Afghan-Canadian artist Hangama Amiri stitches the idea of 'home' into stunning textile portraits

By remembering home, by talking about it and hoping for it, Amiri enlarges the quilt of her own identity.

By remembering home, by talking about it and hoping for it, Amiri enlarges the quilt of her own identity

Hangama Amiri, Portrait of a Lady in a Cafe, 2021. Chiffon, muslin, cotton, polyester, silk, satin, suede, printed textiles, plastic, watercolour on paper, airbrush on fabric, marker and acrylic on fabric. 79” x 106” (201 x 269 cm). (Hangama Amiri)

Hangama Amiri grew up never far away from a bazaar. Before school, she would visit her uncle, who was a tailor in Kabul, and he'd tour her around the shop, introducing his curious young niece to the tools he used to make his garments. Then, when Amiri was 7, her family left Afghanistan as refugees because of the Taliban. Living first in Pakistan and then Tajikistan, the dazzling wares of the nearby textile dealers again captured her eye. At 16, she moved once more — this time very far away from the bazaars, immigrating to Canada with her family, who settled in Halifax. Today, the colourful, intricately-patterned fabrics of sarees, kurtas and kameezes — the clothes that surrounded her in childhood — vibrate for Amiri with intense feelings of memory, identity and home.

The 31-year-old artist is currently based in New Haven, Connecticut, where she recently completed graduate studies at Yale. Trained first as a painter, fabrics have become a central component of Amiri's art practice. She creates large-scale textile "paintings" from silk, muslin, satin and chiffon as well as other materials that remind her of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia. The compositions — which might picture, say, marketplace storefronts, as in the recent project Bazaar — also include drawn, painted and embroidered elements. The artist's latest body of work, titled Spectators of a New Dawn, is on exhibition now at Towards Gallery in Toronto. In this series of textile portraits, Amiri represents conversations she's had with connections still living in Afghanistan about their hopes and fears for the future of the country, especially regarding the rights of women. For the artist, "fabric has both an intimate and a political touch."

Hangama Amiri, Woman with Red Lipstick, 2021. Cotton, muslin, polyester, machine embroidered textile, and embroidery on fabric. 24.5’’ x 20’’ (62.5 x 51 cm). (Hangama Amiri)

"It's really hard for a person to live away from their country for such a long time," Amiri says. "The definition of 'home' blurs away from me. I've lived as a migrant, moving from country to country, so long that the idea of 'home' has become much more about feeling and memory than a territorial, physical space." These conversations with friends and family, this exercise of using fabric as a touchstone for memory, helps the artist to reconnect with herself, she says. "It helps me to recoup my identity."

Amiri's textiles begin as photographs or drawings. She brings her sketchbook when she shops for fabrics, approaching the rolls of material like paint pots. At her studio, she enlarges the image to full-scale on kraft paper and cuts away the shapes to copy from the fabric just as a patternmaker does. Then, like appliqué, she builds her images by collaging the fabric shapes, adding finer detail with paint, marker and embroidery thread.

I've lived as a migrant, moving from country to country, so long that the idea of 'home' has become much more about feeling and memory than a territorial, physical space.- Hangama Amiri

For this latest series, the artist focused her attention on the outlook of Afghan youths (hence Spectators of a New Dawn). In conversation with friends and family in Kabul, Amiri perceived "a certain fear roaming around" ever since the U.S. signed a peace accord with the Taliban that some worry could return the fundamentalist group to power. She's heard concerns about girls' education, women's employment, rules regarding appearance and behaviour in public, as well as the permissibility of so-called "love matches" (as opposed to arranged marriages, which are more common in Afghan society).

Hangama Amiri, Portrait of Two Lovers, 2021. Chiffon, muslin, cotton, suede, polyester, silk, printed textile, inkjet print on silk, marker and found fabric. 61 x 51.5 in. (156 x 130.81 cm). (Hangama Amiri)

Amiri has distilled these chats into the handful of scenes displayed at Towards. Portrait of a Lady in a Cafe, for instance, shows the subject staring sidelong over a pair of steaming teacups, while the Buddhas of Bamiyan — a pair of sculptures carved into Bamiyan's sandstone cliffs in the 6th century and destroyed by the Taliban in 2001— stand undisturbed in the background. "You get references to the present and the past," Amiri says, "but the future is out of the frame."

The titular lady, like the subjects of Poet and Woman with Red Lipstick also, wear a wistful look. Amiri likens the expression to Mona Lisa's — neither happy nor sad. "Balancing both hope and fear," the artist says, "you learn to live in this in-between space."

Another textile, Portrait of Two Lovers, depicts a couple's rendezvous at an abandoned Soviet tank. The artist has heard stories of partners who will set secret meetings in the "nowhere-lands" outside the city in order to conduct their romances. Night Visit relates her own such experience. Returning to Afghanistan for the first time as an adult, she met with a young man at midnight on a rooftop in Kabul and watched the city "light up like a parade." It was beautiful, she says, but she was unaware of the customs — that couples should not be alone together. In the artwork, the pair gazes into the darkness from where a new day, and perhaps new possibility, will rise.

Hangama Amiri, Night Visit, 2021. Chiffon, muslin, cotton, suede, printed textiles, velvet, satin, polyester, chiffon, rope, acrylic and marker on fabric. 88 x 79 in. (223.5 x 200.6 cm). (Hangama Amiri)

The artist may have moved away from Afghanistan long ago, but she can never leave it. It's the cloth from which she herself was cut. By remembering home, by talking about it and hoping for it, Amiri enlarges the quilt of her own identity.


Chris Hampton is a Hamilton-based freelance arts and culture writer. His work has appeared elsewhere in The New York Times, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, and Canadian Art. Find him on Instagram: @chris.hampton

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