As a young child in Kabul, Afghanistan, Hangama Amiri dreamed of living by the water.
A version of those dreams came true when, after fleeing Taliban rule by way of Pakistan and Tajikistan, her family landed as refugees in Nova Scotia, a province almost entirely surrounded by the ocean.
Amiri spent most of her childhood years sketching experiences she had in order to reckon with them. It isn’t surprising, then, that she has built her burgeoning career as a painter on a substantial body of figurative work that realistically depicts the infringements of rights suffered by women in Afghanistan. In one painting, a commentary on the fact that women accused of adultery are stoned in Afghanistan, a naked woman bows her head as rocks rain down around her; in another that shows the dangerous consequences faced by girls who seek education in Afghanistan, a young women holds a book in one hand while fire obscures one of her eyes.
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Amiri departs from this in her latest show, her sixth solo exhibition, which is devoted to her long-time romance with the sea. In the 14-painting series, which Amiri painted over the past four months during a temporary residency in picturesque Lunenburg, N.S., Amiri shifts away from figurative painting and into landscape mode. The resulting collection, titled Ocean’s Edge and on display until the end of August at the Laurie Swim Gallery in Lunenburg, is an amalgam of the artist’s recollections of the South Shore. She has spent most of the spring roaming the coastline and exploring its nooks and crannies, and then using oil and acrylic to transpose what she recalls onto canvas and wood panels.
“I did a lot of hiking, hearing, listening, smelling, journalling about the scenes, my feelings, the day,” Amiri said. “I would bring those materials back to the studio and use them. So the paintings became like a collection of memories. They could be Nova Scotia, but they could be somewhere else.”
Dotted as it is with breathtaking views and quaint seaside communities, the South Shore has long been a muse for artists. Amiri’s paintings will have the pull of familiarity for anyone who has spent time along the famed section of the coast, although none of her pieces aims to represent a single, specific place. Still, they conjure its majestic aura with ease.
“When you work from memory, everything is so blurry,” Amiri said, adding that the collection has a “dreamlike” quality for her and is more “a collection of imaginary scenes rather than specific sightseeing.”
This is the second landscape project Amiri has produced in her adopted home province since graduating from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 2012. The first, titled At the Edge of the Shore, exhibited in 2013 in Lunenburg, following the artist’s first residency there. Amiri was pulled back once again to complete a second residency in the town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, in 2017.
“I felt it was really important for me as an artist to reflect about my surroundings as a Third World immigrant,” she said. “I’ve created a body of work that really explores the romantic ideas of landscape painting and what my relation is to this land that I live in. It becomes personal,” she said.
Indeed, personal details are embedded in Amiri’s paintings for those who know enough to look for them. In the pieced titled The Pool, the in-ground swimming pool is an homage to the swimming lessons she has been taking; the black and white checkered tile that surrounds it is a nod to the distinctive, diner-style linoleum floor in the kitchen of her Lunenburg rental house.
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Despite finding the inspiration she craves in Lunenburg, Amiri is preparing to pull up her Nova Scotia roots for a while. The artist is slated to begin her master’s degree this fall at the Yale School of Art in New Haven, Conn., where she has proposed to leave landscapes behind for a time to explore more figurative work.
This will be the art prodigy’s third postsecondary degree – she received her first bachelor of fine arts in 2005, before she finished high school, after attending Olimov College of Art in Dushanbe, Tajikistan (attendance to the college was part of a prize she won through a contest with the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency). She received her second BFA in 2012 from Nova Scotia’s College of Art and Design in Halifax.
Since then, Amiri and her work have been embraced by the local, national and international arts communities. Her paintings are held in the permanent collections of the Nova Scotia Art Bank, the Royal Bank of Canada Corporate Collection and, soon, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia. Her work has been shown in Toronto, London, Italy, France, Morocco, New York, Hong Kong and beyond.
Wherever painting takes Amiri, the former Fulbright scholar said she has come to view Nova Scotia as her second home.
“Part of me still hangs on to my background,” she said. “But Nova Scotia is the first land that accepted me as a citizen. I feel a certain belonging to this nature and these landscapes. The ocean became very symbolic of survival and hope.”