Baraye Avaleen Bar (For the First Time)
“When I first met Yeldā, she came to my studio holding white roses. We sat and shared parts of our life, and then we made some images from that energy. I knew it was the beginning of something special.”
Australian-born artist Angela Jones is recalling her first studio visit from Yeldā Ali, an Afghan artist, also based in Brooklyn. It was there that Angela first captured Yeldā on tintype, a photographic process dating to the 19th century, which is historically rooted in documenting war, both soldiers and combat zones. This encounter led to a deep exploration and creative collaboration between the two women.
Yeldā, taken by the ancestral beauty tintype provides, went on to look for more tintypes of Afghans. Not only could she find none, but she discovered that the most renowned tintypes were of US soldiers who served in Afghanistan. Both artists, focused on women’s safety, were inspired to create a space to pay homage to the forgotten heroes of war: women. Yeldā cast a dynamic group of Afghan women and Angela created their tintypes in late summer of 2022.
Their resulting collective exhibit, “Baraye Avaleen Bar: Afghan Women on Tintype,” at Ace New York’s gallery turns the lens on a community heavily impacted by militarization. The show pays homage to Afghanistan as a home and, more importantly, to the often forgotten heroes of war: women. Using the photographic process of tintype, Yeldā and Angela weave together a story of eight Afghan sisters, mothers, daughters, refugees, immigrants and US-born Afghans alike.
The two artists share an intimate conversation about their work, process and the sacred nature of trust:
Yeldā: Where did your journey with tintype first start? And where did you get your camera from?
Angela: I was initially drawn in by the work of two strong women, artists Julia Margaret Cameron and Sally Mann — one from the 19th century and one from the 21st. Both took the medium and made it their own with very intimate, raw imagery. I drove 10 hours from my home to learn the process from another incredible talent, Ellie Young, who turned her home into a darkroom/workshop space. And I actually made this 8×10 camera with my dad in Australia, who I got my passion for making with my hands from. We built it together, traveled across states to pick up the lens, and it was very bonding.
Angela: You tell stories in so many different mediums. Where did you pick up your love for storytelling?
Yeldā: I come from a family of storytellers, from my siblings and parents to grandparents and great-grandparents. I spent fourth grade living with my grandma and great-grandma; they were both matriarchs and influential storytellers who would integrate morality and humor in their stories. I learned a lot from them, and though neither were formally educated they both taught me so much about my history, how to treat people and guide my own character — all through stories.
Angela: Is this also where you got your love for sisterhood?
Yeldā: Coming up in a Muslim household, women live in many segregated environments and I believe this can translate to sisterhood feeling like a more natural environment. In the West, I feel like many women feel weird to say “sister” to one another. It’s natural for me to lead with that abundant language and safety when I’m with women. All the women in my lineage lived so deeply in sisterhood, and they treated it as the blessing it is. I find, because of capitalism, we still normalize so much scarcity and competition amongst one another and it’s not natural for me. Even when concepting this collection, I knew I wanted Afghan women in focus because we need to continue coming together and celebrating one another.
Angela: How did you cast those women?
Yeldā: I put seven names down on the list and it’s the seven women you see in the collection, I knew almost immediately. Each relationship was different. A couple women were the first Afghans I met in New York, others were women I had protested or fundraised with, and a couple were women I had met on a dancefloor or at a concert. But in our moments of connecting, however short or long, there was an understanding and trust that I felt. That trust is what I based casting on.
Yeldā: And speaking of trust, how does your work as a doula translate in the studio?
Angela: There’s an art to holding space and it’s very similar to the creative process. In both aspects of my work, as a doula and an artist, I am holding individuals at a moment of transition in their lives. It takes great delicacy and trust for someone to allow themselves to be held. And it takes time for people to allow themselves to be vulnerable and feel supported. I treat making in my studio like I do a woman giving birth: sacredly.
Yeldā: Can you give insight into the tintype “industry”?
Angela: There are various approaches to practicing the tintype process. Some romanticize the past by reappropriating 19th-century dress and performing civil war reenactments. I’m personally more interested in imagining new futures than recreating history. Tintype images are otherworldly, timeless and have an ancestral beauty. I attempt to make that and create a look into the future, especially as a woman.
Yeldā: Was this your first culture project?
Angela: This was the first time I was asked to be part of reclaiming a narrative for a specific culture, yes. When you invited me to create this collection with you, it felt sacred and welcoming, and I’m grateful for that. It was special that we were able to connect on other identities too, like womanhood. And when we shared our hope and grief upon getting to know one another, we found that we also shared a desire to center our hope in what we were making together.
Angela: I remember when you Googled “Afghans on tintype,” only to find images exclusively of American soldiers in your country. And I remember how triggered you were. Why is it important for people to see a different form of imagery show up in those Google results?
Yeldā: I am dedicated to making change by making the things I want to see instead of fighting the things I don’t want to see. I’ve done both; one is more scalable and one is bad for my health. That Google search was a sliding doors moment where I could’ve easily gotten on social media and shared my anger. Anger is easy to share. But I concepted “Baraye Avaleen Bar” instead, which in hindsight was still rebellious. But it was a great reminder that we can make the things we want to see.
Yeldā: Looking ahead, do you feel like this is the tip of the iceberg for you when it comes to tintypes, or do you see yourself working with other mediums?
Angela: This is the most aligned I’ve felt with my medium and subject matter because the tintype was almost necessary to the story. It made it even more purposeful. Tintype is historically rooted in documenting war, so to be able to share this medium, refocus the lens on Afghan women who are generationally impacted by militarization and elevate their voices was so powerful. While I do see myself working with other mediums, “Baraye Avaleen Bar” unlocked something and has definitely reinspired me with tintype.
Angela: What does it feel like to see eight Afghan women on the walls of the Ace Hotel today?
Yeldā: It feels bold to take our faces, place them on a wall and not only call it art but ask people to look at us as more than they have previously. And to be given this real estate from Ace, right in the iconic lobby with a massive US flag, it felt like we came together to prove that Afghans in America are a plurality, not polarization.
Ace Hotel New York | February 7, 2023
Drawing from African proverbs and idioms, artist and designer Sarah Nsikak borrows romance folkloric imagery from the many cultures she calls home. She shares with us 5 themes she’s explored deeply as a part of this show, Luck Comes Before Love, on view now through March 27 at Ace Hotel New York.