Khadim Ali: I live in realms where our historical stories are not in their language

Khadim Ali is one of the artists whose work I follow with curiosity and interest. We had the chance to do this short interview amidst his busy schedule. The protest attitude he develops using miniature art deserves special attention. It is a fact that there are not enough theoretical discussions and texts on the possibilities of miniature art in Turkey. I should mention that this is the first interview in Turkey.

Can we start by getting to know you?Your family is of Hazara origin.

First and foremost, I thank you for inviting me to this conversation. I must say that the hardest task for me is to talk about myself and express my identity in words. The best introduction to me is my artwork. In fact, I am nothing but my artworks. Nevertheless, I am Khadim Ali, born in Pakistan. They are the Hazaras of Ghazni, a city where the most important Persian literary works, including Shahnamah and Tarikh-e Behhaqi, were written. The current Persian version of Kalila and Dimna is also a Ghazni translation. Kalila and Dimna, and Shahnamah are almost the basis of my recent works. Anyway, my historical past traces back to Ghazni. After the terrible massacres during the era of Amir Abdul Rahman, in 1890s, they fled to India and after the separation of Pakistan from India, we ended up in the Pakistan. I was born in the Hazara community of a small town Quetta, Pakistan. I completed my school there and went to the National College of Arts in Lahore for further studies.”  Now I’m based in Sydney Australia. Practicing my work as an Australian Hazara. 

 How did your interest in miniature art begin?

“Truthfully, this is a question that has been asked of me repeatedly, and I have often answered it. For someone whose ancestry traces back a few generations to the city of Ghazni, an interest in miniature painting is not strange. Ghazni is the city of Shahnamah and the culture of reading Shahnamah holds a special place there. My ancestors lost their lands and homes but brought Shahnamah reading as a linguistic and cultural heritage to India/Pakistan with them. They somehow brought Ghazni to their imagination or perhaps created an imaginary Ghazni in the new land. My childhood was spent within this imaginary framework. In Shahnamah’s walls, I was exiled from cities to mountains. In its heroes, I wounded my opponents and was wounded by them. I fought with dragons that breathed fire. I flew with the Simurgh to the mountains of Qaf in Balkh and Bamiyan. These colorful imaginations, however, were not just stories and words, they were images too. Artists of the eras had tried to visualize these imaginations. Seeing these images was fascinating and astonishing for me. These images took me into their world and caused me to join the ranks of artists whose mission was to visualize the historical myths and collective imaginations. Another important point also existed. To visualize the collective memories and stories my ancestors had brought with them to the new land, and to show their imaginations

Miniature art emerges as a book art. It uses it to illustrate an existing situation as it is. It is perceived by some people as not providing abstraction. In your opinion, what kind of opportunity does miniature offer to the artist? 

You are right. In the Islamic world, miniature art appears as an art form associated with books. Of course, this association is not unique to miniatures. With the development of Islam, a deep theological aversion towards art also developed. Music, dance, and other arts that couldn’t establish themselves as integral to books and words, were severely damaged. Miniature art had the fortune of becoming an inseparable part of books. Old editions of all major books, from Ajayeb al-Makhluqat and Kalila and Dimna to the works of Ganjavi and Ferdowsi, are adorned with miniatures. Miniature art has carried forward a dual historical mission: to visualize written stories and to bridge the linguistic gap between rulers and writers. Important Persian books are the product of Turkic and Mongol rulers who didn’t have Persian as their first language. Visualizing these books through miniatures attracted the rulers’ attention.  I, incidentally, am in a similar situation. I live in realms where our historical stories are not in their language. The tradition established by miniaturists, while reinterpreting historical heritage and collective memories, helps me present my historical heritage to audiences from different times, and evoke the empathy that ancient miniaturists inspired in rulers of other languages. I never agree with the demonization of the rulers of that time. They made significant investments in art and literature. Without their support, we wouldn’t have this rich literary and artistic heritage.

When I look at your works, there is a protest political side, on the other hand, there are classics such as Black Pen and Shahnameh. In fact, there is a whole that seems to be opposite. How do you define your art and how did you create your own style? 

In my opinion, mere repetition of the past is not only unnecessary, but in many ways becomes absurd and comical. Writing poetry in the style of Ferdowsi is meaningless, as is copying the works of Behzad, which doesn’t contribute to the growth of art. One of the problems of today’s miniaturists is falling into the trap of copying and repetition. Perhaps the prevailing trend is repetition. The repetitions usually aim to highlight and romanticize the rulers. Over the years, I have tried to pursue several goals. First, the modernization of miniature. While being faithful to the tradition of miniature, I try as much as I can to bring about formal and content changes. Art critics know that I do miniature work, but directly linking my works to old miniatures is not so easy. Second, subverting the dominant narrative and highlighting the negative.

As a Muslim artist, was there any reaction in the Western art community after your reactions for Palestine?

I am so torn about Palestine, I really dont dare to say anything to speak on behalf of the blood that has been spilled there for 75 years.

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