San Francisco Artist Grapples with Afghanistan's Portrayal in Western Literature in New Site-Specific Installation

San Francisco Public Library and San Francisco Arts Commission Announce New Installation by 2022 Artist-in-Residence Gazelle Samizay at the Main Library

SAN FRANCISCO, November 9, 2023 - San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) and the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) announce a captivating new three-channel video and multimedia installation by local artist Gazelle Samizay at the Main Library. On view November 9 through January 7, 2024, The Ink of Identity: Rereading Afghanistan is a thought-provoking installation that aims to challenge prevailing narratives surrounding Afghanistan and shed light on the complexities of Afghan identity.

In 2022, Samizay was one of the four inaugural artists-in-residence at SFPL selected to participate in the San Francisco Arts Commission's Artist-in-Residence program. Launched in 2015, this program aims to foster partnerships with City departments, enabling artists to contribute to civic dialogue. During her ten-week residency, Samizay immersed herself in the day-to-day activities of SFPL, conducting extensive research and interacting with both staff and the public. Her explorations led her to the Library’s Book Arts & Special Collections department, where she discovered a trove of antique travel guides on Afghanistan. One book, in particular, An Historical Account of the British Trade Over the Caspian Sea With the Author's Journal of Travels From England Through Russia Into Persia, and Back Through Russia, Germany and Holland: to Which Are Added the Revolutions of Persia During the Present Century With the Particular History of the Great Usurper Nadir Kouli, dates back to 1762.

Samizay delved deep into the Library’s collection to explore the impact of Western-authored literature on the understanding of Afghan history and culture, particularly through the lens of Afghan Americans. The resulting work is a three-channel video installation featuring individuals of Afghan descent reading from the texts. Surprisingly, the project also brought forth personal narratives about the interviewees' identities and ancestral backgrounds, offering a personal point of connection for viewers and adding a vibrant element into an otherwise scholarly endeavor. The multi-channel video installation enabled the artist to create an imagined community among the interviewees, to which she also felt connected, despite their lack of direct interaction with each other. The three monitors allow for the interviews to be collaged together along with materials from the interviewees, books from the library and the news. The gaps in the screens also reflect gaps in knowledge, history and the distance between the interviewees and what they consider home. On display is a selection of books that informed Samizay’s work, and the installation is complemented by an artist-curated booklist of items that are available for check out at the Library.

Reflecting on her residency, Samizay recounts:

While I was in residence at the library, I received a phone call from my father. Upon learning that I was at the San Francisco Public Library, his excitement was palpable as he shared an anecdote about the impressive collections of historical books on Afghanistan housed in the public libraries of Boston and New York. Judging by the checkout slip, he frequently had the distinction of being the first borrower of these books during the 1970s. This conversation piqued my curiosity about the collection of Afghanistan-related books at the San Francisco Public Library, ultimately giving birth to this project The Ink of Identity: Rereading Afghanistan.

The experience of seeing and handling books that had endured for centuries was almost magical, transporting me to various eras. I experienced a mix of fascination and grief because the books allowed me to see parts of Afghanistan I will never be able to see due to being lost to war. It was difficult reading about historical sites that have disappeared over decades of conflict. However, I felt very grateful to be in conversation with the interviewees about the books and the themes they brought forth. 

In an ideal world I would continue this project–researching books in various libraries and interviewing more Afghan Americans to create a large archive of stories. 

“This installation will challenge preconceived notions and invite viewers to engage with Afghan history and culture in a new way,” says City Librarian Michael Lambert. “It’s been a wonder to see how the artists in residence have interpreted our collections in dramatically different ways. I encourage the public to engage with this important work and I hope it opens a gateway for future discovery about the Afghan people and culture.”

"Gazelle Samizay's new installation at the Public Library, The Ink of Identity: Rereading Afghanistan, is a testament to the power art can have on broadening our understanding of cultures," said Director of Cultural Affairs Ralph Remington. "Through her creative exploration of the Public Library’s collection of books on Afghanistan, Samizay not only reflects on the problematic ways in which the West has historically portrayed the East, but also has created a space and platform where she is able to bring together fresh perspectives and share stories from contemporary Afghans to expand on and respond to these histories in their own words. The Arts Commission is thrilled to continue to partner and work closely with the Public Library and all of the program’s artists-in-residence to support and continue civic engagement and dialogue that continues to push boundaries, challenge the status quo and helps us reimagine our perspective of the world around us."

Born in Kabul, Afghanistan, and raised in rural Washington, Gazelle Samizay currently resides in San Francisco. Her work reflects the intricate tapestry of her bicultural identity, exploring themes of culture, nationality, and gender. Through her captivating visual stories conveyed through photography, video and mixed media, Samizay aims to foster connections among people. Her artwork has been exhibited extensively across the United States and internationally, garnering critical acclaim. She holds an MFA in photography from the University of Arizona, further solidifying her expertise and artistic prowess. For more information about Gazelle Samizay and her work, please visit her website at

The Ink of Identity: Rereading Afghanistan by Gazelle Samizay
On view November 9, 2023 – January 7, 2024
Main Library, 100 Larkin Street, Skylight Gallery, 6th Floor

Attendees will enjoy light refreshments and a special viewing of the rare books that informed The Ink of Identity: Rereading Afghanistan. 
November 30, 5–7 p.m., Main Library, 100 Larkin Street, Skylight Gallery, 6th Floor

About San Francisco Public Library:
The San Francisco Public Library is a vital resource for the community, providing free and equal access to information, knowledge, independent learning, and the joys of reading for our diverse population. With 27 neighborhood branches and a Main Library, SFPL serves as a hub for lifelong learning and cultural enrichment.

About the San Francisco Arts Commission: 
The San Francisco Arts Commission champions the arts as essential to daily life by investing in a vibrant arts community, enlivening the urban environment, and shaping innovative cultural policy. With a focus on equity and inclusion, the Arts Commission supports a diverse range of artistic disciplines and initiatives, ensuring that everyone in San Francisco has access to the transformative power of the arts. 

November 9, 2023