KABUL/KANDAHAR, Afghanistan Charred bodies lie scattered against blood-stained walls and debris covers the ground. For Afghanistan, the only unusual thing in this gruesome scene is that the blood is red paint - and part of an art installation.
It's a work by 23-year-old Afghan artist Malina Suliman, who risks her life, sometimes working by flashlight after dark, to create art in southern Kandahar province, the birthplace of the Taliban and still one of the country's most dangerous areas.
Her pieces, which range from conceptual art to paintings and sculpture, are bold representations of the problems facing her generation and have drawn praise from top officials in Kandahar, making her exceptional in a place where women face even greater restrictions than in other parts of the country.
"Many people had never seen an art installation... Some were offended and others were hurt because they'd experienced it before," Suliman said of "War and Chaos," which was in an exhibit last year and depicts the aftermath of a suicide bombing, an all too common event in Kandahar.
Her haunting, powerful pieces earned her an invitation last year to President Hamid Karzai's palace in Kabul, where she showed her art to the Afghan leader, who is also from Kandahar.
Suliman's artwork is now making waves in the Afghan capital of Kabul, where she lived after fleeing the violence of her native province as a child. In December, she had two exhibits there, a highlight of which was a sculpture of a woman in baggy clothing with a noose tied around her neck.
An exhibit in Kandahar, where the Taliban and tribal elders dominate public opinion, was the first there in three decades. She drew a mostly male crowd of around 100, including Kandahar governor Tooryalai Wesa and some of Karzai's relatives.
"I was taken aback by her work. I had only seen great art abroad, but never here," Wesa later told Reuters, recalling the exhibit, which featured a painting of a foetus in the womb suspended from a tree and being pulled in different ways. "I hope it persuades more women to do the same."
Suliman said this piece, called "Today's Life", reflected the frustrations of her generation.
"Before a child is born, the parents are already thinking that a son can support them and a daughter can be married off to a wealthy suitor. They don't stop to think what the child may want," she said.
SLOW PROGRESS FOR ART
Thirty years of war and conflict, starting with the Soviet invasion of 1979, effectively shelved Afghanistan's art scene. The austere 1996-2001 rule of the Taliban then banned most art outright, declaring it un-Islamic.
Since the Islamist group was toppled by U.S.-backed Afghan forces almost twelve years ago, large Afghan cities have resurrected something of an art movement, but progress is slow.
Herat city, in the country's west, now has art studios for rent, while Mazar-e-Sharif in the north has an artist collective and a lively graffiti scene.
Suliman, who is self-confident and energetic with almond-shaped eyes, joined the Kandahar Fine Art Association, a relatively new, all-male group whose goal is to support and exhibit local art, one year ago.
The small collective of 10 artists caught the eye of the Ministry of Information and Culture, which funded and last year opened Kandahar's first art gallery, where Suliman has exhibited. Since she joined the collective, several more Kandahar-based female artists have come on board.
But the stakes remain high.
"One of our biggest fears is that people will mistake us for creating art for foreigners or working with NGOs. People who work with NGOs get shot without question in Kandahar," she said.
Despite her success, Suliman has received threatening phonecalls warning her against attending her own exhibits, and the Taliban have spoken out against her.
Even creating her art must take place away from public view. She often waits until after dusk, working with a dim flashlight.
Suliman recalls her first exhibit in Kandahar last year, and how she trembled as she made her way towards the gallery, in fear of it being bombed.
"I was so scared... Whenever there is a gathering of government officials it becomes a target," she said.
But one of Suliman's greatest challenges lies at home.
"The night of my first exhibit my family told me 'if you go, don't come back'," she said with a wry laugh.
While her sisters and mother now support her ambition and passion, her brothers and property developer father remain fiercely opposed -- attitudes typical for Afghanistan.
She is now looking to expand Kandahar's budding art scene to nearby Helmand, hoping to secure locally-sourced funds for workshops and training.
When asked if she is scared, she mentions her sculpture of the hanged woman and smiles.
"That's what happens to women when they ask for their rights in this country," she says, impudently.
(Reporting by Miriam Arghandiwal, additional reporting by Sarwar Amani, Editing by Amie Ferris-Rotman and Elaine Lies)
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