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Meet the Afghan-Canadian artists who are painting a different picture of women in Kabul

‘Afghanistan is not all war,’ say artists who bring colourful portraits to life

For this CBC Ottawa Creator Network video, Afghan-Canadian artists Zahira Sarwar and Maryam Habib illustrate the spectacular landscapes and culture of Afghanistan. Check out other Creator Network Ottawa stories here.
Afghan-Canadian artists Maryam Habib, left, and Zahira Sarwar, right, use their art to showcase some of the nuance in Afghanistan's culture. 'My art raises awareness about social issues affecting the Afghan diaspora and people of colour in the Global North,' said Sarwar. (Ash Abraham/CBC)

On Aug.15, 2021, Zahira Sarwar’s heart sank as she watched the Taliban raise its flag over the presidential palace in Kabul.

“I felt like I was watching a horror movie,” reflected Sarwar, whose family is originally from Afghanistan’s capital.

“The Afghan diaspora around the world grieved when the Taliban replaced our national flag with theirs. It has pierced our hearts worldwide,” said Sarwar, who moved to Canada with her family when she was nine years old.

WATCH | For this CBC Ottawa Creator Network video, Afghan-Canadian artists Zahira Sarwar and Maryam Habib illustrate the spectacular culture of Afghanistan, to remind audiences the country is much more than war.

‘My parents made every effort possible for my siblings and I to never forget our heritage. It was very important for them that we didn’t forget our roots, and so we visited Afghanistan often,’ said Zahira Sarwar, who aims to reflects the diversity of her home country through her art. (Zahira Sarwar)

As images of Afghanistan’s exploding skylines and devastation poured into her social media streams, Sarwar was reminded of the days following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S.

“9/11 put my country on the map for the wrong reasons,” said Sarwar.

“It became difficult to be Afghan – even in Ottawa,” she said. “Almost instantly we didn’t quite belong in Canada, either.”

Frustrated by the way the media portrayed the subsequent U.S. war on terror, and the ways she felt Afghans were stereotyped, Sarwar decided to challenge the coverage by painting her own version of Afghanistan.

Zahira Sarwar says she cherishes the memories of summers spent in Kabul. ‘I’m so thankful that my parents took us on those trips as often as they did,’ she said. ‘I made sure to keep my digital camera fully charged and take pictures of everything,’ she added. (Zahira Sarwar)

Back then, Sarwar began drawing as a hobby. Then, in 2021, she became a full-time illustrator.

Sarwar uses her iPad and stylus pencil to create lively portraits of Afghan people clad in brightly coloured traditional and non-traditional Afghan clothing, all with joyous expressions.

“We are more than just stereotypes, and my art tries to shed light on some of those complexities,” said Sarwar.

Zahira Sarwar, left, and Maryam Habib, right, show off their most recent works of art. (Ash Abraham/CBC)

Meet visual artist Maryam

Last year, Sarwar teamed up with fellow Afghan-Canadian artist Maryam Habib to illustrate these complexities and challenge these stereotypes in a video made in collaboration with CBC Ottawa’s creator network.

A self-taught oil and acrylic painter, Habib’s work showcases the memories of home that she holds dear.

“I paint to share my culture with people in Ottawa. Afghanistan is not all war. I want to share the sweet and beautiful things from my country,” said Habib.

Along with portraits, Maryam Habib paints cityscapes from Kabul, like this mosque she remembered seeing from her childhood. (Maryam Habib)

Originally from Kabul, Habib says she’s been a refugee her whole life. When she was two, her family fled Afghanistan for Pakistan, and later to Saudi Arabia before landing in Canada.

During her travels back to Afghanistan over the years, Habib was inspired by the breathtaking valleys, crystal clear lakes and steep mountain ranges.

“Nature is my inspiration and my country is my love, so they both help me to boost my passion,” said Habib.

Habib says she also wants to use her art to create a different picture of women at home.

“Afghanistan women are very talented, artistic and hard-working. Our mothers, sisters and grandmothers all were artists who sewed, embroidery, crocheted, knitted wool and silk-making, rug making, pottery, arts and craft,” said Habib, adding her mother was also an artist.

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images expandWhether painting small Afghan mulberries or sweeping landscape, Maryam Habib's message is the same: 'Afghanistan is more than war.' (Maryam Habib)

One year after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, Sarwar and Habib say they believe in the power of art to help during challenging times.

“Art has always brought me so much joy. It was my solace through some most trying times, and I know I can change other people’s lives with art the way it has changed mine,” said Sarwar, who last year started her own illustration company, called RASM which means “to draw” in Afghanistan’s Dari language.

Her recent works showcase the nuances of Central Asia and the Middle East, and she says she will continue to promote a different view of Afghanistan for as long as it takes to change people’s perceptions.

For Habib, it motivates her to keep painting a more peaceful picture of Afghanistan.

“I know that even though our country is going through another difficult chapter, we will get through it together.”

Zahira Sarwar and Maryam Habib take in the view at Mooney's Bay in Ottawa. (Ash Abraham/CBC )
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