A suite of sixteen works on Manjarpat fabric greet visitors at Bagh-e-Babur, Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai’s latest solo exhibition at Blueprint12, New Delhi. The economical presentation, which marks a shift from the voluminous, diurnal quality of her previous paintings as seen in the series Nafas, is nevertheless gracile. The restricted number of works is not accidental -- Bagh-e-Babur is part of a set of paintings on cloth that Ahmadzai rolled up and carried with her as she fled a Taliban-occupied Kabul in 2021.

Eleven of the sixteen works on view were made in Kabul, with the remaining five works completed in Germany. The suite on display in the Delhi exhibition emerged from Ahmadzai's research on the historic public site, which was supported by a fund received from the Treibsand Association in collaboration with the Stanley Thomas Johnson Foundation. While living in Kabul, Ahmadzai visited the gardens often, during pleasure trips with family and for documenting and studying their architectural structures and flora and fauna. The works exhibited in Delhi embody the exploratory beginnings and first notations of Ahmadzai’s engagement with the vast enclosures of the Bagh-e-Babur, a project interrupted and suspended in time by the accelerated takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban two years back. [1] Existing as fragments severed from their telos, the series foregrounds the precarity of cultural production and wields witnessing through creative interventions as a vital tool against forgetting.

While the space of the garden, most notably her mother’s garden, has appeared as a philosophical, material and affective source in her earlier works (with flowers from the personal garden used as paste in paintings), the stirrings of an enquiry into the public gardens of Babur are recent and emblematic of the role of emplacement and exile within Ahmadzai’s larger oeuvre. This pivot reveals her ability to glean historical congruences within localized imaginaries while tracing an itinerant life, often marked by the impossibility of return: across Najibabad, Aligarh and New Delhi, where now a Hindu fundamentalist state is belligerent, as well as in Kabul and subsequently Germany. In a telephonic conversation, Ahmadzai notes that the distinct architectural style and motifs of Bagh-e-Babur reminded her of monuments in New Delhi and the built heritage of her mulk (nation), India. Ahmadzai is referring to what scholar Ebba Koch describes as the singular quality of the architectural style of the Mughal empire (“a supraregional character sets it apart from the earlier Islamic architecture of the Indian subcontinent and gives it a universal appeal”) and its success in the “synthesizing of heterogeneous elements”. [2] Many of these “heterogeneous” elements cohesively weave distinct geographical and dynastic influences. For instance, many of Babur’s baghs are reminiscent of the chaharbagh Timurid architecture he noted in Samarkand. The lotus-petalled arches in Kabul connect the site to other Mughal gardens projects in India. Moreover, as pointed out by scholar Salome Zajadacz-Hastenrath, the original funerary enclosure for Babur’s tomb with an open roof embracing the sky (which was destroyed in the gardens during an 1842 earthquake) bears similarities with other funerary structures in the Sind region, even as its arches with hexagonal jaali work recall the architecture of the Delhi Sultanate. [3]

The expansive site of Bagh-e-Babur, which has undergone additions from subsequent Mughal rulers like Shah Jahan who built a mosque, spans eleven hectares and rests on the western slope of the mountain Sher-e-Darwaza in Kabul. Cascading from the foothills, it follows the ascendant form of a series of ‘avenues’ across fifteen terraces, connected with walkways, water channels, tanks, terracotta pipes and tree-lined gardens. [4] In the curatorial note accompanying the exhibition, Emilia Terracciano notes Ahmadzai’s perspectival reading of the bagh as routed “through the body” of the artist who treads the site repeatedly. [5] Ahmadzai renders her attention to the textural minutiae that forms the perceptive field of the gardens -- from inscriptions and architectural epigraphs, to intricate relief work (which were destroyed and subsequently restored over decades after the 1842 earthquake) and the site’s botanical index (also hurt during the Afghan Civil War of 1992-1996, that saw the felling of several trees).

The earliest works by Ahmadzai on the public gardens of Babur arc back to two paintings denoted to the month of August in the Nafas series (July-December 2020). This series primarily comprises paintings made by the artist during her stay in Kabul as diaristic accounts or conversations with the self. They are strikingly different from the works presented in Bagh-e-Babur, and their depiction of spatial and natural forms of the gardens is self-evident in the silhouettes and motifs used, such as the outlines of trees. The soft-edged and pastel-hued shapes of trees in the work “Bagh-e Babur aur Anjeer ke Nazuk Darakht” (The Bagh-e-Babur and Tender Fig Trees, 2020), part of Nafas, is a nod to the newly planted, youthful trees of the gardens.

In Bagh-e-Babur, these elements gain a sharper contour and the visual plane veers towards the allusive and oblique. If organic forms persist, they do so in the shadows, such as the trees located at the darker edge of a composition with graded distribution of light, as in “Aks-e Aftaab dar Hauz-Bagh-e Babur” (The Sun Reflected in the Pools of the Bagh-e-Babur, 2022). In two paintings, “Zameen-e Khushkeedah” (Barren Land, 2021) and “Fasal-e Khizaan” (Autumn, 2021), the field is haunted by absence, as a recollection of a time of prolonged strife and geopolitical conflict during the Civil War. In both works, a rectangular periphery is presented as delimiting an empty space. The militarization of Kabul is confronted unflinchingly in “Dastaanha-e Ghamangeze Bagh-e Babur” (The Sorrowful Tale of the Bagh-e-Babur, 2022), where the icon of missiles appears as a pattern, interspersed with gold spheres that suggest the sun. Elsewhere, the sun is benevolent, symbolizing civil liberties of movement, or simply, a shared horizon.

Ahmadzai’s relationship with the gardens is unique -- the public site was among the few places of respite and rejuvenation she could visit, and was among the liberties enjoyed by women which have since then been revoked by the Taliban. Her personal archive of photographs from these trips and research on the gardens through conversations with locals informs the structure of many works, such as “Guzargah” (Well Worn Pathway, 2021), which evokes the permanence of the vista leading into the gardens, and the balance of space and scene in the naksha (plans) of the gardens. The silhouette of darwaza,thearcheddoorways which appear as relief all across the walls of the gardens, keep recurring in these paintings.

The principle of the grid, which informs Ahmadzai’s practice, is situated in the articulation of an autonomous abstraction that scholar Geeta Kapur accords as integral to Nasreen Mohamedi’s compositions. In the painting “Sabz o Sunehra” (Green and Golden, 2021), the grid finds its architectonic tether in tiled mosaics, bearing calligraphic inscriptions, arranged below a bridge in the gardens. Kapur notes the function of the grid as revealing the “inner matrix” of phenomenon for Mohamedi, [6] and Ahmadzai utilizes this tool to similar ends, scaffolded with residues of the site which introduce a layer of material remembrance. A handful of soil from the gardens is mixed into the paste applied on the Manjarpat, and the application of papier-mâché on the surface evokes the parched ground of Kabul. Steeped in elegiac notes, the series stands as a memoir of a city that can, for now, only be walked in the terrain of memory.

Bagh-e-Babur is on view at Blueprint12, New Delhi, from August 3 to September 9, 2023.

Arushi Vats is a writer based in India. She is the Associate editor for Fiction at Alternative South Asia Photography (ASAP), and the recipient of the Momus-Eyebeam Critical Writing Fellowship (2021) and the Art Scribes Award (2021).


[1] “Taliban Marks Two Years since Return to Power in Afghanistan,” Al Jazeera, August 15, 2023.

[2] Ebba Koch, Mughal Architecture: An Outline of Its History and Development (1526-1858) (New Delhi: Archaeological Survey of India, 1990), 13.

[3] Salome Zajadacz-Hastenrath, “A Note on Babur’s Lost Funerary Enclosure at Kabul,” Muqarnas 14 (1997): 135-142.

[4] Mohammad Abdullah Raza, “Funerary Spaces Associated with the Burial of Babur at Agra and Kabul,” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 79 (2018): 270-276.

[5] Emilia Terracciano, “Paradise as a Garden,” in the Bagh-e-Babur Exhibition Dossier (New Delhi: Blueprint12, 2023).

[6] Geeta Kapur, “Elegy for an Unclaimed Beloved: Nasreen Mohamedi 1937-1990,” in Nasreen Mohamedi: Lines among Lines (London: The Drawing Center, 2005), 13.

Sign In Close
Only Critical Collective subscribers can access this page.
If you are already a subscriber, then please log in.
 Forgot Password?
Subscribe now

The Photography Timeline is currently under construction.

Our apologies for the inconvenience.