work to a broader audience. Friends and strangers alike have already commented on how powerful it has been for them to see a little piece of Kabul in a foreign land. They are proud to see a reflection of their own environment in Italy, even if they are unable to see it in person.