Artist and curatorial assistant Ghafar Tajmohammad is amplifying refugee voices at the Migration Museum
Partly influenced by his own experiences with displacement as an Afghan, artist Ghafar Tajmohammad uses his textile and painting-infused practice to amplify refugee voices. But he also finds ways to do so in his work as a curatorial assistant at the Migration Museum, which traces the historical movement of people across Britain. He first landed work with the museum through the pandemic-era Kickstart government scheme in a part-time, front-of-house position. Equipped with hands-on skills and an eye for details, Ghafar found himself increasingly involved with the museum’s curation process, leading to his current role working on various temporary exhibitions. Here, he tells us why you should look inwards for creative direction, and how his full-time role helps fund his artistic projects.
What I do
How would you describe what you do? And specifically your job at the Migration Museum?
As an artist, I’d like to think of myself as a cultural practitioner who actively creates art to break down stereotypes, develop empathy and mediate between different groups and communities.
My day job as a curatorial assistant at the Migration Museum is an extension of this. I am curating temporary exhibitions that change every two to three months. As well as this, I assist the artistic director to plan, research, collate and execute major year-long exhibitions.
What kind of skills are needed to do your role? Would you say you need any specific training to do what you do?
For those people interested in working within curatorial departments, I think having a good eye is an essential skill. Not in the sense of a 20/20 vision, but more having the ability to spot subtle details that may disrupt the audience‘s experience of your artwork or exhibition.
I like to think that is a skill that can be taught and learnt, but I also have to admit that I’ve been doing this ever since I started drawing, so it comes naturally to me.
“When curating, being able to spot subtle details that may disrupt the audience’s experience of your artwork or exhibition is essential.”
Can you tell us a little bit more about your fine art practice?
Working primarily in the field of expanded painting, my art practice uses colours and geometry to create abstract artwork that conceptually reflects upon our ideas home, the difficulties people face in relocation and our lifelong journeys to belong.
Ideas for new work are born out of my self-reflection; I like to channel inwardly by drawing from intimate experiences, fading memories and prominent thoughts which I can express only through art. Outside of my lived experiences, I also take a lot of inspiration outwardly from current events and global happenings.
“Outside of my lived experiences, I also take a lot of inspiration outwardly from current events and global happenings.”
What recent artistic project are you most proud of?
Recently, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time researching Afghan war rugs, which are textiles that weave depictions of conflict within my home country from as far back as the Soviet invasion in the 1970s.
I am working on a series of new, expanded paintings that will act as textile pieces – which I hope to present as an extension of these war rugs in an exhibition this year. My art practice has become primarily concerned with mobilising refugee and diaspora voices and providing general public narratives based on lived experiences.
In my current project, I have been collecting oral stories of Afghans living in the UK and their experiences surrounding the Fall of Kabul on 15th August 2021.
How I got here
How did you land your job at the Migration Museum?
I’d decided to leave my previous freelance job as an art fabricator during the pandemic in 2021. A creative producer role at the Migration Museum was being advertised as part of the Kickstart scheme] for people unemployed during the pandemic, where half the salary was paid by the Government as an incentive to reduce unemployment.
So I landed my job with a bit of luck and good timing.
If people are interested, the museum always welcomes volunteers. This can be a great way to get your foot in. Several of our permanent staff members started off volunteering. However, I recognise that the free time needed to volunteer is not accessible to all.
What was your journey like when you were first starting out?
The beginning few months at the Migration Museum for me was part-time, with most of it spent in as a front of house team member.
Gradually, I picked up more responsibility as the museum was transitioning between their major exhibitions that I actively got involved in installing. It helped that I had technical hands-on skills to support with this.
As an artist, I remember starting off as early as when I was six years old, on the floor drawing my favourite characters from manga books. This taught me patience, passion and how to use line art to break spaces and contour imagined characters.
“As a child, I would stare at persian carpets found at home and be mesmerised by their patterns. 20 years on, I have a solo exhibition on Afghan rugs I’ve designed and painted.”
At home we didn’t have tables or chairs for most of my childhood, but we did have these vibrant persian carpets that felt great to stretch out on to read and draw. Whenever I would lose interest from those activities, I would just lay there staring at these carpet designs and observe how these arabesque woven plants would whip around themselves and intertwine into lattices, the bulbous heads of flowers sprouting, the hard lines trapping the infinite repetition in a set space. I would follow the decorative borders all around the room and find myself making up games to play with the motifs and the negative space.
Really I was just bored out of my mind... but also mesmerised by these patterns. I burned them into my eyes, so it seems fitting that 20 years on I’m having my first solo exhibition to do with Afghan rugs that I’ve designed and painted.
If you could pick three things that you’ve found useful or inspiring to your work or career, what would they be and why?
Quite recently, I’ve finally published my artist website – it has been useful for me when applying to art-related opportunities and open calls.
I’ve also begun filling out a personal spreadsheet of my contacts which has really helped me proactively seek support from people I’ve met and worked with before.
Lastly, placing more trust in my gut feelings or intuitions to help me make quick decisions has significantly benefited me. In my curation, I am able to find solutions to problems intuitively and spot poorly spaced items that need to be repositioned slightly, as well as identify areas that need more attention or problems that can be avoided ahead of time without having to overthink it.
“Publishing my artist website has been useful for me when applying to art-related opportunities and open calls.”
What would you say has been your biggest challenge along the way?
My biggest challenge is not a singular moment of struggle. Rather, it’s the sustained, drawn-out battle of pushing forward as an artist. It feels like we have to do so much!
It’s not enough to solely be creating artwork, we have to also research and apply for funding, photograph and market ourselves, submit proposals for call-outs whilst finding time to network, be an admin hero and a technician to install exhibitions – before hosting events, evaluating and archiving. All this happens whilst trying to hold down every other aspect of life that demands attention.
It’s a challenge to be the master of your practice, whilst also being expected to be a jack of all trades. End rant.
“It’s a challenge to be the master of your practice, whilst also being expected to be a jack of all trades.”
What have been your greatest learnings with making money and supporting yourself as a creative?
I don’t consider myself money driven, but I understand the necessity of it to be able to play the artist. I see my art as a raw form of self-expression, so I am overly protective of my creativity when facing financial pressures. Working four days a week provides me with a salary that I use to fund my practice in new directions I think up – within reason.
Because of this, the ideas I come up with are purely ideas that I want to do, and the success of the project is not measured by money. Therefore, I don’t have to worry if my artwork sells, which is a weight off of my mind.
How important would you say social media and self-promotion are to your work?
It’s important, without a doubt. This very opportunity to be interviewed by Creative Lives in Progress was given because of my work being visible on Instagram.
But personally, maintaining a social media presence is a tricky one for me. I used to be relatively active with posting new work and all, but it took a toll on me mentally. It felt as though I was making art as content to post rather than for the sake of the art itself. Now I tend to post after the artwork is exhibited and people get a chance to see it in person.
But I would like to (and should) utilise it more as a self-promotion tool. Thanks for the reminder.
What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever received?
At the end of an entrepreneur short course by Create Jobs that I did in 2021, the course leader, Sapphire Paston, told me to have more confidence in myself and my abilities. She was a gem of a course leader, acting as the anchor for a group of 20+ of us, and had noticed how I would keep doubting and thinking up problems that hadn’t even happened yet. Thanks, Sapphire.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into a similar career?
I like to believe in a case-by-case approach, so I don't think general advice is a good solution. People know their situation much better than others will ever.
But in my case, I found a subject of genuine personal interest that I strongly advocate for: to support the refugee and diaspora community. This motive has helped guide me as an artist and employee working in the charity and heritage sector. So perhaps others may wish to look inwards for direction.
Interview by Frankie Faccion
Mention Ghafar Tajmohammad