Born in 1978, Khadim Ali grew up in the border city of Quetta, Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan. Trained in the art of contemporary miniature painting at the prestigious National College of Art in Lahore, Pakistan, and in mural painting and calligraphy at Tehran University, Iran, Ali is inspired by his rich cultural heritage and employs traditional artistic techniques to convey the complex history of this region. His work provocatively confronts the social and religious prejudice his family has faced and considers its effect on the writing of history, particularly during wartime.
In this series, Ali references the thousand-year-old Persian epic the Shahnameh (Book of Kings), one of the greatest masterpieces of world literature. For centuries, this text has served as inspiration for artists, particularly those from Iran, Afghanistan, and northwestern Pakistan; as a young child, Ali would sit by his grandfather as he sang its vivid sagas. Composed of some fifty thousand verses, the Shahnameh recounts the myths, legends, and history of Iran from the beginning of time to the Arab conquest in the seventh century. One of its mythological heroes is Rustam, the powerful winged god of Persia, known for his extraordinary strength, bravery, and loyalty.
As part of an ethnic minority known as the Hazara, Ali’s family was attacked repeatedly by the Taliban, a fundamentalist Muslim group that controlled much of Afghanistan. Ali has used his art to respond to this brutality. Through the medium of miniature painting, he explores storytelling and reveals how established cultural icons can be subverted to serve multiple ends in contemporary life and politics. The work stems from an encounter Ali had with a young boy named Rustam who was unaware that his namesake was a mythological character from the Shahnameh. His only association with his name was through the Taliban, who used it to enforce an image of omnipresent vigilance. By associating itself with the kings and heroes of the past, the Taliban seeks to cast itself as an organization of legitimate rulers. Ali inserts personal symbols to counter the hijacking of his culture. For instance, the red rope in some of his works is a memorial to those who were killed under the Taliban regime. In these works, warrior-like figures pose as kings, but remain ogres.
Show: Untitled, Rustam Series (3 works on paper)
- Ask students to look at these works and describe them carefully. What story might they be telling? Record their narratives.
- Share the information in the introductory essay with the class, then revisit the work. What additional interpretations do students have? How has learning more about the artist and his motivations enabled students to derive additional meaning from the paintings?
- For Ali, these images portray evil forces posing as heroes. What elements in them suggest the heroic? What elements suggest malevolence?
- Mastering the authentic techniques of miniature painting takes
years of experience, great skill, and enormous patience, but students
can create their own miniature-inspired paintings with readily
available materials. For inspiration, view The Adventures of Hamza,
an online resource of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler
Gallery, the Smithsonian Institution, the National Museum of Asian
Art, Washington, D.C. at asia.si.edu/exhibitions/online/hamza/hamza.htm.
Then provide each student with a small sheet of watercolor paper taped to a board, or a sheet of Bristol board, as a substitute for the wasli paper which is the traditional ground for miniatures. Students can use colored pencils, watercolor or acrylic paints, fine paintbrushes, and felt-tipped pens to create their own miniature paintings. Traditional subjects include storytelling, architecture, and geometric and floral designs and patterns. When the paintings are completed, students should discuss their motivation and process.
- Ali was born in Afghanistan, a part of the world that has been
devastated by war. His people, the Hazara, have been the target
of systematic persecution by the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist
militant movement that has used terrorism to pursue its ideological
and political goals. While Afghanistan is located far from the United
States, it is a country that we hear about frequently in the news.
Excellent resources are available to support students in learning
more about the country, its people, and current political and social
issues. In conjunction with the PBS News Hour, a teaching unit titled Afghanistan: People, Places and Politics: Background, Activities and
Critical Analysis is available on their website at pbs.org/newshour/extra/teachers/lessonplans/world/afghanistan_overview_10-06.html
- Rustam, Iran’s greatest mythological hero, is a Persian Hercules,
magnificent in strength and courage, cunning, and endurance,
and always committed to the greater good of Iran. Even today,
his adventures are recounted in new and modern versions of theShahnameh for children and young adults. Rustam is celebrated
as a god with divine powers and a heroic reputation similar to that
of Hercules in Greek mythology, or superheroes like Superman or
Spiderman. Ask students to think of their favorite superhero. What
features does he or she have that people admire? Can you see any
of these in Rustam? Create your own superhero. What is his or her
name? What powers does he or she have? What distinguishing
characteristics does he or she possess? Is he or she good or evil?
English Language Arts