Young Afghan woman opens art gallery to create jobs, and hope, in pandemic

KABUL (Reuters) - In a small art gallery in the Afghan capital, Marzia Panahi watches as one of the young artists she has just employed applies paint to a framed felt canvas propped up against a easel.

Panahi, 21, set up the Namad Gallery at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in September.

Her aim was to revive the use of felt in art, to showcase her war-torn country's creativity and to try to create jobs for young people hit hard by the pandemic and the economic crisis it has caused.

"When COVID-19 cases increased in Afghanistan, I saw how unemployment was getting higher, and when we realized how deadly poverty can be...I put together a team of young people so that we could at least be useful to ourselves and those around us, and become entrepreneurs," she said.

The international relations student's company now employs 10 people, including three artists, and sells paintings to local art lovers for between $100 and $200 each.

Afghanistan, where more than 60% of the population is below the age of 25, has struggled with high youth unemployment.

The pandemic has exacerbated its economic problems, with the World Bank predicting that more than 70% of the population will slip beneath the poverty line in 2020.

In addition to generating jobs, Panahi said she wanted to find a way of reintroducing felt to traditional arts and crafts in Afghanistan. Historically it had been produced to make carpets, she said, but in recent years its use had declined.

"Because people have turned to a more modern life and are no longer buyers of felt products, we wanted to make it possible to re-use felt in a variety of ways," she explained.

Faiqa Sultani, a 27-year old artist, said she had initially felt depressed due to the lockdown and lack of opportunities, but since joining Namad her mood had improved.

"When I paint, it is a kind of expression of my feelings on canvas, paper, or felt that I enjoy," she said.

"Painting on felt means that we can revive the old traditions and show people that we can use our Afghan resources and make our lives more beautiful."

(Reporting by Orooj Hakimi and Hameed Farzad; Writing by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

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