Khadim Ali: Invisible Border

Dr Joseph Brennan speaks with Khadim Ali about the works of ‘Invisible Border’ – its tapestries in particular, which bear a collective signature of collaboration with Hazara craftswomen and men impacted by war and displacement.

‘The invisible border exists in human imagination: of special races and inbred in beliefs and opportunities and languages,’ Khadim Ali tells me. ‘The colour, race, language and religion of a person either provides an opportunity or takes away the opportunity. It is because of this invisible border that many professionals in their work cannot flourish in certain places due to ongoing prejudice. In my work, the style, symbols and methods are crossing many borders that I have crossed.’

‘Invisible Border’ is a partnership between Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art (IMA) and Pakistan’s Lahore Biennale Foundation. It comprises six works spanning sound installation, miniature painting and tapestry, and is inclusive of existing work alongside new commissions. Ali is the third generation of Hazara born in Pakistan, though he is now living and working in Sydney. His own experience of displacement, with the experiences of the Hazara people – in and from Afghanistan especially – is explored in this exhibition.

Khadim Ali, Invisible border 1, 2020, medium, hand and machine embroidered, stitched and dye ink on fabric, 290 × 260cm. Installation view: Lahore Biennale, 2020. Courtesy the artist, Milani Gallery, Brisbane and Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane

‘The normalisation of borders anywhere in the world leads to the normalisation of war and violence,’ Ali says. ‘This is not specific to Afghanistan. It has been experienced in most countries and is being experienced right now. The Hazara people, however, are victims because of their location in a particular geography. By the end of the 19th century, about 62 per cent of Hazaras were massacred, and they lost almost all of their fertile land.’

‘Inspired by the religious scriptures, as well as the stories of the Shahnameh, which are the most important stories of my childhood,’ Ali says he is trying to depict ‘the normality of killing and violence in general, and the normality of killing Hazara people in particular.’ Collaborative art practices are central to ‘Invisible Border’, especially its tapestries, including Invisible Border 1 (2020) and Sermon on the Mount (2020), which have been handwoven by a community of Hazara craftswomen and men who have been impacted by the war in Afghanistan.

‘Working with people is of fundamental importance to me,’ Ali says. ‘Collective work, in my opinion, is a collective signature. They helped me realise the nature of the medium of tapestry.’ An ‘archive of human experiences of those who are direct victims of wars and tragedies’ has resulted from such collaborations, which Ali says are ‘rooted in my childhood drawings that I did with kids in refugee camps in Quetta city at the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, where these kids were weaving war rugs to have financial support for the family.’ Embroidery and rugs are a local tradition, and therefore skills are abundant in this medium. However, as Ali explains, a key challenge over the course of this collaboration came in introducing ‘new imageries’ into existing practices – ‘the imageries of human figures’, for example, which ‘are prohibited in Islamic culture and craft’.

Khadim Ali, Sermon on the Mount (detail), 2020, tapestry, embroidery and acrylic, 553 × 400cm. Photograph: Carl Warner. Courtesy the artist, Milani Gallery, Brisbane and Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane

To my eye, profoundly complex and personal points of reference – in literature (via the Shahnameh) and from personal experience: of war (including the destruction of Ali’s family home) and nationhood (inclusive of Australian iconography) – result in works that both reveal and break down borders. ‘You may be right,’ Ali says in response to my reading, ‘my work reflects my personal and historical experiences. Displacement is another name for borderlessness. As an Australian citizen, I am a bearer of experiences from other lands. My identity is mixed – a combination of different languages and cultures. Boundaries collapse in my work, because I have collapsed and multiplied within myself. Boundaries intertwine in my work, because I have to connect these broken pieces so that I do not collapse existentially.’

‘Invisible Border’ marks Ali’s largest Australian solo exhibition to date. Last year, works from this exhibition showed in Pakistan, and later this year these works will show again in the city where Ali currently lives and works, at UNSW Galleries – as an IMA touring exhibition (20 August to 20 November). Showing in Sydney is fitting given, in the words of the artist: ‘From Sydney, I see the stars which were, the last light seen by my ancestors during the massacres of Uruzgan and Bamiyan’; such visceral reflection on place-across-borders that, like art: ‘has the ability to show the invisible and unspeakable aspects of the world by combining memory, experience and imaginary forms.’


Dr Joseph Brennan is an art critic, author and cultural scholar based in Far North Queensland.


Institute of Modern Art
10 April to 5 June 2021

UNSW Galleries
27 October to 28 November 2021