Art, Animation and Changing the World: An Interview with Green College Animator in Residence Sara Barackzay

Green College Staff

Afghanistan's first female animator and current John Grace Memorial Animator in Residence at Green College reflects on her childhood, early career and the struggles of Afghan women and girls

The most important thing to understand about Afghanistan’s first female animator, Sara Barackzay, is that from an early age, she has known exactly what her purpose in life is.

“My biggest purpose, goal, my biggest love in everything was Afghanistan,” Barackzay said, sitting at Green College where she’s been the Animator in Residence for the last year. “That is why I started to be an animator, ... to find a way to change my society.”

Changing her society means many things to Barackzay—pursuing her own education as an artist, founding an animation industry in Afghanistan, giving Afghan girls and women access to education. These were all goals she was pursuing, right up until the evening the Taliban knocked on her door and threatened to kill her.

“Ten months, I’ve left Afghanistan and I’ve never seen [it] again,” Barackzay said. “I can’t go back because I had enem[ies] … especially the Taliban, they wanted to kill me. If I go back, they will kill me.”

Growing up in Herat City in Afghanistan, Barackzay began drawing at four years old. When unable to find paper or notebooks, she would draw or paint on any surface she could find, including wood, trees, and even doors and walls. Imitating her mother by shaking her finger and adopting a stern tone, Barackzay said she was often told, “You don’t have to draw on everything!” Switching into an impersonation of her younger self, Barackzay said she would often say “okay,” and then go right back to her artwork.

When she began learning to write, she started composing poems for children, often with animals featuring very prominently. Her early fascination with nature and the world around her is a source of inspiration that lasts to this day.

“My biggest goal when I paint: I want to have a moment, or a smell, or some life to my painting or drawing,” Barackzay said. “So that is why I tried … [to] care so much about nature, about looking at people, what it is they’re feeling … I always draw and paint my feelings and the truth that I had experienced.”

Educated and professionally trained as an animator—as well as a graphic designer, motion designer, artist and even an architect—Barackzay’s paintings and drawings often retain the life and feeling of an animation. Their bright colours, sharp lines and life-like characters—who often stare directly into the eyes of the viewer—evoke the sensation of a moment in motion or a story being told.

She says she is unsure how exactly this happens—except that when she paints, her artwork begins to take on a lifelikeness simply because it is always about her own experiences. “Most of characters and the things that I paint … they look like different characters, but all of them are me.”

It’s no wonder that Barackzay’s eventful life story has afforded her so much material for realistic artwork full of emotion, adventure, and, often, suffering—according to her, she only manages to get approximately half of her ideas down on paper, frequently needing to sit down in the middle of other activities or in strange locations to draw something out before it gets stuck.

Barackzay has faced a great deal of resistance to her career as an artist, even from a young age. As a child, she tried to join an art class, facing significant pushback due to the fact that the class was only for adults, and more importantly, only for men.

“Even my teacher said, ‘You don’t have to come here because you’re a girl.’ I said, ‘I’d really like to learn painting.’” Young Barackzay begged the teacher until he finally accepted her into the class. “I was the youngest and everyone was staring at me. Why [is] a girl coming and learning painting?” It’s sinful in Afghanistan, Barackzay said, for a girl to learn to paint or draw. “They always say women have to stay home, and they don’t have to learn science or art or working outside.”

Barackzay finished the class when she was ten years old. She began working on exhibitions and teaching drawing and painting at an all-female educational institute. Still, she continually faced negative reactions from others who disapproved of her behaviour.

“My family said, ‘you don’t have to wreck my life or your life like that,’ but I really didn’t give up. I really wanted to do something. I tried my best to learn more and to find the way, a better way, for helping Afghan girls.”

Growing up, Barackzay’s family had a small, black-and-white, heavily-scratched television. On this barely visible screen, she watched many animations, including Disney movies, and in particular, The Smurfs. These early cartoons were the first influences on what would become Barackzay’s eventual overarching goal: to open an animation studio and university in Afghanistan. Doing so would mean the start of an animation industry there, one where Afghan stories are told and where girls and women could have a voice.

When asked why animation, or why art, can change society, Barackzay paused before answering: “Before starting animation, I tried many ways. I tried to find a way … a really a good way that can change society and really have an impact on [an] audience or other people... Then I realized: art, media. Especially nowadays, media is the most important device to change society or influence people.”

Barackzay envisions an Afghanistan-centered animation industry producing art that would show the difficulties that Afghan people have experienced without flinching. “Some people don’t like to hear the truth,” she said. “But I want to show it to the whole world so that they can see what’s going on in Afghanistan.”

It is also important to Barackzay to combat the constant negative narrative that frames Afghanistan in Western media. The lives of Afghan women and girls told from their own perspective, Barackzay said, would be rich ground for stories of adventure, struggle and resistance, not of constant victimization of their own culture. Barackzay also wants to show the good things about Afghanistan, the food, the resources, the rich soil, the clean water and the people themselves—their intelligence, and their hospitality, which she says is the most important thing about Afghan people.

Even in animation, there are always aspects of the story that get left out when some people’s perspectives are continuously silenced. “Some people,” Barackzay reflected, “they really … they have a voice, but most people can’t hear them, they don’t care. That’s why I want to be their voice.” This goal of giving a voice to the voiceless through art, animation and storytelling is what kept her going, through many difficult and trying times.

In Afghanistan, Barackzay continued teaching, even when she wasn’t able to do it openly. She taught in hiding, in her room, helping girls learn painting, drawing and calligraphy. She eventually started attending high school and received a scholarship to a school in Turkey, where she studied animation for four years. Every summer, she returned to Afghanistan to teach classes in different cities, dispensing lessons in animation, drawing and graphic design to girls and women.

Eventually, she created an Afghan girls animation team, which received attention from the President Ashraf Ghani, who offered help in the ultimate goal of creating an animation university. Ghani offered Barackzay land in Kabul upon which to begin building this school.

In 2019, Barackzay was poised to take the first steps along the path to creating an animation university and founding an animation industry in Afghanistan. Then, the Taliban arrived at her home one night.

When the Taliban came to her house, they shot and killed her dog, a five-month-old Siberian husky, who she describes as being beloved by everyone and as having been like ‘family’ to her. Then they put the gun to her head.

“They said, ‘If you’re going to create an animation university or you’re going to keep teaching for Afghan girls, we’re going to kill you like your dog,’” Barackzay recalled. The Taliban then left her home, and at the urging of President Ghani, Barackzay returned to Turkey for her and her family’s safety.

Hoping that the Taliban would eventually forget about her, Barackzay stayed in Turkey, working as a graphic designer and motion designer. She finally returned to Afghanistan in 2021. In an attempt to avoid detection and protect her family, Barackzay didn’t return to her home but lived elsewhere. She wore men’s clothing and a mask, hoping that no one would recognize her. However, when she began receiving threatening messages and being followed by cars when she went out, Barackzay realized that she had been discovered. She left the country again, this time heading for Iran.

Barackzay returned to Afghanistan only once more before coming to Canada. While living in Iran, she received a scholarship from the Vancouver Film School. All she needed was a Canadian visa, which she was unable to obtain in Iran. She therefore returned to Afghanistan, completely changing her identity to avoid detection. This was mere months before the country fell back into the hands of the Taliban.

Unsuccessful in receiving a Canadian visa while there, Barackzay finally ended up in Pakistan where she lived while the visa application process was being completed. While she was in Pakistan, the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan.

For Barackzay, this seemed like the end of the dreams that had sustained her for a long time.

“After [Afghanistan] fell, I really … I lost hope, and it was like, losing my heart. Because something was separated from my body. That is why, in the last year, I couldn't be very productive. I tried … [but] I was depressed, I had depression. Because my purpose was to help my country. Now there is no country, and I can't help.”

The hope of a good future in Afghanistan seems out of reach to Barackzay now. “Now, most people left country, especially the people who were professionals—lecturers, teachers, scientists, artists, most of them, more than a million people. So, I don’t think there is a hope for Afghanistan.”

This mindset has forced her to reexamine and redirect her goals. “I don’t think just about Afghanistan, I think about whole world,” she said about her new perspective.

Most of her focus right now is on the graphic novel she is writing and illustrating, telling the story of her life. Over the past year, living at Green College, Barackzay said she has been able to take some inspiration from the College’s forested surroundings, from UBC, and especially from the Pacific Ocean. She’s also become acquainted with some of the wildlife that frequents the College.

“One time I was painting in the garden. I was alone, and I heard something breathing at my back. I said, ‘who is that now?’ It was early morning, and it was a coyote, sitting, watching me.” Still a great observer of the natural world, Barackzay’s reaction was one of welcome rather than fear in this fleeting moment. Upon seeing the wild animal, she greeted it like a friend, and then carefully lined up a snapshot with her and the coyote both in frame. And then she watched as he went back into the woods.

Sara Barackzay is the John Grace Memorial Animator in Residence at Green College. Her art has been exhibited around the world including in Afghanistan, Germany, Turkey, India, Australia, Canada and the US. She has illustrated children’s books for UNICEF and private publishers, and her designs have been featured on Afghan clothing. She taught physics and art at the Afghan Turk Girls’ School in Herat and was a mentor for the Afghan Girls’ Robotics Team. Sara has been interviewed by The Guardian, El Pais, and the Khaleej Times, her art and story have appeared in over twenty international periodicals.

To learn more about Sara's life and work, see her full profile on our Invited Residencies page.

Post by: Jane Willsie, Green College Society Member