There’s a powerful emotion in the words of Arabella Dorman when she speaks of her experiences in Afghanistan. Embedded as a war artist with the British, first visiting Iraq in 2006 and then Afghanistan from 2009 she has explored the country and through her art has captured the heart of a people living against the backdrop of major conflict.
Travelling both with the British Army and independently her art manages to capture the soul of Afghanistan, exposes the pain and the joy of the Afghan people and lays bare the experiences of the men and women who are there as part of the British Armed Forces. An exhibition at the prestigious ‘La Galleria‘ in London’s Pall Mall opened to great acclaim and although now finished has managed to leave a powerful imprint.
The story of Afghanistan is often seen through the narrative of a media which focuses on the war, the killing and the lack of opportunities particularly for women. But, like any narrative that is only part of the story, not seen is the development taking place in the once bombed and broken bazaars, the schoolgirls now walking to school in the mountains of Bamyan and the children playing and dancing in the villages of Helmand which once would have been unthinkable.
‘Before the Dawn, an Artists Journey Through Afghanistan‘ captures those moments. Captures the hope, the strength and the suffering of a proud people who for the past 30 years have lived against the backdrop of war. A once thriving and quite liberal country which first saw invasion by the Soviet Union, then saw a reign of terror by the Taliban and then years of conflict as the Allied forces entered following 9/11.
In such an environment she needs to work fast “I Travel with sketchbooks, charcoal and watercolour and I have to work very very quickly” she tells me highlighting that there are obvious risks about being in the open for too long particularly as an obvious outsider. But it’s often the power of art which also helps to break down barriers. “If I am lucky enough to be somewhere I can spend 20 minutes then a wonderful way I work is to do quick portrait sketches.” Often initially met with a degree of hostility, the sketches are photographed and given as a gift to the poser. Often delighted with the results it’s a great way to break the ice.
“I painted a big painting of girls dancing” says Arabella as she starts to speak about her work, “and it brought to mind what one of them said, she said tell them when you go home that this is not a land of men and beards and guns. This is a land where girls want to dance, wear red lipstick, go to school and want to learn.” That painting is one of the main images from the show, the girls are whirling around and looking at the painting you can almost feel the movement, it’s a dynamic image which is simple in that it shows girls playing but powerful in that it wasn’t that long ago that this scene would have been taboo.
Now in the wake of the British forces leaving, the country has entered a new phase with a new leader and according to Dorman, a new hope and optimism about what the future could bring. It’s something that the dancing girls as well as other paintings manages to capture, that sense of a what the future could be, that sense of optimism.
It’s one of the youngest populations of any country in the World, 42% of the country is under 14 Arabella tells me. “Those young people, those children do not want to go back to the dark days of a decade ago they want to return, they want to move forward and because of the Afghan people I think there is great room for hope.”
But Afghanistan is complex. An incredibly diverse country with changing geography and tribal loyalties. “The notion of afghanistan as one country and one state becomes thinner as you move away from the nucleus of Kabul up in the north” explains Arabella. “In the remote provinces most people haven’t even been to Kabul.” Still they are all affected by conflict, still struggling to come to terms with the aftermath of war with the Russians and the years of oppression particularly of women under the Taliban. “We must remember that within that conflict these are ordinary people just trying to get on with the everyday, ordinary struggle of living.”
Arabella has travelled extensively, both with the British Army and as an Independant traveller. Her stories like the tale of the dancing girls give hope that repressive attitudes are changing but they are still there. She tells me the story of Islam Bibi, one of the first female police officers in Helmand Province. “If you stop and thing about that for a moment” says Arabella. “It’s extraordinary! Given the oppression, the courage required to do that job and the sense of duty for the betterment of their country and for the future is just incredible.”
Islam’s whole family and community were against her doing the work “she was aware of the risks but she was prepared to continue, she was an incredible woman.” Arabella speaks in the past tense because two months after they met, Bibi was gunned down on her way to work. “We’ve got to think about Afghanistan and measure progress in Afghan terms” reminds Arabella. “We can’t see it through Western spectacles, we need to see it in Afghan terms and there is progress but there’s also a long way to go it’s a very fragile place.”
Arabella’s work captures not only the life of Afghanistan but how it was for the British soldiers stationed there. Seeing first hand the effects that being away from loved ones and having to deal with the horrors of war has left a mark on her art. Moving images portraying the struggles of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a man slumped with his head in his hands after learning of the death of a friend are powerful. “It was an image I saw all too often” says Arabella.
Being embedded with the military for so long gave Arabella the opportunity to really get to know the people stationed there. “They’re ordinary lads” she tells me, “they are young men. Many of them get engaged before they go on a tour, a lot of them haven’t seen their children born whilst they are away. They carry all the same emotions that you or I do except they’ve seen things that you or I have never seen and that is a huge strain. You can see it in their eyes, it’s etched on them forever.”
Arabella Dorman was interviewed at the La Galleria gallery on Pall Mall in London on 15 November 2014. Her show ‘Before the Dawn – An Artists Journey Through Afghanistan’ exhibited in the gallery between 5-15 November 2014.
Before the Dawn Gallery