|THE OPENING is all about delving into the fascinating, quirky and wonderful visual arts in Vancouver. Each week we’ll feature an artist, cover an exhibition, discuss a lecture and everything else in-between to delve deep into who and what makes art happen!This week’s feature is brought to you by Roberta Staley.|
WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS: ROBERTA STALEY
The face is compelling; framed by black tousled curls, cheeks ruddy from cold and cherubic with fleeting childhood, she wears a lumpy wool turtleneck and scruffy red jacket. This is someone who has known extremes: wind, heat and winter. Being Afghan, she knows too well other hardships: poverty and the threat of insurgent violence. But the backpack straps over both shoulders show her to be a student — part of an emerging generation at the vanguard of a new Afghanistan that eschews warlordism and a religious conservatism that has oppressed women and girls for decades and prevented them from attending school.
“She is the identity of the gallery,” Wafi Gran says of the portrait, which hangs on the wall at the entranceway of The Archer & The Horseman Afghan Art Gallery & Café. The artist hasn’t given his subject a name, but her calm, perceptive gaze reveals a maturity beyond her years. “You can see in her face that she has figured out life,” muses Gran, the 31-year-old owner of The Archer, located at 208 East 16 Ave. just off Main Street.
Gran’s gallery, which officially opened a month ago, is tastefully appointed — a modern juxtaposition of natural brick, clean white walls and Afghan tables, rugs and pillows. Visitors who come to sip the fragrant cardamom-spiced green tea sit at low tables made of traditionally carved wood doors covered with glass. The hand-woven Afghanistan rugs underfoot are a myriad of muted colours. It is a place to look at art, to talk politics and to discover a side of Afghanistan that is rarely represented in the Western media — a dynamic culture that is a blend of the modern rooted in ancient artisanship, Gran says.
Gran was born in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital city, and grew up in neighbouring Paktia province, a member of a large family headed by his law professor father. After earning an economics degree in Afghanistan, Gran spent time in Europe and the United Kingdom. In 2009, he moved to Vancouver to attend Simon Fraser University, where he currently studies political science in addition to running the gallery café. Opening the gallery was a way to support Afghan artists as well as show Vancouverites how far the nation has come since the Taliban was ousted in 2001 by NATO and American-led forces, Gran says.
Gran leads visitors around the café to discuss the paintings, which are mainly the work of the Anzurgar family of Kabul, headed by patriarch Yusif Anzurgar. The Anzurgar sons and daughters have contributed to the gallery oeuvre, working in a variety of mediums including oil, watercolour and pencil. The portraits are especially captivating. One, an old man with a weathered, care-worn face and white beard and turban, is the face of someone who had survived many lifetimes in one — from modern, bustling 1970s Afghanistan to Soviet Union occupation in the 1980s, followed by two decades of power struggles between mujahedeen rebels, the Taliban and Western forces. “You see in their eyes and faces that this is what Afghanistan is,” says Gran. “It’s a very philosophical place — look at the faces of people like this old man and you know he has opinions about everything.”
There are also portraits showing scenes of young girls with heads covered in the conservative hijab. One oil and canvas is a reproduction of the 1985 National Geographic cover shot of Sharbat Gula, whose mesmerizing gaze of rage and beauty became the iconic symbol of Afghan resilience following the Soviet invasion.
Some sketches and paintings show Afghanistan’s famed horsemen engaged in the dangerous national sport of buzkashi — a form of polo that, instead of being played with balls and mallets, is played with a headless goat carcass. The gallery also has more abstract market and street scenes as well as a landscape of the city of Kabul. It is one of Gran’s favourites, as it shows the traditional tan-coloured homes with small windows that keep out the heat and flat roofs where women hang laundry to dry. The homes are in the foreground of Kabul’s red marble Abdul Rahman Mosque, one of Afghanistan’s largest that was officially opened by President Hamid Karzai just one year ago.
Although created using modern painting techniques, all the art pieces are framed with the traditional, elaborate heavy wood frames that are carved by the artisans of the Nuristan mountains in northeastern Afghanistan.
Gran’s gallery also features large black-and-white photos of Afghanistan’s famously rugged mountainsides and rivers shot in a style that is reminiscent of American outdoor photographer Ansel Adams. It is beautiful landscape that, Gran hopes, one day will finally be enveloped in peace.