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Sha Sarwari’s ‘Archaeology of Memory’ digs deep and sends spirits soaring

5 July 20230 comments

During June and July, Logan Art Gallery, in Queensland, is staging a showcase of artwork by Sha Sarwari that is provocative, yet understated, and visually stunning despite being subdued in colour and form.

The Afghanistan-born visual artist, who arrived in 2000, said: “I start from destruction… like a phoenix I rise from the ashes”.

A master of conjuring conjecture, Mr Sarwari is amongst the most compelling of ascendant voices in the Australian art sector.

He completed a Diploma of Graphic Design at TAFE Queensland in 2005, two years prior to being granted permanent residency.

Mr Sarwari progressed to a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Art in 2015 and then an Honours degree in Visual Arts in 2018 at the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, and the Victorian College of Art respectively.

Photo Credit: Louis Lim

His trajectory includes receiving a Highly Commended at The Churchie National Emerging Artist Prize, being awarded the Most Critically Engaged Work at Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP) Salon, and securing an Incinerator Art Award: Arts for Social Change in 2020.

‘Archaeology of Memory’ is a series of evolving exhibitions which shed light on the perilous plight of people forced to flee their homelands with few if any possessions. 

It is primarily through the process of burning and compositing that Mr Sarwari puts a physical form to his memories, and the results are not short of spectacular.

Mr Sarwari said: “I use pine because charcoal from pine produces a shiny surface after sanding.”

“I have developed a method of charcoal making after researching how charcoal is made…. It’s a seven to eight hour process… I put the wood into a drum, it is a bit like cooking.”

“After about six hours, the wood starts to burn,” Mr Sarwari said.

Using this relatively straightforward technique, he skillfully extracts charcoal of a spectrum of sizes, shapes, tones and textures.

Audiences should be engaged by the forms to varying degrees, depending on their cultural proximity, on an aesthetic, conceptual and/or emotional level.

Viewers illiterate in Farsi should still be moved by the gesture of the artist inscribing charcoal powder above complex patterns constructed from pieces of the same substance.

Mr Sarwari described these text artworks by saying, “At first, it was just an aesthetic investigation of the Nastaliq script… it is regarded as the ‘Jewel of the Calligraphic Hand’ by speakers of Farsi,” he said.

“I wanted to do something worthy of the material… The combination of Nastaliq script [with] the richness and depth that charcoal presents in these works complement each other.”

However, as the series aesthetically and technically evolved, so did the intentions of the artist.

“In the context of a gallery space, where the audience are predominantly English speakers, then it became a form of protest… Putting language that is foreign in the place I live, in its interaction with the audience, creates a tension and a state of vulnerability,” Mr Sarwari said.

“The viewer becomes vulnerable not knowing what the text means, which speaks to the migrant experience.”

Mr Sarwari extrapolated in saying he “does not engage in vulgarity” and the words translate into English as abstract nouns like “memory”, “peace” and “place of belonging/country”.

His depicting them as voids serves to convey their elusiveness in his life after resettlement.

“They are absent even though they are present,” Mr Sarwari said.

“…because I came escaping war, pursuing peace, every now and again I am reminded of where I came from.” 

There is this genuine sense of grasping at and gathering residue, and then somehow repurposing it to build something beautiful in the work.

An intriguing extension into the three-dimensional plane, is an installation consisting of a Perahan draped over a charred wooden chair.

The traditional Afghanistani garment is adorned with reproductions of Australian newspaper clippings collected between 2002 and 2003.

Constructed from silk, “Like a moth to a flame” luminates viewers of seductive sources of the prejudice which new Australians, like Mr Sarwari, must wear.

“There is this sense of rejection in the politics and the media, in the way they are portrayed,” Mr Sarwari said.

“The work that I make is to counter that, the narrative that is put upon us,” he said.

There is a quiet irony about using the adjective “archaeology” in the title of an exhibition primarily created from cinders.

It triumphs in transforming everyday materials into an extraordinary testimony of survival, which is likely to be affecting for audiences to experience.

Further information about Archaeology of Memory at Logan Art Gallery is available at

By Pamela See