An Evening with Sara Barackzay, Afghanistan's First Female Animator and Illustrator

Green College Staff

On a sunny day in September 2022, John Grace Memorial Animator in Residence, Sara Barackzay, shared her work and discussed what inspires her during a special event in the Green College Coach House.

Despite being Green College’s first ever Animator in Residence, this was not a talk about the technical intricacies of the animation process—Sara Barackzay allows her art to speak for itself. Over the next hour in the Green College Coach House—through a series of images and live animation—Sara shows how her life is intricately entwined with her process, her artistic skill driven by and responding to a unique set of experiences.

Sara begins with a video cycling through a number of her works. As an animation artist, much of her work is best seen while in movement. The music of her videos is the only sound registered by a silently absorbed audience. The images she shows feature a mix of people and animals, sometimes against a dark backdrop, sometimes against a richly textured background that bring the vibrancy of their clothing, faces and bodies to the fore. There are a number of striking features in the sequence of images that follow, from rich blues and greens to the detailing on the fur of a tiger, but perhaps the most striking are the expressive eyes of the various figures.

A few minutes into this display of her work, Sara shares an experience from her childhood: a memory of repeatedly looking into the eyes of Afghan girls and knowing that they told of a desire to learn. The communicative potential of eyes is clearly something that has stuck with her. At the heart of the vibrant colours and contrasts, the meticulous figures of people and animals, her artwork features a personal history contained in a single image of the eyes. Watching the video, there is a new emotional journey every few seconds. There is such life to the eyes that even the image of them closed seems to take on a whole new depth of meaning. It is a stark illustration of the artistic gift merged with the circumstances that nurtured it.

The traces of her life in her art, and in her drive to create, are a consistent theme of the talk that follows. The recurring depictions of nature, she explains, owe a great deal to her early childhood experience. As she recounts to the audience, Sara became quite sick at a young age, a side effect of which left her without hearing. A stage of her life she calls “The Silence Era” ensued. Unable to communicate verbally, she sought refuge in the outdoors, developing a strong connection with nature.

Feeling different from her peers, Sara also looked to books—primarily children’s books—for a sense of connection. Though yet unable to read, the pictures fascinated her; it was this experience that proved to be her introduction to art. She began creating as a hobby, as she puts it, and painted the world around her, developing a love of colours that shines through in her work today.

But Sara also wanted to learn to read, and this was a dangerous ambition.

Being born into war-torn Afghanistan, Sara recalls feeling the tremors of the rockets and explosions. And as a girl raised under the rule of the Taliban government, she very quickly learned about the strict gender roles placed on women, including a curtailing of their education and a willingness to murder those who did not comply. As a young girl, she remembers seeing the Taliban attack a woman on the street, pouring boiling water over her. She remembers that the woman was dressed in blue.

The very nature of her artistic ambitions put Sara at odds with the Taliban, as would her eventual literacy (accomplished with help from an uncle, frequents visits to the local library, and a hearing aid from Iran).

A telling story from her childhood stands out. In her desire to keep creating, she had written and illustrated a book. She does not go into the specifics of the book’s plot perhaps because it no longer exists, for when the Taliban found of its existence, they threatened her and her family and ordered her to destroy it. To stay safe, she burned the book. It is an act that has been dramatically recreated in her adult work. She shares with the audience a short clip of a young girl burning a of stack pages clutched over a small fire. A blue illustration of unclear delineation decorates the top of the page.

Despite these constant threats and pressures, Sara remained determined to continue her creative journey, including by joining an art class while still a child. When she arrived, she found she was the only woman in the class. This solidified for her an artistic mission that is perhaps unique in its unflinching and necessary simplicity: to create, which as an Afghan woman under the Taliban, is an assertion of freedom and an act of rebellion. In simply stepping into the artistic world, she was defying an oppressive social structure.

More and more, visual art became Sara’s medium. And more and more she wished to share her mission with other women. In a society where the female literacy rate was and continues to be below twenty percent, as she notes, the visual arts were an accessible form of communication. Images were the means by which she would represent the female experience and communicate with other women. She also wanted to extend her gift beyond herself and, aged only eleven years old, she became an art teacher for women and girls, helping them to express themselves through drawing and painting. Not yet a teenager, she was responsible for bringing together a group of Afghan women in an attempt to liberate them through the act of creation.

Still, Sara feared for her safety. Continuous threats mired her efforts. She estimates she has destroyed about 150 paintings and two books over time in order to keep herself and her family safe. Eventually, Sara was able to earn a scholarship to study animation in Turkey. This provided her with a relatively stable creative environment but she still never forgot the struggle of being a woman creator in Afghanistan.

After graduation, Sara returned and founded an animation school for women. Expectedly, the threats increased. One day, a group of men arrived at her house. She presumes they were Taliban. Her family had a husky named Sky, she tells the audience. The men shot Sky and then they held a gun to Sara’s head, threatening the same action and ordering her to cease her activities. The whole family loved Sky, she tells the audience. It is a painful moment.

From here, Sara sought refuge in Iran. She was eating once every two days, she recalls, trying to continue her work, when she received the news that she was being sponsored to move to Canada and study at the Vancouver Film School. It is the position she occupies now, safe but cut off from her family still in Afghanistan. There are also the 400 students, she estimates, who study at her animation school. She has no way of contacting them, but she shares a montage of clips they have made, and photos of Afghanistan’s first all-female animation team. The clips are sometimes playful, sometimes showing a figure curiously exploring an environment, sometimes they show a range of perspectives on the same figure. Some feature figures rooted in pop culture, some are no more than a ball bouncing around, searching through the created space. In their variety, they are linked through their shared place of origin.

Once Sara has finished sharing her story, an audience member asks her whether or not she sees herself as courageous. Sara seems to struggles a bit to respond. It was never a matter of courage to her, she eventually notes, she was just doing what she felt she needed to do. In a follow-up question, an aspiring young artist asks Sara if she has any advice about improving her work. Sara’s response encapsulates her fiercely motivated approach: the work doesn’t need to be perfect, but the message has to get out.

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 GuardianEl 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 here.

Post by: Noah Stevens, Green College Resident Member