Art in Exile: Afghan Sara Nabil Fights for Women ‘s Rights Art DW

What is politics and what is art can hardly be separated in the works of Sarah Nabil. The Afghan artist – who now lives in Germany – deals with her own experience of oppression, flight and the search for identity.

Through photographs and performances, she shows how women in Afghanistan are falling victim to systematic oppression. She is also exploring ways to regain control of their identity.

For a new exhibition at the Mannheim Kunsthalle, Sara Nabil reveals an artistic radicalism that is new to her: In a pre-exhibition performance, the artist completely cut off her long black hair in front of an audience.

She cut and tore off before finally shaving off the last pieces. This artistic protest was a way for Nabil to show that the female body in Afghanistan is increasingly becoming a place of political ideologies, cultural conflicts and power struggles – even more so since the Taliban took power again last summer. There, such public staging of female corporeality is taboo.

Women’s rights in Afghanistan

For Sara Nabil, art is an act of self-liberation. “We have an Islamic, patriarchal society in Afghanistan. Because of my identity as a woman, I have always been oppressed,” she told DW. “By cutting my hair, I am restoring freedom over my body. I am going against the rules, laws and regulations that religion, society and government have imposed on me as an Afghan woman.”

During the performance, she called on the audience to donate their own hair, in solidarity with women in Afghanistan and those who have experienced the same fate.

The play Kunsthalle Mannheim was shot by three different artists, and different videos were integrated into the exhibition, along with Nabil’s hair.

“What’s important in Sarah Nabil’s work is that there is the possibility of acting in art, which is a way to regain freedom over your own body,” exhibition curator Christina Bergemann told DW.

A woman fully examined in a photo by Sara Nabil for an exhibition in Mannheim.

When women can’t determine how their bodies are portrayed: a photo by Afghan artist Sara Nabil

Nabil witnessed a suicide bombing in Kabul – and fled

Sara Nabil was born in 1994 in the Afghan capital, Kabul, and went to school after the Taliban regime was overthrown in 2001.

As a teenager, she began studying modern art at the Center for Contemporary Art Afghanistan (CCAA). In 2008 she participated in an exhibition that was also shown in Germany.

She then studied political science at Karwan University in Kabul starting in 2013. Even then, as a women’s rights activist and artist, she was threatened by the Taliban. In December 2014, she witnessed a suicide attack on a university.

A man blew himself up in front of her. For Nabil, it was a decisive turning point: “This time I survived, but next time I will die,” he recalls thinking.

Shortly afterwards, in February 2015, she used an invitation to a student conference in the Netherlands to seek political asylum in Germany. Since 2016, he has been studying art at the Hochschule für Gestaltung (University of Art and Design) in Offenbach.

Opening dialogue through art

Because she managed to get a visa, her escape is different from the escape of many other people from her home country, Nabil said. But she shares the experience of exile with millions of people who are persecuted for their faith or political stance.

She has yet to come to terms with her escape, the young artist says, adding that she feels she lives between two worlds. He also constantly asks himself: How will my art be accepted in Afghanistan? She says they don’t always understand her there.

Some things are shocking to Afghan society, she says. “But that’s what I want. I want to say something strong that makes a difference and opens up new dialogues.”

Sara Nabil is also spreading her message through social media.

She posted a video on Instagram on March 8 in front of the United Nations headquarters in Geneva to mark International Women’s Day. In it, she shouts at the camera for a good two and a half minutes, visibly straining at the end. “This is a cry for survival, resistance, equality and liberation from all social and political shackles,” Nabil wrote in the announcement.

Astonished by the destruction of the art sphere in Afghanistan

“It hurts me that art is not taking place in Afghanistan at the moment,” the artist told DW. Everything that has been created in the field of art in the last 20 years has been destroyed by the Taliban, she says.

Taliban girls in Kabul stand in front of their closed school on March 23, 2022.

Taliban order to close schools for girls: Students in Kabul in March 2022.

For example, graffiti in public spaces is copied with sentences from the Koran. At the Afghan National Institute of Music, the Taliban destroyed instruments and arrested artists. Sara Nabil’s friends were also arrested. Her family had to flee to Germany after being threatened by the Taliban over Sarah’s activism.

It is frightening how women and girls are deprived of their identity, Nabil says. He deals with this topic in his series of photographs “Power” which is exhibited in the Kunsthalle Mannheim. Black and white photos are focused on the person who is covered beyond recognition.

“Sara Nabil uses various, partially fictitious forms of full-face coverage to show that the Taliban are deliberately using dress and behavior regulations to oppress women and girls in their fundamentalist interpretation of Sharia law,” says Christina Bergemann, curator of the exhibition.

Advocating for the education of girls and women

Nabil said the veil prevents women from being able to perceive and properly shape their surroundings. So they would be more or less excluded from the public sphere.

Nabil does not aim to criticize the headscarf or those who choose to cover their hair. She, however, condemns the oppressive mechanism of the full-face veil and the power structures associated with it.

The last image of her photo series “Power” is completely black; you can’t see anything. “That’s what the Taliban predicts for women. The woman is completely gone,” Nabil said.

Nabil’s work goes far beyond art. To help girls in Afghanistan in a concrete way, she founded an online program for female students called E-School Afghanistan. The program seeks to ensure that at least some Afghan girls receive an education. The Taliban banned girls from going to school after sixth grade, despite announcements to the contrary when they took power in the country.

The “Sara Nabil” exhibition runs until August 28, 2022 at the Kunsthalle Mannheim and is free to the public.

This article was originally written in German.

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