Montag, 23. Juli 2012

Remains of a bubble: the Kabul dOCUMENTA (2)

The dOCUMENTA, one of the world biggest contemporary art exhibitions that is based in Kassel, Germany, has closed its Kabul branch last week in its first ever attempt to go abroad and co-exhibit in a war zone. Fora month art works of 27 artists have been presented in the Afghan capital’s Babur Gardens. Reactions were mixed: from welcoming feelings like ‘breaths of fresh air’ to simple rejection. . The approach of the organisers of the exhibition might have contributed to this, with a discourse that did not sufficiently open up to the Afghan realities (see part I of the Kabul documenta analysis with AAN.)

Roughly 15,000 visitors in four weeks, with a peak 2,000 in the Princess's Palace located in the Babur Garden on each of the four weekends Fridays since it opened on 20 June : At first glance, the number of people the Kabul dOCUMENTA has attracted could be considered a success. Families from different ways of life, workers as well as intellectuals mixed with foreign diplomats and NGO workers. All wandered through the pompously renovated and furbished building, that also hosts an offshot of Kabul's five-star Serena Hotel restaurant since a few months.

Some of the visitors of the exhibition would take the time to stand in front of the art works for a short time of reflection and later sign a guest book laid out at the entrance that would record statements of support or enthusiasm rather than statements of rejection that could have been expected for the rather avant-garde art shown, and sometimes point at ‘the beautiful rooms’ of the palace, that at times seemed to overshadow the artworks themselves.

Other visitors, far from visiting on purpose but rather picknicking with their families on the lower green of the Babur Gardens , were attracted by people queuing at the entrance of the palace in the upper part and became curious about what was going on. One could later see some of these random visitors rushing through the aisles of the palace somewhat disorientated and saying, on leaving, that ‘there was nothing there’ (‘chis na bud’). One should be fair, though, to say that such a rejection by parts of the audience is nothing out of the ordinary in a modern art context and can be encountered even in the biggest western art capitals. In effect, the exhibition venue in Kabul’s Babur Gardens became an ambiguous place where cultural perceptions clashed.

The good intentions expressed by the dOCUMENTA’s core team at the start of the exhibition were not translated into actions in other respects also. While insisting that they have shown cultural sensitivity when designing the Kabul programme and the preceding seminars, over the two years, there was no space given for a statement of the Afghan curator on the opening of the Kabul exhibition. Though Afghan Minister for Information and Culture, Sayed Makhdum Rahin pronounced some solemnly words on the occasion, I hardly think it can make up for this.

A number of reviews in German newspapers, days after the opening, welcomed the punsh and courage to stage the event in Kabul. The author of the TAZ for instance sees a „transfer (of ideas) that works sursprisingly well“, and „the rare case of an intervention that will go down in history books, really awakening the forces of the (Afghan) civil society, that are to carry the country's future in the period ahead.“ The Swiss Neue Züricher Zeitung with a more nuanced approach welcomes the exhibition as a „therapy of art“ for the Afghan society, while pointing to western governmental policies trying to make use of modern art events in countries of conflict as a tool to propagate a rethoric of democratisation in recent years. „In Afghanistan as well“, the author writes, „funding for the art scene is part of a democratic nation building and the establishment of a civil society.“ I doubt though, with my experience of the Kabul art scene from the last ten years, that – besides a number of more general statements on the correlation of arts, conflict and reshaping state structures in environments of conflict - one would find somehting that matches something of an international strategy to help the Afghan culture and art scene build its own identity, and doing this with care and reserve, rather than with a offensive approach. .
Also some figures also reflect this western-centric approach: only 3 of the 27 artists presented in Babur Garden and in Kassel have grown up or are currently and permanently living in Kabul. The rest were international artists or Afghans who grew up abroad and/or have largely mixed identities, with a sound understanding of how the mechanisms of the western art scene functions. Not surprisingly, the interaction, in Kabul and in Kassel, between the foreign artists and the group of Afghans artists from the diaspora was more intense than that with the Afghan artists from the country itself.
‘For us as Kabul artists, the works presented in the Kassel and Kabul exhibitions and the artistic discourse of the dOCUMENTA was something totally new, often too far away from our realities’, one of the three Kabul artists told me.
From the few in-depth reviews of the Kabul dOCUMENTA I came about, that by Robert Kluijver stands out (he has been an acquainted with the Afghan art scene for a long time). He points out that some of the limitations of the Documenta ‘are caused by the fact that [its organisers] ended up relying heavily on the US-Afghan connection. This of course doesn’t detract from their quality as artists. But how tuned-in are they to contemporary developments in Afghanistan? Their relationship with this country is colored by their dreams of a homeland that would conform to their expectations, which are in turn shaped by the nostalgia of their exiled parents. Their art reflects this and, in my experience, doesn’t resonate much with Afghans that didn’t grow up abroad."
The Kabul dOCUMENTA has certainly enriched the local art scene and given new inputs to its mostly young generation. It also has made an international audience - donors and buyers - aware of Afghan art, who now will know who to contact when looking for something original in terms of art from a war zone. But here lies the problem: it can hardly be argued that the the show in Babur Garden has introduced new standards of quality to Afghan art and cultural identity. On the contrary: with the end of this one month’s exhibition( with its international headlines of ‘first manifestations’ of Afghan art (see the articles on the ‘first Afghan graffiti artists’, the ‘first Afghan independent rock group’, the ‘first female Afghan rap musician’ etc. The reality looks less bright. The Kabul art scene is dispersed and limited to a few individuals in each single field rather than what the regular headlines from a supposedly vivid environment for arts suggest . And at times, some of the activities of dynamic youngsters seem in fact rather pushed or even initiated by foreigners, their presence, contacts and money, than emerging from an independent creative reflex.

Having said this, the more traditional branch of Afghan art, involving manifestations of poetry and literature, also exists, but it was not considered for this exhibition. Some of it obviously has to do with limitations of time and space, and – it seems -a lack of wanting to open up to broader parts of the Afghan population and its customs. Other reasons may lie with an approach that seems to concentrate alone on a context of modernity for which the Afghan captial stands. Or, as a graffiti artist has sprayed in blue on one of the walls of a narrow street in Taimani: ‘Kabul is a bubble’.

Last but not least, the Kabul art scene still has to struggle with reflexes of censorship and self-censorship. On the opening day, two art worksby young Kabuli artists that were part of the documenta opening exhibits were confiscated by the Afghan authorities . During this action, one of the artists was slapped and held in custody for half an hour, according to himself.

Last but not least, the Kabul art scene still has to struggle with reflexes of censorship and selfcensorship. On the opening day, two art works by young Kabuli artists were confiscated by the Afghan state authorities, that is the ministry for Information and Culture, with one of the artists begin slapped and held in custody for an hour, to what he claims. The Afghan authorities pretend there has been a misuse of writings and of the significance of the Qur'an, while the young artists claim that they simply hinted to a social reality – that is lots of Afghans 'reading' the Qur'an on a daily basis without knowing its exact meaning – a fact widely known all over the country. (see (1) below)

The authorities claimed that there had been misusing writings from the Qur'an as an underlying text for some miniature paintings. The young artists claims, meanwhile, that these were simply pages from an Arabic history book on which he drew his miniatures on. As we speak, the art works have still not been given back to the artists. The selfcensoring aspect of stories like these, that do not occur for this first time in the Kabul context, are evident. In the same way that a defense for freedom of expression does not exist for journalists and media in cases of supposed blasphemy, artists also do suffer from the consequences of a lack of independent jurisprudence.

So what footprint did the Kabul dOCUMENTA finally leave behind for Afghans? Was it a success and what will people remember? Any answer will need to consider the frail or even absent structures for Afghan art – the lack of galleries, art museums, in depth art education, art publications and media devoted to the issue etc. It is far from clear also, what of the existing art landscape, with its often foreign impulses, will survive beyond 2014 and in what form. If we look at it positively, the approach of the Kabul dOCUMENTA has pointed out the fragility of the Afghan art scene and its ambiguities in the current international context.

(1) “A Man Reading Qur'an, Without Knowing the Meaning” is Mohsen Taasha’s interpretation from an older painting exposed in the National Gallery in Kabul, called “A Man Reading Holy Quran”. The picture can be see here
and was created after Taasha participated in a seminar called “Seeing Studies” as part of the teachings held by the Documenta in Kabul. The aim of the seminar was to extend the ways artists perceive their environment and to find artistic translations of complex matters touching everyday life. “When you read Quran, without knowing the meaning, it is like thousands of words dance in your head”, the artist states about the painting. “Playing and joking with Arabic words and letters is considered against holy religion of Islam”, the ministry replied to this in its statement of confiscation of this and another art work. Mohsen Taasha (also refered to as Mohsen Wahidi), who is the winner of the Kabul „Afghanistan Contemporary Art Prize 2010“ issued by the Turquoise Monuntain Foundation, following a statement of the Minister of Information and Culture together with artists Azizullah Hazara and Amin Taasha has been forbidden to participate in future exhibitions in Afghanistan as result of the incident during the Documenta. This – as in other previous instances – does not have to be the final word, but it shows what pressure is being exerced.

Dienstag, 17. Juli 2012

ISAF's northern exit: a road trip through the Salang

The news that Pakistan has agreed to re-open supply routes to Afghanistan after a seven month diplomatic standoff between Washington and Islamabad will not only ease the costs for the US and other NATO member states for their withdrawal plans. It also procures northern Afghanistan – namely its road system and population – some long hoped for relief, as supplies for NATO forces in Afghanistan have put massive strain on the two essential routes from the north in the past months. Both have to pass through the – now dreaded - Salang Tunnel as the only way to reach Kabul, Bagram base and other destinations. I a few days ago had the chance to travel this road:

When I wanted to take the road north to Mazar-e Sharif by car last week, I had been warned not to do so. Not so much because of security, but because the worrying news and tales kept flowing in, of the constantly growing number of fuel and cargo trucks converging from both directions on the Salang Tunnel, the bottleneck on the northern supply route for NATO. The foreign military are, of course, not the only users of the tunnel: the Salang is also on the main route for all Afghan civilian traffic. (There is only a much more difficult, and recently more dangerous(*There is increasing insurgency activity reported from Kahmard district), route through Bamian over a number of passes one of which, tellingly, is called Dandan-Shekan, or the Breaker of Teeth.) Reports of people who travelled before us predicted unprecedented traffic jams with up to ten hours of waiting time before one would be able to enter the Salang tunnel.

Fortunately, in the end, I did not encounter this worst-case scenario, but some effects of the seven months US-Pakistani stalemate were still clearly visible. First and foremost, the endless chain of hundreds of trucks, most of them filled with petrol that one has to pass during every hour of the trip, make you realise the risk and possible outcome of a potential terrorist attack that could produce spectacular international headlines. This goes especially for the roughly two kilometres-long, main tunnel itself, in which trucks often get stuck temporarily. Apart from that, manoeuvring around the supply convoys lengthens the time taken to get to Mazar considerably. While it took up to seven hours before the US-Pakistani stalemate, once Islamabad cut its route to Afghanistan, the drive took ten and a half hours or more.

One hour alone we spent in the main tunnel (this is apart from the time spent in the shorter tunnels and half-open galleries) and encountered some worrying scenes. Motorcyclists without protective clothing drove in the exhaust fumes of cars and trucks, only with a towel around their heads to protect themselves. The complete absence of lights in long stretches of the tunnel, combined with the fat dust whirled up by passing cars, the heat and the fumes, meant the tunnel could turn the tunnel into a mass grave instantaneously. We saw many people praying before entering it.

‘If an accident occurs inside the tunnel, the fumes might kill all the people stuck inside in the absence of ventilation’, an engineer I meet up on the Salang says. This dangerous shortcoming has never been solved in all the years since the Soviet-built tunnel first opened in 1964. Almost every winter, travellers who are stuck in the tunnel after avalanches, die from asphyxiation (read one report here). In November 1982, under circumstances similar to today, a fuel truck exploded and killed hundreds of Soviet troops and Afghans in one of the biggest tunnel disasters ever.

Nothing has happened in the past decade, either: although USAID is said to have spent $5 million on repaving a part of the tunnel last summer, sealing leaks (melt water from the snow above is constantly coming in) and repairing part of the lighting, I witnessed no fundamental change compared to what I had seen passing through in previous years. Potholes, almost craters, inside the tunnel and along the road have deepened and widened still further in recent months as a result of the NATO supply traffic. Starting from the tunnel’s northward exit, toward Doshi – after some one to three hours of driving, depending on the density of traffic - the road often resembles a cloud of brown dust, covering the local people working in the small dukans (shops) or cultivating their fields along the road as well as fauna and flora with thick layers of grime. And then there is the enormous noise the engines cause with their constant gearing up and down.

Along the road, one can also see a number of burned out cars, coaches and fuel trucks. It looks as if the enemy has just struck. Rumour goes that some drivers or truck owners get them exploded or burnt in order to cash in the insurance in some sort of a lucrative business. Close to the Salang, in another scene, I passed a fuel track lying upside down at the edge of the road, with dozens of young and old people trying to save some of the fuel that came flushing out of the transporter. A spark would have been enough to turn the scene into an inferno.

The temporarily extended use of the northern supply routes is reported to be costing the US and other NATO states an extra $100 million a month. This is up to five times the sum they had originally calculated. Ironically, as the international military prepares for to withdraw most of its troops from the $ 62 billion Afghan reconstruction effort, the road north through the Salang is currently in its most pitiful state for the past eight years. An official responsible for the tunnel’s maintenance, whom we met there, tells us that it would take at least four months to make the necessary repairs – and that, if the tunnel was completely closed – but NATO apparently insists this is not an option given its vital demand for supplies. One wonders whether the Salang route will be fixed before the Western departure in a sustainable way and whether the task of overhauling the northern main roads, parts of which have obviously suffered from poor internationally-financed construction work and corrupt use of donor money since 2001, will fall to Afghan engineers and road workers alone.

see also at AAN Afghanistan Analysts Network