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Aicon is pleased to announce Birth of Demons, Khadim Ali’s second solo exhibition at the gallery. New paintings and embroidered tapestries will be on view in the second-floor gallery from February 29 through April 6, 2024. 

Ali’s new body of work, Birth of Demons, is a continuation of the artist’s exploration of the experience of minorities and displaced people around the world. He writes:

"The demonization of minorities is a deeply ingrained issue, tracing its origins through historical and religious narratives. This long-standing dichotomy of good versus evil is prominently reflected in the region's religious and traditional myths. Notably, the ancient Zoroastrian belief system and its concept of Div or demon play a significant role. In this context, Divs are seen as false gods, embodiments of chaos and disorder, opposing the teachings of Ahura Mazda, the symbol of truth and righteousness in Zoroastrianism. This theme is further explored in the Shahnameh, a celebrated epic, which delves into the character of Divs. These beings are portrayed as malevolent, often inciting human conflict and confusion and steering individuals away from the path of truth. Their portrayal as morally corrupt and monstrous beings reinforces their association with sin and corruption, mirroring the age-old belief in the struggle between good and evil that is deeply embedded in Afghanistan's cultural and religious fabric. As a Hazara from Pakistan/Afghanistan, I see a parallel in the contemporary demonization of the Hazaras. They have been subjected to derogatory characterizations as infidels, rebels, and unsightly creatures dwelling in the caves of Bamiyan. These contemporary perceptions echo the demonology found in the Shahnameh and Zoroastrian religious myths, revealing a persistent pattern of dehumanization rooted in historical and cultural narratives. This ongoing demonization of the Hazaras illustrates a deeply embedded challenge within the societal and religious psyche, calling for a renewed understanding and reconciliation in the region's diverse cultural landscape."

Ali traces his earliest exposure to the Mughal art tradition of miniature painting to his paternal grandparent’s copy of the Shahnameh (Book of Kings). The pastel-hued rolling mountains and slithering dragon that form the background of Book of Demons 1 (2019) owe their visual style to the miniature paintings that illustrate the epic Persian poem. Ali’s grandparent’s cherished copy of the book was lost following the 2011 leveling of his family home in Quetta, Pakistan, from a car bomb. This deeply personal loss is but one example of the ongoing destruction of tangible culture in the region on a much larger scale by organizations such as the Taliban — the 2001 destruction of the 6th century Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan being a key event in Ali’s memory. Ali strives to reclaim this culture not only through his art but also by carrying on the oral tradition of the Shahnameh by chanting the rhyming couplets of the poem in the same manner as his grandfather.

Ali argues tangible culture is being replaced with violence through the normalization of war and the aestheticization of war imagery. The foreground of Book of Demons 1 visualizes the overlay of violence on culture with its protesting figures and flag burner painted in opaque colors atop the Persian-inspired background. Two young boys look on from the lower left corner, one with a look of wonder on his face. Violence persists even in his most serene images, with Ali applying slashes of red paint, marring the surface like a fresh wound.

Another key book informing the artist’s practice is a children’s activity book published by the Education Center for Afghanistan (EAC) and circulated towards the end of the Soviet invasion. The University of Nebraska at Omaha funded the mujahidin-operated EAC through its Education Program for Afghanistan.1 Phrases like “‘J’ is for Jihad” and drawings of AK-47s taught children the alphabet and numbers. These line drawings appear in Ali’s new tapestries, with a mix of automatic weapons and blades raining down from jumbled clouds of demons. 


Khadim Ali was born in 1978 in Quetta, Pakistan. From 1998–99, he studied mural painting and calligraphy in Tehran, Iran. He earned a BFA at the National College of Arts, Lahore, Pakistan (2003), where he studied traditional miniature painting under Imran Qureshi. He completed artist residencies in Japan through the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum (2006) and Arts Initiative Tokyo (2007). Ali moved to Sydney in 2010 and earned an MFA at the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales (2012). In 2012, Ali presented five paintings at Documenta 13, including one at the quinquennial’s first presentation in Kabul. His works were featured along with Qureshi’s in the Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan Pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale. Ali organized and participated in The Haunted Lotus: Contemporary Art from Kabul, Cross Art Projects (2010), and The Force of Forgetting, Lismore Regional Gallery, Australia (2011). His work was included in Future: Afghanistan, Gemak, The Hague, Netherlands (2008); Living Traditions, Queen’s Palace, Kabul (2008), and National Art Gallery, Islamabad, Pakistan (2009); Safavids Revisited, British Museum, London (2009); Only from the Heart Can You Touch the Sky, RMIT Gallery, Melbourne (2012); and Home Again—10 Artists Who Have Experienced Japan, Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (2012). His mural, The Arrival of Demons, was by the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia as part of The National 2017: New Australian Art (2017). His exhibition There is No Other Home But This (2022) at Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Zealand featured three tapestries that were smuggled out of Afghanistan after the Taliban’s recent return to power. Ali lives and works in Sydney, Australia. 

1. Craig Davis, “‘A’ is for Allah, ‘J’ is for Jihad,” Word Policy Journal, 19(1): 90-94.