Studio Study with Hangama Amiri.
Nacre: Basso sneakers keeps coming up in my Insta ads and every time I think about you telling me about 90’s basso sneakers you wore in Tajikistan, and how it was funny to you they were back in style again.
Hangama: Ah, I loved my times in Tajikistan. It’s where I started to paint. And yes, I did admire anything that could make me look taller, whether it was high heels or 90’s basso sneakers.
Nacre: So first of all, I wanted to rewind and think about how much movement there has been for you through there world by now: could you tell me how you ended up in Tajikistan and how you arrived there?
Hangama: Well, when the Taliban invaded Afghanistan in 1996 we became refugees for several years. First we were in Peshawar, Pakistan where we lived for almost 5 years. Then we moved to Tajikistan and we ended up living there for almost 6 years until 2005 when we finally immigrated to Canada.
Nacre: How did fashion and what you wore or did not change through these locations? I am asking this because I remember you telling me you did wear a hijab as a young person but you gradually stopped, but the traditional dress remains very present in your work. What meaning does it hold for you where you are now, it time and place?
Hangama: Thank you for this question. It’s funny how living in Canada, most of my Canadian friends or random people will ask me this question, “well, you are Afghan why aren’t you wearing hijab”. Of course not all Afghan women feel the need to veil themselves when living in the western countries.
When I was very young, in an elementary school in Pakistan, I did used to wear hijab, that was the required uniform for my school. I remember I had to wear a white scarf with a long black Mantoe that covered my tiny body until my ankles. In Tajikistan we didn’t have any school uniform, even though I was going to Afghan school, I felt free.
These days the representation of this cultural material in my paintings is about the memories of my mother and my five aunts who wore hijab and Burqa. During the everyday commute in Kabul city this image was of a necessity omnipresent object signifying to me the uprising of the Taliban regime. The Burqa became an “obligatory garment” for Afghan women around that time, and not wearing it could be a cause of extreme danger to the women in public.
Nacre: We met at Banff and bonded over a clerical error: both of our names were misspelled. After that a lot of time was spent drinking wine and talking about kind of things new friends talk about and at some point we touched on intimate and maybe sad and complicated subjects. After that conversation we went to your studio and were trying to figure out an experiment, with the square paintings you were making, writing superimposed onto the local landscapes you often painted en plein air. What did the experiment of hanging and stacking the paintings meant to you?
Hangama: Oh girl, I really enjoyed that moment! And yes, of course the wine! I remember that night I was talking about several of my childhood memories and how to this day they show up in my art practice. Specifically, memories of my life growing up as a refugee and the process of constant moving place to place. I guess I was talking about my memory of being in Palousai, Pakistan, and how the house we lived in was robbed and other traumatic events I experienced as a young girl. I can’t quite shake the feeling. One day, early morning, when we lived in Kabul city my father woke me up and said: “bekhez janum, kalagakaita jam ko, mere Panjshir bakhair, zoot shoo/ wake up my dear, collect your clothes and we are going to Panjshir valley, hurry”. At first I didn’t understand why my dad was taking us to Panjshir valley this early in the morning, but then I looked around me, my aunts were at our place, and other neighbors. My mom was running around collecting things and clothing, I realized that this is something else, this means we are leaving for good.
The installation we tried at Banff had to do with carpets as a migrant stackable object, or my father telling me, “collect your belongings and we are leaving”. That painting installation is maybe literal: it’s how I see myself as a fragmented body. By fragmented I mean once the body is moved, misplaced, displaced, performed and forced to change or adapt to the experiences of multiple cultures, histories and languages; then it’s not always so coherent, the context becomes the body and the body becomes the work in which the object expresses it. The self is no longer the true identity it new knew itself as, but one that is spliced, I become this cultural pattern of a diaspora body. These are the ideas that I’m still figuring out what to do with and working on.
Nacre: Why did you think it wasn’t interesting/possible/useful to repeat this layout experiment at the galleries where you had shows after?
Hangama: It had to do with the space and the context in which I was making the work. I felt constricted exhibiting the work in that way at other locations in Nova Scotia. At Banff, my studio space had an interesting corner section, which I found uncomfortable, but it reminded me of my backyard in Palousai, Peshawer, Pakistan (where our place was robbed). Through that exercise I was able to revisit that recollection and allow the vulnerability to come through.
In brief: the residency felt like a place I can collaborate or experiment at, and although I have always been drawn to living in a small town (as where I’d been living in Nova Scotia recently) and generally felt welcome in that community, I didn’t quite feel like I can be fully myself there. In other’s eyes I felt exotic or foreign and maybe I resisted that by reducing the emphasis on my history and felt like I had to choose a more classic presentation, just paintings in a row, on a wall. These more straight-up painting exhibitions were pragmatic, they helped me financially to support the transition to where am at now.
Nacre: Maybe we can wrap up by talking about how you feel about living in Connecticut, and the difference between your experience of living in Canada and the States.
Hangama: To be honest, I’m still adjusting to living in America. First time I lived in here was a few years ago as a Fulbright Researcher at Yale (2015-2016) and I really enjoyed it that time. But living here now feels different. The political climate has changed, my research has evolved. How I work is different when I’m here than what I was in Canada.
Being in the States I do feel like I’m able to make more politically and socially charged artwork or I’m able to engage these conversations with my peers and colleagues more openly. It helps that at the moment my grad program has many artists who are people of color working through their personal histories, so it gives me more of a community feeling and support. Living in Canada, it felt less comfortable to engage in these type of political/social conversations with my peers. It was something a bit pushed aside and not a topic of interest to my Canadian friends.