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“You hide your nationality, like a crime…” Interview with artist Orna Kazimi

Interview with artist Orna Kazimi by Jemima Montagu, Spring 2017

Orna Kazimi is an Afghan artist currently in the first year of a Masters in Fine Art at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts, London. The first year of her Masters programme is fully funded by the Stanley Thomas Johnson Foundation through a grant to Culture+Conflict. The scholarship is organized in partnership with the Caspian Arts Foundation.

Orna Kazimi, Kabul, 2016Jemima Montagu: You are from Afghanistan, but you were born in Iran. Please can you explain your story?

Orna Kazimi: I was born in Masshad, in Northern Iran, in an Afghan refugee community. My parents had fled Afghanistan before the revolution in 1989 and had settled, along with many other Afghan refugees, in a suburban area of Masshad called Golshahr. It’s a normal suburb, not a refugee camp, where most Afghan refugees live. Hardly any Iranians live there and we were always treated as second-class citizens.

JM: So although you grew up in Iran, it did not feel like your own country?

 OK: No, Iranians did not treat Afghans very well. We were always treated like the lowest class and forbidden to travel in certain areas of the country. We had refugee cards that had to be extended every six months. We were always outsiders. My older brother went to university, but when it came to my turn, the government changed their policy and said I was not eligible because I am Afghan. Racism is acceptable because it comes from the government.

JM: What did you want to study, and how did you manage to finish your studies?

OK: I always wanted to study painting but studying art costs a lot and my family could not afford it. So I decided to study Natural Resources Engineering. However, that year the authorities said Afghans were not allowed to sit the entrance test to university. My friends and I protested in the streets. Some were even arrested as a warning. I decided to try my luck and take the test, even though the university said they did not know if I would get a result. Not even the authorities really knew what was happening. But I was lucky – they admitted me to university, and I was the first girl to go to university in my family.

JM: When did you first realize you wanted to become an artist?

OK: My older sister was a self-taught painter and as a young child, I grew up familiar with art and music. My other sister played guitar. There was a creative atmosphere. I was always making drawings in different notebooks, but studying art was not possible because it was too expensive. I needed to get a proper education and earn money.

JM: When did you first have the opportunity to study art?

OK: I started taking external courses in drawing and painting while I was at university. My teacher was Ustad Hussein Wahed and he taught me the power of line, of being free and creative in my work. I was desperate to drop out of university – it was very tiring and my study of natural resources gave me an allergy to nature! But my parents convinced me to stay and were, of course, very proud when I graduated.

JM: When did you first go to Afghanistan, and did it feel like ‘coming home’?

OK: After graduating, I got a job at IOM (International Organization for Migration) in Kabul, and this was my first visit to Afghanistan. Then I had no connection to Afghanistan, not even any family left, and I needed a job to go there. When I got to Kabul, I could not speak proper Dari [the main language of Afghanistan]. I spoke Dari with a Persian accent, and my ethnicity was another problem: I was a Hazara speaking Dari with a Persian accent [Orna is from the Hazara ethnic minority]. I was still an outsider.

Later, I made friends and I started to feel like ‘one of them’. It was much better than being in Iran. Afghans in Iran have much lower self-esteem: you hide your nationality, like a crime.

JM: In Afghanistan you began to meet other artists and build an artist community. What was the turning point that made you decide to pursue a career as an artist?

OK: In 2013 I won a place in a competition for the Afghan Contemporary Art Prize. It was really exciting and I took holiday from my job so that I could attend the two-week workshop. This was the first time I able to devote my whole day, morning to evening, to making and developing my art practice. We had a really good group with different teachers and subjects everyday. We learned to make sculpture with plaster or to make art from music – and all our expenses were covered. This was the first step – I really felt that I was doing what I wanted for the first time, without being worried about other work and responsibilities. Art wasn’t marginal any more, it was the most important thing in my life.

JM: Can you describe your artwork at this time, and how it changed when you went to Afghanistan?

OK: In Iran I spent a lot of time sitting alone in my room, on a chair, making drawings and paintings. I was very isolated, and my work became preoccupied with the body and the chair. Unconsciously my bodies and chairs were dissolving into each other. I think this relates to the isolation of that specific time. What was the difference between the chair as an object, and my body as an object? They were both decorative, solid. You cannot tell where the figure ends and the object begins.

When I went to Afghanistan, my work became influenced by the one-legged people I saw on the street. You see a lot of them on the streets of Kabul as a result of brutal accidents, bombings. I started to make paintings of one-legged people running away into the darkness. There is a lot of red and black. I connect this to an experience in my childhood, when I was 4 or 5 years old. Our house in Golshah caught fire, and my leg got badly burned. For a long time I couldn’t walk properly and I developed a kind of phobia about losing my leg. When I went to Afghanistan it was like seeing my nightmare turned into a reality. I felt very sensitive towards these one-legged people, and I somehow connected them with trees, grass, nature. Their leg is like a stalk or trunk, growing from the ground.

JM: Please can you describe the work you made for the final exhibition of the Afghan Contemporary Art Prize?

OK: During the Art Prize there were many different workshops, and so I tried to visualize the one-legged figure in a different way. I learned how to make sculpture out of plaster, and for this exhibition I made a plaster figure leaning against a wall, fading away into a wall. It looks like a skeleton, but it is not, it’s about space, not really about the body. It’s about both being and nothing.

I was affected by the terrible situation in Afghanistan, and I was feeling quite nihilistic. I was thinking about how easily human beings can be killed, destroyed like insects, and I was learning how to visualise these different feelings of emptiness, sadness.

Orna Kazimi, UNtitled, 2013. Copyright the artist.JM: You returned to Iran after Afghanistan, determined to study Fine Arts. You tried to enter the Academy of Fine Arts in Tehran, but after two weeks you were told you could no longer attend because you had not studied a BA in Fine Arts. Can you describe this time?

OK: This was a really difficult time for me. I wanted to study Fine Art in Iran to be close to my mother, but I was not allowed. The official reason was that ‘I was not qualified’ but I had been accepted originally on the basis of my portfolio. I think it was in some part racism, on account of my nationality, because the painting department had never had an Afghan student before.

My visa for Iran was about to expire and without enrolling in a new course, I would not be able to stay there. My student passport said I was Afghan, and there was no official record that I had grown up in Iran. I had these contradictory feelings. My mother is in Iran but I have no documents to stay there. This is why ‘home’ is a very complex idea for me – I have never really experienced being ‘at home’. I don’t know what it means.

Then a friend told me about the scholarship in London. I felt I had no alternative: I had to get the scholarship. It was really a dream to study in London, at a good university, and on a fully-funded scholarship.

JM: Can you describe some of the challenges you faced in getting the scholarship and the process of getting a visa to the UK as an Afghan passport holder?

OK: It was a really tight time schedule. I started studying English for nine hours a day because I had only a few months to prepare for the language test. When I got the email with the offer – I just cried! My family were very happy for my future. I am the first one in the family to do a Masters. But after receiving the offer from the university and for the Caspian Arts Foundation scholarship, I had to apply for the UK visa. This was very stressful.

JM: You cannot apply for the UK visa in Afghanistan, so you had to travel alone to India to make your application. First you had to get an Indian visa and travel to Delhi, then wait while the UK visa was processed, not knowing if you would be successful. This must have been very difficult. How did you manage?

OK: I had sold a painting in Afghanistan and saved some money to pay for my English classes, and then all the travel and visa expenses. It cost a lot of money, and I did not know if I would get the visa. The day before my final interview with the British Embassy in Delhi, I was thinking: “Tomorrow I’ll either be going to London or back to Afghanistan.” The Embassy did not tell me straightaway, they just gave me a package of documents. I was so nervous I could hardly open the package. I looked at the visa but I couldn’t believe it, and had to go back and ask the staff two times to check that it was real. Two days later I was on a flight to London. For the first month I had no feelings at all; I was in shock. The most important thing was getting the visa, and after that everything became blurry.

JM: You have now been studying at Central Saint Martins for 3 months. Has your work changed since coming to the UK? What are you working on now?

OK: I think all those experiences – of being a refugee – are coming out in my work. I have been on both sides: I have been among those people who are prevented from crossing borders, kept behind walls; and now I am on the other side. I know what those people – Afghans, Syrians – are struggling for. There are lots of people like me out there, who just didn’t get a chance. In the UK I read news about how governments are trying to protect their people – they are building walls in the name of protecting people. From who – people like me? This is very sad.

One of my recent works is called The Wall, and another work is about the situation of refugees. At first they look optimistic and happy – they are very bright and colourful. But when you look closer, there is darkness, sadness.

Orna Kazimi, Great Wall, 2016. Copyright the artist.I am trying to find my own way with materials, and my own way of telling these stories. Recently I have been struggling with materials, and trying to get beyond 2-dimensionality. I was interested by the [Robert] Rauschenberg exhibition that was in London, and I am now working with collage and assemblage, using everyday objects. I start with a real situation, a coffee shop, a kitchen, and then abstract it. I’m interested in illusion and reality.

I’m now going back to the theme of the figure and the chair, where one thing extends into the next. I don’t like to say exactly what something is – I like the feeling of confusion. Everything is between things, shadows, in a state of becoming.

JM: Like you?

OK: Yes, of course my work is a part of me.

JM: What do you want to do next? What are your hopes for the future?

OK: I need to keep studying. I would like to do a practice-based PhD, and I have started to explore scholarships and practical support for this.

I don’t know about the future. I can’t think too far ahead. There is too much ambiguity in my future.


Jemima Montagu is co-director of Culture+Conflict. To find out more about the artist, please email