Meet The Afghan Artist Who Wants To Help Creators Free Themselves From The Taliban
Watching the images this summer of Afghans desperate to flee their country as U.S. troops left and the Taliban took over, Gazelle Samizay could relate.
Her family, too, fled Afghanistan, though they left decades ago at the height of the Soviet invasion of the country. After stops in France and the Washington, D.C., area, they settled in Pullman, Washington, where Samizay grew up before attending college at the University of Washington and earning a master’s degree in photography at the University of Arizona.
Today, she’s a San Francisco-based multimedia artist whose work in video and photography often traces itself back to her upbringing as an Afghan American immigrant. A photo series she took in 2005 during her first visit to Afghanistan attempted to humanize women in everyday life, beyond the images of them clad in burkas that have become so common. Samizay also deals with gender and culture more broadly and, as she says, “looks at what my identity as an Afghan American woman means in an Afghan context compared to an American context.” But she’s also branched in other directions, such as a project looking at Japanese American internment camps and the history of immigration and incarceration in America. She’s exhibited from California to New York and, internationally, in Italy and Brazil, among other places.
They’re pieces of work, she says, that would be near impossible to publicly show today if she was still living in the country where she was born. News reports have shown the Taliban destroying pieces of art and musical instruments, and many Afghans, including ones Samizay knows, have spent the last weeks in hiding in their homes in Kabul, she says, in fear that they will be targeted because of their artistic expressions.
"We see images of women in burkas but we don’t hear their stories. We see families suffering but don’t hear their stories. Artists in Afghanistan have spent years telling those stories. Now they need our help."
That’s why Samizay and a team of Afghan women have come together to fundraise tens of thousands of dollars to aid Afghan artists with basic everyday needs — food, shelter, and paying the bills — as well as possible plans to leave Afghanistan. Samizay, an organizing member with the Afghan American Writers and Artists Association, has so far helped raise nearly $40,000 through the organization to assist creatives in Afghanistan. They include theater makers, painters, filmmakers, and other artists in Kabul, Jalalabad, and other cities.
“We were initially trying to help people get out of the country and make it to the airport where U.S. evacuation flights were taking place. But those ended, so now we are trying to see if people can take other routes out of Afghanistan and, if not, help them feed and care for themselves and their families since they cannot work right now,” Samizay says.
On a website the Afghan American Writers and Artists Association uses for its fundraiser, artists give their testimonies.
"I'm the witness of the dark side of the last [regime of the] Taliban. … They don't like educated people; they don't like women. And most critically for me, they kill people who work as artists — whatever type of art, theater, cinema, singing, or something else. I am worried about my children's future if they kill me,” says one.
“Our employer stopped paying us and I don’t have any income. I don’t have anybody to help me. I’m just an artist like you, I’m sure you understand me. That’s why I’m asking for your help,” writes another.
Samizay says she hopes that the effort doesn’t only help Afghan artists make better lives for themselves during a trying time. She wants it to motivate Americans and those from other countries to learn more about Afghanistan and its people instead of relying on the images that appear from viral videos and headlines.
“As artists we try to tell the nuance in stories. With Afghanistan, it’s often seen simplistically as the U.S. being a savior and Afghans being these barbaric, backward people who maybe some believe aren’t worth investing in. But the real Afghan people get lost in these ideas,” Samizay says.
“We see images of women in burkas but we don’t hear their stories. We see families suffering but don’t hear their stories. Artists in Afghanistan have spent years telling those stories. Now they need our help.”