Art & Voices Matter: Ahmadzai tells women centric tales in her cloth and ink works

Artist Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai uses ink on cotton cloth to narrate stories of women from the marginalised communities.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : May 10, 2021

Born in Najibabad (India), Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai graduated with a Bachelors in Fine Art from the Aligarh Muslim University and a Masters in Fine Art from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Her practice has focused on the role of women, particularly those who are bound within religious orthodoxies. Inspired by the texts of various poets and philosophers, Ahmadzai’s artworks juxtapose image and text to comment on women and their roles, some in love and some victims to political terrorism. Ahmadzai’s collaborative practice, which include Lihaaf (quilt), involves women from various local communities who stitch a common narrative on a larger quilt. This project was one of the recipients of the five million incidents grant from the Goethe-Institut, New Delhi. Ahmadzai was a recipient of the Inlaks Award in 2019 and has since exhibited in multiple exhibitions in India. She lives between Kabul and New Delhi.

Raag-Bhairav | Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai | STIRworld
Raag-Bhairav Image: Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai, Courtesy of Gallery Blueprint12

1. Please talk about your general practice.

My general practice develops from my love for the cloth. I come from a small town known for its rafoogari (darners) community and hence it was only natural I inclined towards it. This passion for the cloth, which I also link to the lives of women - as mothers who stitch and pack trousseau or clothes for their family; was juxtaposed with my passion for working with siyahi (ink), which is now my visual vocabulary. Apart from that I prefer to create my colours from natural paste from flowers that are found in my own garden. Another aspect of my practice is collaborating with marginalised communities and making work that narrates personal and community-based stories of women.

Gosht ka ek tukdaa | Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai | STIRworld
Gosht ka ek tukdaa Image: Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai, Courtesy of Gallery Blueprint12

2. What are the key concerns that you aspire to address through your work? What prompted you to make this your area of focus?

I come from a community where collaboration and harmony was of key importance. I don’t have specific concerns in my practice but more a focus or inclination to give a voice to the stories of women that have for all these years remained unheard. I am inspired by philosophy and poetry, especially written by women, over the last few years. And these find their way into my drawings. This thought process has also resulted in collaborations and especially during the pandemic became a source of inspiration. Be it India or Afghanistan, I weave myself into these stories, mostly a faceless woman under a decorative outfit.

Guldasta | Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai | STIRworld
Guldasta Image: Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai, Courtesy of Gallery Blueprint12

3. How does art interventions aid the process to voice anxieties of the subaltern and question the normative order? Do you think art helps its audience to think and experience about matters that are otherwise considered of a lesser-importance?

Of course, art makes its audience relook and rethink at life. Today, art is becoming more and more powerful to voice alternate narratives, and with many new medias and social connectivity, the audience and its response are only getting diverse. Art is a mirror of contemporary times and allows for historical narratives and its recontextualisation. In my own case, the foundation for my work is based on poetry and writings of earlier centuries and I am adding my perspective to it. I believe that contemporary art shapes our future.

Dhundhle Alfaz | Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai | STIRworld
Dhundhle Alfaz Image: Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai, Courtesy of Gallery Blueprint12

4. What kind of artistic liberties do you take to reflect (your version of) the reality of the community? 

Liberties…I don’t know. But my motifs are drawn from my everyday experience and childhood. The Takhti (wooden writing board) is a regular motif that I use. It comes from the fact that I studied in a madarsa and we were given takhti to write on with qalam and siyahi. Another icon is a faceless woman. Though one can say that’s a self-portrait, I would look at it as a portrait of any woman (many of them who remain unheard or unseen). Language, my zubaan, for me is very critical. These are notes, perhaps letters, or inspiration drawn from poetry that find their way into my art. Without these elements, I don’t think my work would have a soul. 

Baarish ka pehla Qatra | Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai | STIRworld
Baarish ka pehla Qatra Image: Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai, Courtesy of Gallery Blueprint12

5. How do you involve artistic sensitivity to capture the fragility of the people already relegated to the margins? How do you balance the aspects of sensitivity and solidarity?

As a person who comes from a community which follows strict codes of conduct in the public domain, I know my limits as an artist. My practice is not to dig into sensitive personal spaces but find a middle path to achieve what my art needs to communicate.

01 min watch Anar ke 36 Daano ki Daastan Rabia aur Lal Ded ki Zubani | Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai | STIRworld
Anar ke 36 Daano ki Daastan Rabia aur Lal Ded ki Zubani Video: Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai, Courtesy of Gallery Blueprint12

6. Lastly, how far have things changed in past years and what do you aspire as an outcome in medium to long term through your work?

The last two years have been incredible for my artistic practice. I have grown many folds and learnt so much from peers and professionals from the art field. Be it the INLAKS award and residency program that exposed me or the residency at 1Shanthiroad where over two months I worked non-stop, every person and place has had an impact. I am also happy to have committed gallerists who let me focus on my work. Who knows what the future holds but as long as I am alive and have a qalam in my hand, it should all be ok.

Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai | STIRworld
Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai Image: Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai, Courtesy of Gallery Blueprint12

Art & Voices Matter
Co-curated by Rahul Kumar and Dilpreet Bhullar, Art & Voices Matter is a STIR original series of interviews with global creative practitioners who bring to the core the issues of communities that may be seen at the periphery.

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