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Portrait of an Immigrant as a Struggling Artist

By Annie Gowen
Washington Post

When Alexandria gallery director Marga Fripp was choosing a signature work for her new show of female artists, she settled quickly on "Waiting," a haunting, gray-washed watercolor of an Afghan woman sitting alone and looking out an open door.

Although the work was inspired by the struggle of many immigrant women, its title has deep meaning for the artist. Throughout her turbulent life, Afghan immigrant Fatana Baktash Arifi has been waiting, in one way or another.

Waiting with her family to flee the violence of her homeland, riven by the Soviet occupation and years of civil war. Waiting to restart her life as an artist, first as a refugee in Pakistan and, later, escaping oppression by religious extremists by fleeing to United States.

Resurrecting her art career in the United States over the past seven years has proved difficult, although in recent months Arifi, who lives in Springfield, has achieved some success.

She has paintings in "Citizen Artist: Local and Global Perspectives in the Art of Immigrant, Refugee and American Women" showing through July 22 in A Woman's Story Gallery in Old Town Alexandria. She's teaching drawing and painting at a crafts store in Springfield. And she penned a book on the history of Afghan art, which was recently published by the country's ministry of culture.

"The war situation was very hard for refugees," Arifi said, sitting down for an interview at the gallery. "I had to struggle to rebuild my career again."

She opened her slick black portfolio and began flipping through her work -- painting after painting, in oil, watercolor, pen and ink -- that, as she narrated, became a kind of portrait history of her ruined homeland. There is her watercolor of the famous stone Buddhas of Bamian, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. There is a famous tower in Kabul, also gone. There's a pen-and-ink drawing of one of the old-fashioned robed magicians who roamed the streets and bazaars of the once-thriving city.

Arifi, who prefers not to give her age, grew up in a Kabul that was vastly different from the war-torn capital that suffered under an oppressive Islamic regime. In the 1970s, the city was a cosmopolitan metropolis with bustling cafes and lush gardens. Many women eschewed the restrictive burqa, moving around the city bare-headed.

Arifi's father, Mohammad, was an animal-skin trader and progressive thinker who encouraged all his six children to attend school. He especially nurtured their artistic talents, providing Arifi with rolls of paper and other art supplies.

Then came the Soviet invasion in 1979.

"The tragedy begins from there," Arifi recalled. "For three nights there were helicopters and planes, strange noises in the sky."

She said she will never forget the look on her neighbors' faces. "It was like somebody had died," Arifi said. "All the happiness gone from their mouths."

Although many of her countrymen fled, her family persevered during several more years of fighting, a period during which she studied for her master's degree in fine arts from Kabul University while bomb blasts shook the classrooms. When a Stinger missile landed near their house one day in 1994, the family finally decided to leave, abandoning everything. Arifi wrapped up a few possessions in a cloth, including a pen-and-ink drawing of Abraham Lincoln she did as a schoolgirl, and the family escaped on foot over the mountains into Pakistan.

Once in Peshawar, Pakistan, the family of eight crowded into a single room. For eight painful months, Arifi was without her art, with neither the supplies nor the space in which to create it.

Eventually she was hired to do some illustrations for an international relief agency and ended up with a few rupees to buy some art supplies. She worked in a frenzy, ultimately creating 50 paintings. She said she sold most of them at a diplomatic art show after putting them in handmade frames, strips of cardboard she painted black.

"I was running fast, fast. I was trying to complete that missing time, running, running," Arifi said. "I had a responsibility to my art and a responsibility to my family."

Later, her immediate family -- her mother, father and five siblings -- settled enough that she was able to found a small art school, teaching mostly children. But Arifi was forced to close down the school in 1999 after several threatening visits from extremist militia, unhappy with a woman teaching school. She said she thinks the militia was backed by the Taliban.

The family then immigrated to the United States, settling in Arizona and then in Northern Virginia in 2001.

Arifi struggled to find suitable work. Once in this area, she found a job framing artwork and teaching painting and drawing at a Michaels craft store in Springfield. During one recent class, along in the floral aisle, she set up a still life for a trio of students -- a calligrapher and her daughter and an aspiring caricaturist -- who had no idea of her turbulent past. Start small, she kept urging them, as the students began to draw.

"She's a very private person," said Carol Hamilton, a jewelry designer who runs the shop's educational program.

Even as she struggled to eke out a living, Arifi penned a book about the history of art in Afghanistan, writing of the Islamic calligrapher Wakili Popalzai and painters of the 20th century such as Ghulam Muhammad Maimanagi, the founder of Kabul's first art school. Arifi ended up at the Afghan Embassy in Washington, looking for help publishing it.

Sayed M. Raheen, the former cultural minister who is now Afghanistan's ambassador to India, said that when he met Arifi, he was struck by how "keen and sensitive" she was and was moved by her commitment to writing of her country's art with little hope of a financial payoff. He decided to help her, and "Painting and Its Status in Afghanistan" was published by a government printing press in Afghanistan this year.

Arifi is applying for several grants so she can pursue her dream of painting full time. "To live and to work and to be an artist -- that's the main goal," she said.

Fripp -- the founder of the nonprofit Empowered Women International, which supports immigrant artists through A Woman's Story Gallery and classes -- recently gave Arifi a scholarship to the gallery's program that tutors artists in the business aspects of art, such as assembling a portfolio and marketing. She and others at the gallery were taken with the spirit of Arifi's work, not just the traditional portraits of women but also her paintings in colorful, geometric shapes that Arifi calls Handasism. It's a word of her own creation, a melding of English and Dari that means a geometric style.

"In all her pieces, Fatana puts herself in the middle of the artwork," Fripp said. "In the 'Waiting' piece . . . her spirit is out there waiting for something new, a better future, perhaps."

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