With female nudes, Afghan artist Kubra Khademi is breaking taboos

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The Afghan painter Kubra Khademi, who has been living in exile in France for five years, places women’s sexuality and pleasure in the spotlight in a Paris exhibition. Far from the clichés about Afghanistan, the work of this uninhibited artist pays tribute to the country’s tradition of humorous and erotic poetry.

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It’s a story that Kubra Khademi likes to tell about the beginning of her life as an artist. The little girl was living in a rural family in the central Afghan province of Ghor. When she was five years old, her mother took her and four of her sisters to the hammam for the weekly shower. For the first time, Khademi said, she was aware of the beauty of the bodies around her: “I was speechless as my mother rubbed my back. Usually I was in pain until I cried. But then, I couldn’t feel a thing. I was looking at these naked women in all their splendour.”

Back at home, something clicked. Khademi took a sheet of paper and drew everything she saw at the hammam. She immediately tore up her work and hid it under her bed, conscious of her transgression. In Afghanistan, a woman’s body is traditionally thought of as indecent, and the country at the time was seeing the emergence of the Taliban, for whom the mere representation of a human being is completely forbidden. When Khademi’s mother discovered her daughter’s torn treasure, she punished her child by whipping her with a rope.

Twenty-seven years later, Khademi continues to represent the female body in all its forms and functions. “Art offers me the liberty to design what I want,” the 32-year-old said to FRANCE 24.

She is exhibiting artworks at Paris’s Eric Mouchet Gallery until April 3. Among them are depictions of powerful goddesses, rendered in solid colours and surrounded by gold leaf writing according to techniques borrowed from Persian and Mongolian miniatures. Verses by the 13th-century Persian poet Djalal Al-Din Rumi – who was born in Afghanistan – accompany scenes of women’s pleasure. Khademi’s work is a way of paying tribute to the arts of her native country, too often reduced to “war and the Taliban”, she said, which she regrets. In paying tribute, Khademi is also breaking all taboos.

Les œuvres "Bagage de route #1" et "Bagage de route #2" exposées à la galerie Eric Mouchet à Paris.
Les œuvres “Bagage de route #1” et “Bagage de route #2” exposées à la galerie Eric Mouchet à Paris. © Rebecca Fanuele / Galerie Eric Mouchet

In one work, a woman cooks a giant penis as if it were a piece of lamb, with references to the common culture of Afghan shepherds. In another, a goddess defecates, shattering worldwide codes for the representation of women. And in a third piece, several women join together around a man’s erection and then work towards the pleasure of an accomplice. The profiles are grotesque, and the male genitals are disproportionately large.

Le quadriptyque "Première ligne" de Kubra Khademi à la galerie Eric Mouchet.
Le quadriptyque “Première ligne” de Kubra Khademi à la galerie Eric Mouchet. © Rebecca Fanuele / Galerie Eric Mouchet

Threats directed at the gallery

Art has to disturb,” Khademi said. “I’m not trying to please or displease, I just want to feel free.” 

A few weeks after the opening of Khamemi’s exhibition in February, Eric Mouchet Gallery received threats via social media. “Serious enough for us to file a complaint. We’re staying vigilant. But [the threats] stopped as quickly as they started,” said Marguerite Courtel, the gallery’s manager. For her part, Khademi said she’s long been harassed on social media and is used to it.

There’s much more than crude reality in Khademi’s work. The artist is also opening a door into a little-known Afghanistan, one in which women use humour and poetry to exercise a freedom of expression among each other that would shock some in the West. In these hidden conversations, a man is a jackass, and the anus is “an open book”.

“My mother didn’t know how to read or write, but she knew many poems. With humour, she often referred to what was happening below the waist,” Khademi said. Her mother, who raised Khademi according to tradition, is also one of the inspirations for her series of drawings.

La plasticienne Kubra Khademi dans son studio de la Fondation Fiminco, le 19 mars 2021.
La plasticienne Kubra Khademi dans son studio de la Fondation Fiminco, le 19 mars 2021. © France 24

One of 10 children, Khademi was the sole to leave the family’s home, moving to the Afghan capital Kabul to study fine arts in 2008. 

“We were six daughters” at home, Khademi said. “Perfect for weaving a carpet together and making money for the family.” At night, Khademi studied while continuing to weave. “Thanks to these embroideries, I saved enough money to go to Kabul,” she said, relieved to have escaped a forced marriage. Khademi’s father died when she was 13, and it was her older brother who finally agreed to her departure, not without argument.

“No one before me, nor around me, had studied at university. I left on my own, I had no idea what was waiting for me,” the artist said. 

Unprotected in a suit of armour

In Kabul, Khademi created a pioneering work of performance art that changed her life. She decided in 2015 to cross a busy street wearing a suit of armour to denounce sexual molestation. Under a barrage of insults, she walked for 10 minutes in the suit before needing to find shelter from the anger of men who were infuriated by her performance.

“That drove my country crazy,” Khademi said. “The artistic dimension of my work was denied and misunderstood.” 

Threatened with death, she remained in hiding for three weeks before flying to France.

In Khademi’s studio at the Fondation Fiminco, an arts centre on the northeast outskirts of Paris where she is an artist in residence, she placed a photograph of her performance in armour on the wall, a symbol of her last moment of liberty in her home country. Today, the suit of armour travels from exhibition to exhibition throughout Europe. Khademi’s busy calendar includes an end-of-residency exhibition in June, and an exposition and performance at Paris’s Museum of Modern Art in a few months.

Le nouveau projet de Kubra Khademi sera exposé en juin 2021 à la Fondation Fiminco.
Le nouveau projet de Kubra Khademi sera exposé en juin 2021 à la Fondation Fiminco. © France 24

For her new series, Khademi has introduced masculine figures into her work. She has found inspiration in the aesthetics of Taliban photomontages. “The Taliban like to have their photos taken, but this was ‘underground’ because of the prohibition on representation. In these photos, taken in a studio with a mountainous landscape and a Swiss chalet in the background, they strike powerful poses with their weapons. Or fraternal [poses], almost homosexual, when they hold hands. These photos were like celebrations of their presence together.”

Once again using a form of mockery, Khademi has reproduced an Afghan photography studio in her art studio and disguised herself as a man to photograph herself in the same postures as the Taliban. She includes her partner, US artist Daniel Pettrow, in these images as if to reconcile her home country with his. In a languid Brezhnev-style kiss, she immortalises herself as a member of the Taliban and he as a US emissary.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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