Gallery Girl meets AVAH Collective

The modern day nation of Afghanistan is located in a geography with a long historical and cultural significance both locally and internationally. Yet how many of Gallery Girl’s readers know anything about Afghan art? I’m guessing that if any, there are very few who do. Most probably think of Afghanistan and immediately make associations with war or the Taliban. Despite this however, Afghanistan has a rich history of producing art. In fact, scientists have proven that the oldest known oil paintings stem from Afghanistan, found in caves in Bamiyan, dating from the 7th century. To this day, a vibrant and diverse culture of artistic production continues to exist and take new forms as times change.

AVAH was founded in recognition of a lack of easily obtainable information and long term initiatives regarding the historical and contemporary artistic and cultural practices originating in or related to Afghanistan. An acronym for Afghan Visual Arts and History, the team is made up of a diverse group of artists (Muheb Esmat and Moshtari Hilal) and art world professionals (Yasmeen Gailani). Gallery Girl spoke to the collective to understand more about their work as well as discuss their plans for archiving, producing exhibitions and publications.

How did you all meet, can you tell me about yourselves, and how you created AVAH?

We met through social media. It was quite easy to connect, as we all mutually felt the urgent need for critical thinking, dialogue and knowledge production around modern and contemporary Afghan art, which ultimately led to the formation of AVAH. Each of us brings a different set of skills and knowledge to the table. Muheb is an artist and curator, currently pursuing a master’s degree at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. Prior to that he worked at the High Museum of Art, The Art Institute of Chicago and the Colby College Museum of Art. Yasmeen works at Sotheby’s auction house, in the Islamic department with a focus on 20th Century Middle Eastern Art. Moshtari is an artist from Hamburg. Recent exhibitions include Galerie 21, Niavaran Complex and the Design Museum of Barcelona. Upcoming exhibitions include a solo show at Ame Nue and a residency at Haramacy Festival. Currently, Moshtari is pursuing a dual masters between SOAS University of London and the Free University of Berlin.

As such, while we may have different professions and backgrounds, we all remain very invested in both local and diaspora Afghan art, so our diverse areas of knowledge and research help our work when we come together.


What preconceived notions about Afghanistan are you trying to smash with the project?

Information related to modern and contemporary Afghan art is scarce and difficult to obtain. Our goal is to consolidate a large group of artists working across different mediums, geographies and time periods onto a centralised platform. Our hope is that by providing easier access to information, dialogue and exchange will initiate an in-depth understanding of artistic practices from both the past and present. Ultimately, much of the narrative on Afghanistan has been shaped by non-Afghan ‘experts’ in recent decades. In almost all instances, knowledge production does not reference local authors. Part of our aim is to produce knowledge and critically engage with contemporary art historical material, helping us in countering reductionism and disinformation regarding Afghan visual arts.

Reza Hazare
Reza Hazare, Exile #5, 2008. Pencil on paper. Image courtesy AVAH Collective

 Which Afghan artists should be on our radar?

The best answer we can give here, is to direct you to our social media pages. Follow us on Instagram (@avahcollective) where we share regular content, featuring artists, projects and exhibitions. Announcements are also made on our website ( through which we operate a mailing list.


Can you tell me what is characteristic of Afghan art?

There is no single characteristic. Every artist has their own practice, process and approach. Particularly given the geopolitical context, diversity of Afghan society, and Afghanistan having produced one of the largest refugee populations in recent history, it would be counterproductive and exclusionary to identify a single form or style as characteristic of Afghan art. Each artist, visual and knowledge production merits their own space and understanding.

How do you go about archiving and documenting Afghan art history? What golden artists or pieces of information have you found? 

We are currently holding an open call for artists (deadline 1 May 2019) with an aim to gather portfolios of contemporary artists. This will enable us to create a network with practitioners before we can study, catalogue and archive their work for our publications and exhibitions. For example, since our launch in February, we have been able to identify and connect with a major late 20th century artist who is now residing in the diaspora. Through conversation with such artists who have gone unnoticed due to socio-political issues in Afghanistan over the past 30 years, we hope to be able to write a comprehensive, nuanced and de-colonial art history of their work.


I noticed you are all based in Europe and America, are you speaking directly with artists in Afghanistan too?

Yes, absolutely. We are invested in Afghan artists regardless of their location. Our open call has gathered applications from artists based both within Afghanistan as well as across its diaspora. Moreover, some of us have lived in Afghanistan and all of us have professional or personal ties.

Sulaiman Farhad Rokai
Suleiman Farhad Rokai, Afghan Women, Triptych, 1978. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy AVAH Collective

What are your plans for the future?

At the moment, our main focus is to create an online index of artists and publish the first issue of our zine. Our long-term goal is to publish a book on modern and contemporary Afghan art, accompanied by exhibitions, talks and workshops.

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier aka Gallery Girl is a writer and curator based in London. Her work has been featured in publications including Dazed, Hyperallergic and Vogue Arabia. She was curator of Perpetual Movement during AWAN Festival 2018 and in 2019 had a residency at the Lab at Darat Al Funun in Amman, Jordan. She has also worked with Armenia Art Fair for its inaugural edition and previously worked as an editor at I.B.Tauris Publishers. In 2019 she co-founded Arsheef, Yemen’s first contemporary art gallery. She has given workshops at Manara Culture in Amman, Jordan and Victoria and Albert Museum in London, UK. As of 2020 she is currently in law school, with the ambition of greater understanding the intersection between art and the law.

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