You can almost hear the cars and merchants, and smell the spices and food in Hangama Amiri’s large-scale tapestry Bazaar (2020). Rendered in a kaleidoscopic palette of jewel-tone fabrics—thick muslins, sturdy cottons, delicate chiffons, rich velvets, and shimmering satins—Amiri’s bazaar is a dense arrangement of vendor stalls, shop doors, and goods on offer in her neighborhood market in Kabul, Afghanistan.
In this and related works, Amiri pays particular attention to shops for women as a way to foreground the centrality of women’s lives in contemporary Afghan society. As with many cities in the Middle East, Kabul’s marketplace is at the heart of economic and cultural life, but it is also a public space shaped by the political environment and ever-shifting regulations leveraged against women and their autonomy. How, when, and with whom women can engage and conduct business in the bazaar remains contingent on the misogynistic and oppressive policies of the ruling Taliban regime. While Amiri’s tapestry was made in 2020 (the year she received her MFA from Yale, and more than a year before the Taliban’s official takeover), the absence of women’s bodies amid shops catering to them reveals the ways in which women persist in public life, despite attempts at erasure.
Amiri’s use of textiles points to her deep investment in the medium’s flexibility, functionality, and tactility and the ways in which its relationship to the body can harness memories and nostalgia. The composite nature of her works, comprising fragments of fabric found in markets and her family home, offers a way to gather the biographical and the contextual. During a virtual studio visit in November, Amiri said, “Memory is a kind of fabric. In order to make it whole, to keep it whole, I have to find a way to keep the fragments together.”
Amiri’s memories are indeed composed of a complex series of seismic political and personal shifts, including a childhood under the first Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (1996–2001), her emigration to Canada as a young refugee during the United States–led counterterrorism acts following September 11, and her visits back home in the 2010s as women’s freedoms progressed slowly in the country. By amplifying techniques of appliqué and embroidery (both significant to Afghan visual culture and her family story), Amiri teases out personal narratives through cutting, arranging, and patternmaking that mirror the work of her uncle, a respected tailor in Afghanistan, and the women in her family who made their own clothes for family events and parties—creating a sense of beauty for themselves in the privacy of their own homes.
There is an undeniably glamorous quality to the women who populate Amiri’s works. Figures glisten in the light, their hair and makeup perfect, their clothes richly assembled, their gaze strong and defiant. By stitching together a shining world for these figures, Amiri pays homage to the care given to fabrics and garments and the ways that making and mending clothes can enact a sense of repair and healing. Look closely and you’ll see that the edges of her tapestries are often frayed—a nod, perhaps, to the unfinished nature of these women’s futures and the possibility of more space, more life, and more freedom to come.