The idea came to Alavi’s mind when his sister, one of at least 3 million Afghan refugees living in Iran, was blocked from getting a kidney transplant because she is a foreigner.
The Nimrouz exhibition – the first of its kind held in Iran and the largest for Afghan artists in at least four decades – is challenging Iranian society’s attitude towards its Afghan community, who have found sanctuary from war in their homeland but are grappling with marginalisation.
“I want to call people’s attention to the injustices inflicted upon Afghan people living in Iran,” Alavi told the Guardian. “Afghans in Iran are legally unable to receive organ transplants or blood transfusions and yet, fight in the Syrian war for Iran.”
Photographs of young Afghan soldiers sent to Syria by Iran to fight alongside Assad’s forces and killed in the conflict are displayed across Iran, particularly in neighborhoods hosting Afghan refugees. “I reflect on this injustice,” Alavi said. “I wanted to ask that which blood is more red? Which one is more important? Which is not important?”
The colors of the various patches of the blood remains persistently red, not distinguishable from each other.
Alavi, a visual artist and poet based in Adelaide, Australia, moved to Iran as a child in 1989, where he lived for 15 years before moving to Australia in 2007. He returned to Iran to participate in the exhibition of more than 50 Afghan artists from across the world.
Curated by the Iranian sculptor Maryam Kouhestani and held at Tehran’s Niavaran and Mohsen galleries, it is showing a different face of Afghans in Iran, according to Alavi. It is posing some difficult questions for Iranian society, which largely refers to an Afghan as “Afghani”, a derogatory term referring to Afghanistan’s national currency, but the works also reflect a change in attitudes among the younger generation in Iran.
“For the first time, Afghanistan’s artists are brought together from all corners of the world in order to find the fragments of this torn apart body as a united whole,” Kouhestani said.
Nearly 1 million Afghans are registered as refugees in Iran but at least 2 million more are believed to be living illegally.
Discrimination towards Afghans in Iran is rife and officials have only recently allowed education for refugees, thanks to an intervention by the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei. Those who have lived for decades in Iran are not able to obtain Iranian nationality or passports and their children born in Iran are not recognised as Iranian.
Maryam Shahi, editor of Nimrokh women’s magazine in Afghanistan who was born in the Iranian city of Mashhad to Afghan parents, said Afghanistan and Iran had a long shared history, but the two societies seem far from finding common ground.
“A generation of Afghans have been brought up in Iran that have not seen their homeland; they live in the Iranian society but not enjoy citizen’s rights; they’re not citizens in Iran, nor in Afghanistan,” she said.
In some cities such as Mashhad, Tehran and Qom, there was tolerance of the Afghans, Shahi said, but there are instances of racism in other cities such as Isfahan and Yazd. “In one of Isfahan’s parks a few years ago, they wrote entry forbidden for dogs and Afghans,” she said. “The Iranian society should rectify its decades-long preconceptions about its Afghan community.”
Ali Abdi, an Iranian PhD student at Yale, who is living in Kabul for research, said in some poor districts in Iran, such as Golshahr, in Mashhad, “the Afghan population is intimately living with Iranians, and the relationships generated among them from their shared experience of poverty might be stronger than those coming from nation-state belongings”.
Prolific artists on display are Khadim Ali, Israel Roya, Aman Mojadidi and Lida Abdul, and Barat Ali Batoor’s photographs tackle Afghanistan’s problem with Bacha bazi, the sexual abuse of young boys. “The practice of Bacha bazi is widespread across the country, everyone knows about it but… not everyone would dare to say things about it,” he said.
Moshtari Hilal, an Afghan artist and illustrator based in Germany, who has travelled to Tehran for the exhibition, said her drawings were inspired by “my family and my childhood as a young hairy refugee girl”.
Art can “reconnect but also simply document the fragmentation of Afghan visual and intellectual work,” she said. “It is not enough to think of Afghan as a national label … All those displaced people create relevant work, too, tell their stories and express their perspectives.”