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Veiled reference gives an unusual insight into Kabul life

posted Apr 21, 2017, 5:48 PM by Jennifer Gowen   [ updated Apr 21, 2017, 6:10 PM ]
While westerners typically only look on from the outside at women wearing the burqa, artist Jennifer Gowen began pondering how the world might look from inside the traditional garb.

Back home in Caringbah after a month-long visit to Afghanistan in 2011, she was desperate to recapture what she had seen.

“The image that really stayed in my mind was of the women in their blue burqas weaving in and out of the crowds of men and boys,” she says. “Afghanistan is a very colourless country – the men wear mainly black and grey – so this is the only bit of colour that you see.”

She began experimenting with her own burqa, bought in a Kabul store, and became fascinated by the outside world as seen through the cloth “grille” on the garment.

“Women who wear burqas see the world differently from us western women,” she says. “They see it as a soft-focus blur of colours looking through the squares.”

The result of her experiments is a striking series of more than 40 works, many featuring an impressionistic interpretation of how the world appears from inside a burqa.

Gowen’s trip to Kabul with fellow artist Annette Tzavaras involved an unusual artistic “mission”. They each carried 25 artworks by a rollcall of prominent Australian artists, including Euan Macleod, Ann Thomson, Jiawei Shen and Lucy Culliton.

The works were to be shown at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in the war-torn city, in an event that turned out to be far more significant than either Gowen or Tzavaras realised.

“When we got there it was a lot bigger than we expected,” says Gowen. “In fact, it was the first international exhibition to be held in the country since the fall of the Taliban.”

And the response from the locals, long starved of artistic input under the Taliban, was overwhelming.

“We had about 220 people at the opening,” says Gowen. “We expected about 20 because it had rained for a day and a half beforehand turning the roads of Kabul to mud. That’s how keen they are.”

Gowen is unsure when or if she will return to Afghanistan but the country and its people occupy a special place in her heart and she continues to do what she can to help, in particular for the women and children there.

“I had no idea the effect the trip would have on my life,” she says. “It was life-changing and has absorbed my mind ever since.”

Afghanistan – A Personal Insight is on show at Hazelhurst Regional Gallery, Gymea, from May 16 to May 27.


The following was featured in the Sydney Morning Herald.