For Heritage Open Day 2023, Milton Keynes Arts Centre celebrated the rich cultural history of Afghanistan and its people. Joined by the Afghan artist, Samira Kitman, who demonstrated the use of traditional Afghan designs and techniques to make greeting cards; and by Ahmadzia Baktyari, with whom adults and children of all ages made and flew kites. Veronica Doubleday filled our garden with traditional Herati folk songs while playing the daireh, accompanied on the dutar and rubab by John Baily and on the tabla drums by Yama Shah. Traditional Afghan food and drink was enjoyed throughout the day, provided by Wolverton based Khyber Chefs.
Samira Kitman is an Afghanistan-born calligrapher and miniaturist now living in the UK. Her work has been collected and exhibited internationally, including at the V&A Museum, London and at theSmithsonian, Washington. The artist was voted Afghan businesswoman of the year in 2015 and created Maftah-e Hunar, an arts foundation that trained over 80 young Afghan women artists. Samira Kitman’s profile however brought her to the attention of the Taliban and in 2016 she fled Kabul, applying for asylum in the UK.
Ahmadzia Baktyari was born in North Afghanistan and flew his first kite at the age of six. Kite flying is a popular hobby in Afghanistan, especially at Nauruz (NewYear). The artist led his first kite making workshop in 2008 in Peckham; this was followed by workshops in the Horniman Museum and National Maritime Museum amongst many. He says ‘Kite flying was the happiness of my childhood in the sadness of war’.
Traditional Music of Afghanistan John Baily, Veronica Doubleday and Yama Shah
Veronica Doubleday is the author of ‘Three Women of Herat: A Memoir of Life, Love and Friendship in Afghanistan’. John Baily is Head of The Afghanistan Music Unit, which was created in 2002 to document the state of music in Afghanistan in the post-Taliban era as well as to offer practical assistance in re-establishing traditional music after a long period of extreme censorship. The musicians were seated on ethically sourced handmade Afghan rugs on loan to Milton Keynes Arts Centre by Gooch Luxury Rugs (goochluxuryrugs.com). The art of carpet weaving in Afghanistan, which is largely associated with women, dates back thousands of years. Today, many traditional carpets are made by the Afghan diaspora in countries such as Pakistan.
After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August 2021, over 24,000 Afghan men, women and children came to the UK seeking refuge. By March 2023, almost 9,000remained in temporary hotel accommodation, including in Milton Keynes.
In January 2023, volunteers at the Mead Centre in Newport Pagnell invited Milton Keynes Arts Centre to meet a group of Afghan women who joined them there each week. There, the women cooked and shared their own food – a simple act not ordinarily available to them. As a thank you, the Arts Centre invited the women to Great Linford in April when they worked with artist Sarah Hunt in creating cyanotypes– an early form of photography using natural sunlight.
In April 2023 also, the UK Government began a process to stop all bridging accommodation. Around 250 Afghan people had been welcomed in Newport Pagnell in 2021; those remaining were now given just a few months to find new homes. Yet, however difficult their situation, the greatest concern of the women we met was for friends and relatives left behind in Afghanistan – in particular for women and girls.
Since the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2021, women and girls have been required to stay at home and to adhere to a strict dress code. They have been banned from entering amusement parks, public baths, gyms and sports clubs and from working in NGO offices. Girls have been banned from secondary school and women from tertiary education. Women doctors have been stripped of their qualifications meaning many women and girls have no realistic access to medical care. Music has also been heavily restricted with instruments destroyed; many public artworks have been erased and galleries have closed.
Help us to continue ‘Open House’, a new strand of work specifically designed to support displaced communities living in MK.
Every year, millions of people are forced to leave their homes due to conflict, violence, human rights violations, persecution, disasters and the impacts of climate change.
At the end of 2022, 108.4 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide, around 52% of whom originated from only three countries: Syria, Ukraine and Afghanistan. This number is expected to exceed 200 million by 2030.
Providing asylum seekers and refugees with opportunities to engage in the arts has a vital role to play in restoring dignity, building skills, confidence and promoting better understanding between host and displaced communities.
Milton Keynes Arts Centre is committed to celebrating the rich tapestry of cultures that makes up this migrant city of Milton Keynes, and to using the arts to bring all of its people together.
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