Afghan artist hopes to follow his portraits of late Queen to NI

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth II
Image caption,Twenty of Noor Arzhang’s paintings have made their way to Belfast

By Robbie Meredith

BBC News NI culture correspondent

Striking portraits of Queen Elizabeth II painted in a basement in Kabul are key to an Afghan artist’s hopes of a new life in Northern Ireland.

Noor Arzhang is currently in hiding in Pakistan, having fled Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

But some of his artwork, including two contrasting portraits of the late Queen, has made its way to Belfast.

Hollywood superstar Angelina Jolie has also taken an interest in his painting – buying two pieces for her US gallery.

Since taking power in 2021, the Taliban have imposed numerous restrictions, including on playing music in public.

Women have borne the brunt of restrictions on their education, their social lives and what they can wear.

Many artists – including Arzhang, whose colourful paintings were often displayed in public – have also left Afghanistan.

BBC News NI managed to make contact with him in neighbouring Pakistan.

Fighting through art

“My life in Afghanistan has taught me a lot,” he said. “Everybody knows the sacrifices you have to make for your art.

“We fought for democracy and openness through art.”

“I stood against extremism and extremists long before the fallout of Afghanistan to the Taliban.

“More than four decades of war and conflict in Afghanistan has taken almost everything from this country – art has not been an exception.”

When the Taliban took over Kabul, Arzhang said he contacted a number of embassies to try to be evacuated from the country because as an artist he knew he was at risk.

“I am not able to work and continue my art,” he said.

“Art is not just work, it is an artist’s life; I do not feel alive anymore.”

Painting Queen Elizabeth II in 2021 was his plea for help, but it brought risks.

“The reason for painting the image of Queen Elizabeth was that she was the most powerful woman in the world, and women have a kind heart as well,” said Arzhang.

Painting of Queen Elizabeth II
Image caption,Creating these artworks would have been considered a serious offence by the Taliban, said Arzhang

If they found the Queen’s painting in our house, the living conditions of me and my family would be very difficult.”

Being caught painting a picture of the Queen would have been considered a major offence.

“I was painting in the basement of my house,” he said.

“One day my friend called me, and said: ‘Move all the painting because Taliban have started house-to-house searches.’

“The next day I left my residence, so this was one of the most difficult decisions of my life at that time.”

An immediate target

Darren Ferguson from the Belfast-based arts organisation Beyond Skin has been working with Arzhang for a number of years.

He has previously backed calls for Afghan musicians to be given asylum in the UK due to the threat of persecution they face.

Darren Ferguson
Image caption,Darren Ferguson says Noor Arzhang’s artwork is about “women’s freedom”

“I got to know Noor through another music project we had over there, working with the Afghan women’s orchestra,” Mr Ferguson said.

“His artwork has always been about women’s freedoms and freedom to choose.”

But life as an artist in Afghanistan became much more dangerous after the takeover by the Taliban in the summer of 2021.

“All artists and musicians were then at high risk, especially those ones which are well known, whose artwork is more politically driven,” Darren Ferguson said.

“So he became a target immediately.

“To paint a portrait of the Queen when the Taliban are doing door-to-door checks is really high-risk and very dangerous.

“At the time he was thinking who was the most famous person alive at the time, when her majesty was alive.

“Who was the most famous person he could paint that would draw attention to his plea to get out?

“So we had to get that out.”

The two portraits of the Queen were among 20 paintings by Arzhang that have made their way to Belfast.

Some recently featured in an exhibition of his work as part of Féile an Phobail, the west Belfast festival.

‘I want to be myself’

According to Darren Ferguson, the actor Angelina Jolie has also taken an interest in Arzhang’s work and his story.

Ms Jolie has previously produced a film about the plight of girls in Afghanistan and joined the social media site Instagram in 2021 to post about a letter she received from an Afghan girl.

“She has been very active in Afghanistan awareness and helping people out,” Darren Ferguson said.

“She’s been great that way in a very quiet way, under the radar a lot of the time.

“So she reached out to us to purchase two of his paintings for her New York gallery.”

Now Arzhang hopes he and his family can follow his artwork to Northern Ireland.

And his reason for wanting to come here?

“I want to be myself as an artist,” he said.

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