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An Artist Puts Kabul in a New Light (With Lipstick and Manicure), The New York Times

The Afghan-Canadian artist Hangama Amiri fled the Taliban as a child. Her new museum show reclaims space for women with colorful textile works.

By Ted Loos

February 9, 2023

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — At a time when the Taliban are rolling back women’s rights in Afghanistan, the Afghan-Canadian artist Hangama Amiri has created a form of long-distance resistance through her painstakingly sewn textile artworks, now on display at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Conn.

The images in her colorful fabric wall hangings are drawn from the past — partly based on her memories of being a young child in Kabul, before her family fled and became refugees for almost a decade. They’re also visions of a better future for women in her native country, which she visited as an adult in 2010 and 2012.

“As diaspora artists, we are always in search of something that reminds us of home,” Amiri said, standing in her studio in New Haven on a quiet Sunday morning in January.

The creation of her large, complex compositions — a laborious process that, in its early stages, involves many pins and pieces of fabric — was also a construction, or a reconstruction, of the self: “I’m pinning and sewing my identity,” she said.

Hangama Amiri: A Homage to Home,” on view at the Aldrich until June 11, takes over the museum’s first floor, with three galleries holding 19 of her works.

It is Amiri’s first solo museum show, coming at a moment when her works are being noticed by collectors and curators at other institutions; her 2022 work “Still-life With Jewelry Boxes and Red Roses” was recently acquired by the Denver Art Museum.

Amiri, 33, is a Canadian citizen but has been based for the last four years in New Haven, where she received an M.F.A. from Yale. She is quiet and agreeable, and frequently answers questions with a heartfelt “absolutely.”

Amiri is not afraid to take up space. Several of her pieces in the show are 10 feet wide, with one of the textiles measuring 26 feet wide, enveloping the viewer with a sense of being in Kabul.

The largest work, “Bazaar” (2020), a colorful landscape of shops, signs and awnings made from fabrics in various textures and sheens, from sari textile to chiffon and suede. Amiri strings cables among the works to give the feel of telephone wires crowding a real-life bazaar.

“It creates a trompe l’oeil effect,” Amiri said. “I want viewers to feel like they are there.”

The show also features portraits based on advertisements, as in the work “For Long, Soft, and Strong Hair” (2022). Amiri said that emphasizing the women’s faces was intended to counter their “erasure” by the Taliban, which do not want female images displayed in public. Places where women congregate, especially beauty salons, are a frequent subject and setting for the artist, as in the one neon work in the show, “Nakhoonak-e Aroos/Bride’s Nail” (2022).

In her studio, a fleet of colored pencil drawings were laid out on a table — the first stage of her art-making. Across the room were plastic tubs full of fabric samples, many of which she finds on trips to New York City, where she buys at two Afghan shops in the fashion district that specialize in textiles from that country.

Amiri then pins pieces of fabric to muslin, to see how her composition will fit together. Later, she has an assistant who helps her with the sewing, working in sections, which are no wider than the span of her outstretched arms, subtly imparting a sense of her body to the works. Some of the most detailed areas, especially for the faces of the women depicted, are embroidered with a machine.

“When you see it with thousands of pins, you realize how labor-intensive this process is,” said Amy Smith-Stewart, the Aldrich’s chief curator and the organizer of the show there. Amiri’s overall approach, she added, is a form of “painting with fabrics.”

The Brooklyn-based collector Carla Shen first saw Amiri’s work in 2021 at the NADA Miami art fair, but everything she wanted was sold out. The following year at the same fair, she saw Amiri’s “Reclining Woman on a Sofa” in the booth of Cooper Cole Gallery of Toronto.

“It stopped me in my tracks,” said Shen, who is a trustee of the Brooklyn Museum and concentrates on collecting figurative work by women and people of color. She bought it and then lent the piece to the Aldrich show.

“I love that Hangama creates these personal works, but they also quietly challenge this totalitarian, oppressive rule,” Shen said.

Amiri’s stories seem to strike a chord with viewers, even those used to looking at lots of artworks.

When the Denver Art Museum’s senior curator of Asian art, Hyonjeong Kim Han, presented “Still-life With Jewelry Boxes and Red Roses” to the museum’s acquisitions committee, “people started sharing stories,” Han said.

The still life depicts a tabletop with wedding rings. Han noted that “under Taliban rule, many Afghan women have married ‘picture grooms’ — men they have not met.”

At the Denver meeting, “people talked about things in their own families, the arranged marriages of their parents and grandparents,” Han said of the committee’s curators, staff members and patrons, some of whom are Hawaiian and South Asian. “They were excited that it would be relevant for viewers.”

Amiri was 7 when her family left Kabul in the wake of the Taliban takeover of that city, a scene that inspired one of the works in the show, “Departure,” depicting a station wagon topped by strapped-on luggage.

“I have really bad memories of that time as a young child, being taken out of school,” she said.

When her father left for Europe to look for work, Amiri, her mother and her siblings moved first to Pakistan, and later Tajikistan, for a total of nine years. Then they all reunited after immigrating to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

As a child, “I didn’t grow up with a pencil or a brush in my hand,” Amiri said. “We were a poor immigrant family. The only thing we had was fabric and two sticks, so we would sew little dolls. That’s my foundational material and activity.” Her mother also sewed, and an uncle in Kabul was a tailor.

After high school in Halifax, where a teacher encouraged her to pursue art, Amiri then attended NSCAD University (the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design). After graduating, she got a Fulbright scholarship, which she used to do research at Yale.

By the time she began her M.F.A. at Yale, she thought she would be a painter. But she quickly realized she needed to shift.

“I had a hard time owning the language of painting,” Amiri said. Now she often paints some of the fabrics in her textile works.

Amiri counts some of the greatest modern contemporary artists among her influences, including the Pop legend Claes Oldenburg, who died last year. Three of the works in the Aldrich are “soft sculptures” of the type Oldenburg pioneered; in Amiri’s case, they depict a dried-fruit box and two sacks of rice.

But Oldenburg’s playful tone is a world away from the mood in Amiri’s works, with its combination of longing and defiance, especially in light of the Taliban’s return to power in 2021.

“It’s the worst country these days for a woman,” Amiri said. “And I have lived through that history.”

Hangama Amiri: A Homage to Home

Through June 11 at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, 258 Main Street, Ridgefield, Conn., 203-438-4519,

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Top image: Hangama Amiri with two of her works, from left, “Setayesh, Beauty Salon” and “Mah Chehra Beauty Parlor,” both from 2022. The artist says she emphasizes the women’s faces to counter their “erasure” by the Taliban, which does not want female images displayed in public. Credit: Sasha Rudensky for The New York Times