These days, when Malina Suliman wakes up in the rented apartment that she shares with her family in Mumbai, she’s most concerned about hiding the newspapers. The 23-year-old artist from Afghanistan wants to conceal the attention she’s receiving in the Indian and international press for her bold graffiti, in the hope that when she returns to her country later this month, she’ll be allowed to continue making her art.
Suliman’s family arrived in India in early January for medical care after her father, a property developer, was injured in attack that, the family suspects, was planned by the Taliban. They’d received previous threats from the extremists, Suliman says. “I feel really bad that my father has to suffer because of me,” she says. “But I don’t regret what I have done. Why don’t women have freedom? Why don’t we have equal rights?”
Suliman—who was inspired by the political potential of graffiti in 2010 when she attended a workshop held by a visiting British artist—says her family has little knowledge of her work, which has outraged conservative groups in Afghanistan. The artist’s signature motif—a skeleton in a blue burqa, which she has sprayed on walls in Kabul and Kandahar—is a pointed metaphor for her own condition in her homeland and the inequality and repression that Afghan women face. Because of her graffiti art and its defiant political statements, Suliman says she has faced warnings and abuse from onlookers in Kandahar, where she is one of the few female artists. “People would say bad words and threaten to attack me,” she says. “Some even threw stones at me.” She says she’s grateful for the freedom she enjoys in Mumbai, where she doesn’t need to wear a veil.
Suliman’s burqa-clad skeletons have resonated worldwide but she says the work that first prompted threats from the Taliban was a sculpture of a disabled child exhibit at a gallery in Kandahar in November last year. Suliman kept her artwork from her parents until another intimidating letter arrived; this one blasted her graffiti panel depicting an ordinary Afghan caught between the Taliban and Westerners. A few days later, her father was attacked by unknown men and, out of fear for her family’s safety, she told them about her graffiti.
Trained in realism in an art school in Pakistan, Suliman’s education was cut short in 2009, when her family brought her back to Afghanistan before her final year of studies. “My family wanted me to leave art forever,” she said. Accustomed to the relative freedom of life in her hometown of Kabul, Suliman found Kandahar confining, and spent much of the next year cut off from her art. “In that year, there were many questions that arose in my mind about girls like me, who want to do something but are not allowed to do it,” Suliman said. In this time of ferment, Suliman found some support from inside her family. Among her nine siblings, she was able to rely on two of her sisters for inspiration. One of them took her to an art gallery in Kabul in 2010. “When I saw the paintings I couldn’t understand what I was feeling,” she said. “I was screaming and crying. I didn’t know if I was happy or not.”
After that cataclysmic experience, the young artist decided to pursue her ambitions and has been prolific since. She has shown her paintings, sculptures and installations in several exhibitions in Kabul and Kandahar and has left her imprint anonymously on public walls in both cities. In Kandahar, she is part of the Kandahar Fine Art Association, founded in 2011 to promote art in the region. The government has been encouraging. Artists from the collective have succeeded in attracting state funding and have been given space for a gallery; they’ve even shown their work in the presidential palace in Kabul. In the capital city, Suliman is part of Berang, a well-versed network of artists, some of whom have shown abroad. Among the group, Shamsia Hassani works with the motif of the woman in the blue burqa as well, though her images tend to be less provocative than Suliman’s skeleton peeking through the veil.
“Malina makes strong motifs,” said Shreekant Khairnar, Suliman’s teacher at the Sir J.J. School of Art in Mumbai. “She is trying to learn a lot in a short time.” Indeed, time is running out. If Suliman doesn’t get a visa extension, she will have to return to Afghanistan by March 24. She is uncertain if she will be able to continue making art, an eventuality that is harder to accept in the liberal climate of Mumbai. Suliman would be happy in the more agreeable atmosphere of Kabul but she fears for her safety in Kandahar. “My family thinks that I should give up art,” she says. “They have seen the risks and they fear that it will be worse when we return. Just thinking about going back makes it difficult for me to breathe. But if I stop making art, what about other women? If I continue, some other women may join me.”