Art from the eyes, from the heart Afghanistan-born artist paints what he sees, and sometimes what he feels
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/02/2022 (231 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
As a boy learning to draw in Kabul, Tameem Safi didn’t need to look far to find beautiful scenes. The old city was filled with them everywhere he looked: the streets, the people, and buildings, like the Shah-Do Shamshira Mosque.
But they paled in comparison to the mountains he could see by simply looking out his window.
When he was eight years old, in the early 1990s, he put his pencil down and picked up a paint brush, and got started on his first canvas, using the only two colours he had to create a mountain of his own. “The orange was the sun, and everything else was yellow,” he says.
Safi never forgot that painting. As his homeland and home city experienced turbulence and war, he continued to paint, using oils to depict with simple realism the landscapes he connected with so deeply. And when in 2002, at 19 years old, he left to start a new life in Winnipeg with his mother, sisters and grandmother, the mountains stayed etched in his memory.
“They asked us where we wanted to go, and we said a small city,” recalls Safi. The cold was no issue: it got cold in Afghanistan too. But it was different. It was flat. The closest thing to a mountain here was Garbage Hill.
Safi didn’t have much time to paint anyway. He was studying for his Grade 12 equivalence at Glenlawn Collegiate. Each morning he’d walk there at 7 a.m., and when the school day was done, he went to work as a sewist for a local jeans manufacturer. Most nights, he didn’t get home until 1 a.m.
After getting his Grade 12, Safi, who harboured fantasies of filmmaking, entered Tec Voc High School’s radio and television broadcasting program, graduating in 2005 and embarking on a career in photography and videography. He freelanced, and started his own company, Golden Horse Productions, which he still runs, returning to Afghanistan to capture where he came from for a still-unreleased documentary. But in 2013, he opened a corner store on St. Annes Road, with a coffee shop tucked inside.
‘Business was not very good,” he says. But it wasn’t such bad news: with nobody sitting in the coffee shop, he had the time and space to set up a canvas and start painting mountains again. When the store closed nine months after it opened, it was a minor blessing in disguise.
He painted more and more, and his style shifted from purely realist to abstract expression, perhaps in part because he no longer had the luxury of painting what he could see in front of him. In Winnipeg, he allowed his hands to move freely and guide the painting. “I decide to let it loose, and once I let it loose, it’s just a feeling.”
Eventually, he painted serene base layers before splashing and drizzling paint on top. He hadn’t seen any Jackson Pollocks until local gallerist Jordan Miller told him the name.
After a few years of painting, around 2019, Safi felt more confident in his work, and went to a gallery to see about organizing an exhibition. He was kindly told his work did not fit the space, and redirected to Miller, who runs the Cre8ery gallery & studio in a large space on Adelaide Street just south of William Avenue.
The gallery runs bi-weekly shows for local artists, but there’s a wait list for those who apply. This month, Safi’s name was called, and his show, Through & Through, is on until Feb. 19.
Miller said Safi actually came to her with his portfolio as a photographer, which was filled with work that captured nature as well. “And then he came through with all these paintings,” she says. “It was unexpected.” But nevertheless, a very pleasant surprise: the paintings had texture and depth, and his love of nature shone through.
As in his paintings, Safi is very dedicated to capturing the beauty of natural landscapes in his photography, which in North America has adapted to include pictures of winding highways and rusted-out trucks parked on farmland, along with stunning Prairie skyscapes. Safi’s photographs often have the qualities of his non-abstract paintings, and vice-versa; it can be difficult to tell which is which.
A photograph of a full-moon is rendered so clearly, it appears at first to be a painting. He used an expensive lens purchased specifically for that picture, and it clearly paid off.
He drives to Banff a few times a year for inspiration, and in October, drove 36 hours roundtrip with his nephew to take a single photograph of the sun peeking over the mountains at Moraine Lake — south of Lake Louise, Alta. — the day before it was closed for avalanche season. He waited three years to take that picture. “We stood there and breathed a little bit, and then we came back.”
That picture hangs in the large gallery, which Safi filled with both grace and ease; his basement is filled with other work yet to be seen by the public, though it has been seen by his favourite critics.
On a Tuesday afternoon, his wife Shabana and his two children, seven-year-old daughter Nehal and three-year-old son Adham, came to see their favourite artist’s work in a big gallery for the first time ever.
Adham and Nehal walked around with terrific energy, with their parents keeping a close eye. Nehal’s favourite piece was the photograph of the moon. Adham was very focused on a comfortable stool in the centre of the room.
Seeing a reporter’s pad of paper, Nehal politely asked for a blank page and started to draw a girl with a fox. “She is painting very well,” Safi says of his daughter, who often sets up a canvas right next to her father’s. She paints mostly cartoon characters, but she’s started to paint the natural world — birds, water, trees, even the mountains — just like her dad.
“The other day she painted something and sent me a picture, with a very beautiful note. ‘Thank you daddy for painting with me,’” Safi says.
Adham marched around the gallery carrying one of his sister’s pieces, a small canvas with splattered paint in one of their dad’s styles.
It was obvious how proud Safi was of his children, and it was mutual. “I am happy and I am proud,” Nehal says, when asked what she was feeling.
Growing up in Kabul, Safi says he never expected to see his work in a gallery. Back then, as now, he painted for joy and to express himself, with any recognition coming his way as a delightful bonus. He was a boy looking out his window at mountains. “I still feel they talk to me all the time,” he says.
Since about 2004, he has toyed with the idea of moving closer to snowy peaks. “But it never happens, and I don’t know why,” he says, pausing. “Maybe, I am stuck in Winnipeg.”
Safi’s exhibition runs at the Cre8ery (125 Adelaide St.) until February 15. The gallery is open to the public Tuesdays through Fridays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tameem Safi can be found on Instagram @tameem.safi.
Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.