The Italian industrial and textile consortium Benetton with its research, media and communication centre 'Fabrica' has recently published a book of paintings and drawings exclusively dedicated to Afghan art, a collection of more than 100 works including calligraphs, miniatures and mixed-media art. Amanullah Mojadidi, an Afghan, US-born, artist who has played a major role over the past decade in Kabul mostly as an impulse giver and networker for many a young artist, is the curator of the project. We have exchanged different times about what alienates Afghan artists from the voluntary Western approach to the country. The book 'Untitled – Contemporary Art from Afghanistan' is a way to escape the existing dilemma.
Q: You've seen lots of art projects start in Afghanistan. What is different with this book and its intellectual approach?
A: I have never considered myself a curator. I am an artist. So when I was first contacted about curating the Imago Mundi Project for Afghanistan, I was skeptical, even if I was already well aware of Luigi Benetton’s contribution to art and culture around the world. I also had questions: Why would Benetton want to do the project in Afghanistan? Was it another form of commodification rooted in a European’s romantic perception of the exotic Other? Was it simply a different manifestation of Conflict Chic? Once I had a chance to research the Imago Mundi project, and its various incarnations around the world including in India, Japan, South Korea, Mongolia, Russia, Eastern Europe, South America, Australia and beyond, I began to see the potential of this project as an exchange with, and between, artists in Afghanistan. //
Q:What do you mean by conflict chic?
A: Whether in the visual arts such as painting, film, and photography or performing arts such as music and theater, Afghanistan’s artistic and cultural activities, particularly in Kabul,
have, in the last several years become embroiled in the geopolitics of, foreign nations. This was the manifestation of an eagerness on their part to show that more than a decade of economic and military interventions have led to the creation of a contemporary culture that not only justifies their initial invasion, but would also explain their partial or complete withdrawal from the country. As such, Afghanistan has become what I call “Conflict Chic,” and the romanticized, exaggerated glamorization of contemporary culture in the country has, like cultural carnival mirrors, created a distorted reflection of reality.
It becomes difficult therefore to engage with a project in the field of contemporary art
in Afghanistan without feeling that you are a part of the cultural commodification of
“Afghan art” that supports what American and European nations would like to say about
the country. //
Q: The book consits of more than 100 small paintings, each 10x12 centimeters. How did you gather them in a country in conflict?
A: With 142 artists to engage and keep track of, there are inevitably problems of access to artists who live in insecure areas of the country and problems of assurance that those artists will actually be in the country when it is time to collect their works. A massive exodus of Afghans like the country has not seen since the days of Soviet occupation, Civil War, and Taliban law has some artists fleeing the country before creating their artwork. The exodus is a response to the fortune-telling predictions of what will happen to the country after 2014, when foreign armies are to withdraw and foreign money is to be significantly reduced.
Q: What was the attitude of the artists when you approached them for the project?
A: The first questions asked would often be, “Who is the donor?” “What is the theme?”
followed by “What is the budget?” Creation for creation’s sake is still difficult in a
country where the trials and tribulations of daily life can occupy all of your time
and energy. What is the value of artistic production without some sort of economic
support and/or benefit when you’re living in a conflict zone where security is
not guaranteed, inflation is high, and employment increasingly scarce?
So even after having spent hours with artists discussing the possibilities of the project, they did not seem to be flocking at the chance to create something for it. I had to tell them: there would be no seminars, no workshops, no trainings, and no “capacity building” that are often seen by foreign-initiated projects as necessary precursors to artistic production in the country. There would also be no thematic guidance given to the artists, allowing them to create an artwork that was simply what they wanted to express, rather than dictating the creation of work about subjects such as Human/Women’s Rights, Peace, Anti-Drugs, or whatever message the foreign backers wanted to convey through the work. The Imago Mundi project in many ways lacked the preconceived attitudes towards artists in Afghanistan, as well as the expectations of what an Afghan artist should produce work about. What this has meant is a sort of creative tunnel vision that made the Imago Mundi project a challenging experience for the artists.
Q: How to the drawings and paintings look? Anything that surprised you?
A: Although we do find some standard, and even expected, symbols connected to Afghanistan (i.e. the burqa, the rider game of buzkashi, the poets and saints, the Bamiyan Buddha grottos, the landscapes, the market scenes), but what I also see are new symbols emerging in this collection, such as that of the imagery of hands. Perhaps the hands are about the West
lending assistance or reflect the Western notion of “saving” Afghans from themselves.
Or perhaps they are about Afghans coming together to rebuild their society, as hands
have often historically been symbols of solidarity. Whatever the individual or collective
meanings, what can be said is that I am seeing the emergence of a contemporary style in
the work of Afghan artists more and more, that it is at once unique and globally relevant.
Q:Why is the whole collection of 142 pictures called 'Untitled'?
A: This uncertainty is reflected everywhere and in the majority of works created by the artists.
Like the country’s future – Undefined, Unknown, Uncertain, Untitled – the only
name many of the artists feel comes close to describing their work is no name
at all. As a metaphor not only of a country and the contemporary culture growing
within it, but also of the personal practice of so many artists participating in the
Imago Mundi project in Afghanistan, I have taken this “no name” as what identifies
and distinguishes the collection, Untitled: Contemporary Art from Afghanistan.
Far from being definitive, Untitled is an attempt to provide a landscape of the still
nascent production of contemporary art in the country. The collection of 142 works
includes painters, calligraphers, miniaturists, writers, filmmakers, musicians, poets,
and mixed-media artists of all levels – from the self-taught to the high school and
university students to the artistically educated to the professors to the never-before
exhibited and the internationally renowned. (picture: Fatima Haidari, Untitled)
A selection of my photographic work is on exhibition since this week and until July 3rd in the foyer of Deutschlandfunk in Cologne (see here). The selection is accompanied by a choice of audio features and interviews that I have recorded and produced along the years of the Afghan conflict. And while international photojournalim about Afghanistan mostly focuses on Western soldiers and narratives stemming from the intervention of international forces persent in the war, this exhibition looks at the dynamic of urban Afghanistan and its young generations, its dynamics and challenges, dreams and dramas amidst Taliban and warlord threats. (see also here)
Recently Siddiq Barmak, without any doubt the most profiled Afghan film maker whose feature film 'Osama' has been internationally acclaimed a few years back and who keeps being one of the most prominent Afghan intellectual figures, moved out of Afghanistan and to Europe. This signals an important loss for the cultural scene in Kabul, many film makers taking inspiration from Barmak's experience and work. On another scale, it also sees the struggle for cultural Afghan identity at a crucial moment as the conflict moves on, despite or rather as a consequence of the withdrawl of foreign troops.
Currently teaching as a lecturer for conflict and conflict resolution at the University of Hamburg, I introduced a chapter on Afghan theater in conflict in my seminar. After the suicide attack in Kabul Esteqlal Lycée last december on a running play, the Afghan theater scene especially is confronted with new challgenes. As a result an initative was born and a DONATION CALL launched for the support of the Afghan Student Theater Festival a few weeks ago. (see here). The texts published below – English and German – are a common wording undertaken with the Faculty of Fine Arts of Kabul University, who is to be the host of the event later this year.
"A common initiative by Martin Gerner, correspondent, curator and lecturer together with the Faculty of Fine Arts, Kabul University.
- HELP KABUL'S STUDENT'S THEATER FESTIVAL: WHAT IS AT STAKE?
"WE - theatre actors, directors and teachers in Afghanistan - have roots that go back to the 1980s and that have regrown after 2001 as a result of the international intervention. But in December 2014, as the international community withdrew, many achievements were lost when a heavy bomb exploded during a Theatrical Performance in Esteqlal High School. This terrorist act caused death and fear, with many theatrical groups and acitivities forced to slow down or close.
- REBUILD THEATER IN AFGHANISTAN
YOUR DONATION can help rebuild theatre in Afghanistan and regain the artistic values of a young generation. Though still under shock, the Theatre Department of Kabul University shortly after the terror act in late 2014 started an annual festival. This festival gives birth to young theatre artists and brings students to create their own ensembles. The first festival was held in Kabul University shortly afterwards. It brings together student groups who work on joint performances and bring back artistic values that were threatened to disappear due to the attack. In founding the Student's festival, we want to withstand the negative energy and impact brought in by the extremists.
- DONATE to assure the FUTURE OF AFGHAN THEATER LIFE
WE, the Theatre Department of Kabul University, believe that the Festival for Students has the power to rebuild theatre in Afghanistan. Our young generation has the energy, potential and knowledge to recreate what is at risk of being lost. To regrow theatre through student festivals, we need financial support. Your pledge helps theatre in Afghanistan regrow and take new roots. Your contribution will help our young artists create a path for creativity and help rebuild theatre in Afghanistan. Their enthusiasm and excitement, featuring in the pictures below, must live on! "
// GERMAN VERSION:
WAS STEHT AUF DEM SPIEL?
"WIR – Studenten und Studentinnen, Dramaturgen und Dozenten der Fakultät der Künste an der Universität Kabul – befinden uns an einem Wendepunkt. Ein Terror-Anschlag im Dezember 2014 auf der Bühne des Esteqlal-Lycées, mitten in Kabul, hat bei laufender Aufführung zahlreiche junge Theatermachende getroffen. Es gab Tote und Verletze. Kunst- und Kulturschaffende haben Anst. Für viele Betroffene bedeutet der Anschlag das Ende ihrer Auftritte. Ensembles haben sich aufgelöst oder stehen vor dem Ende.
WIEDERAUFBAU DES THEATERS IN AFGHANISTAN
Wir wollen und können dem nicht tatenlos zusehen. Deshalb dieser Aufruf für das 2. Studenten Theater-Festival als eine Initital-Zündung beim Neuaufbau des afghanischen Theaters. Wir haben Wurzeln, die auf das Theater der 1980er Jahre zurückgehen. Nach 2001 als Folge der internationalen Intervention haben wir weitere Schritte gemacht hin zu neuen Freiräumen und Kreativität. Jetzt, da die internationale Gemeinschaft dabei ist, Hilfsgelder und Aufmerksamkeit zurückzufahren, geht es mehr denn je darum, Theaterkunst und ihre Ausbildungsstätten nachdrücklich zu sichern und Perspektiven für eine selbstbestimmte Theaterlandschaft zu schaffen.
DEINE SPENDE ist dabei ein wichtiger Beitrag. Mit der Hilfe für das 2. Studenten-Theaterfestivals unterstützt Du die Arbeit und das Engagement einer jungen Generation lernbegieriger und spielwütiger Schauspiel-Studenten und Studentinnen, die an der Fakultät der Künste ausgebildet werden.
Für das Festival im Herbst sind zur Zeit zehn Aufführungen mit neuen Ensembles geplant. Deine Spende kommt dem Entstehen dieser Aufführungen zugute. Konkret geht das Geld in Produktionkosten, Kostüme und Austattungen, die für die Inszenierung nötig sind. Details findest Du auf dieser website.
MIT DIESER INITIATIVE wollen wir ein Zeichen setzen gegen jede Form von Extremismus und Gewalt. Ein Theaterfestival mit Publikum ist die beste Antwort darauf. Der Anschlag vom Dezember 2014 war für viele von uns wie eine zweite Stunde Null. Die Kultur ist einmal mehr bedroht. Wir stehen zugleich für einen Neuanfang. Gerade die junge Generation hat die Energie, das Talent und das Wissen dazu. Damit das Theaterfestival wachsen kann, brauchen wir finanzielle Unterstützung. Die Spenden helfen unserer Arbeit und Kreativität zu unterstützen. Die Bilder auf dieser Seite mögen einen Eindruck vermitteln, was du mit einer Spende erreichen kannst für unsere kulturelle Identität."
// (photos: courtesy H.Noori)
This is an independent blog on Afghanistan. I have been working regularly in Afghanistan as a freelance reporter and correspondent mostly with national German media in the past ten years. I've also been a trainer for a new generation of Afghan journalists and with organisations of the Afghan civil society, last not least an guest author with AAN Afghanistan Analysts network. All photos on this page are from the author, unless signaled differently. Reproduction in any illegal form is prohibited. This blog comes in English and in German language.
Dieser Blog versteht sich als ein unabhängiges Informations-Angebot zum Thema Afghanistan. Als freier Autor und Korrespondent arbeite seit Anfang 2004 regelmäßig am Hindukusch für deutsche Medien und ARD-Hörfunk, daneben vor allem auch in der Ausbildung afghanischer Journalisten/
-innen und der afghanischen Zivilgesellschaft. Der Blog versucht u.a. Stimmen von Afghanen stärker in die Debatte einfliessen zu lassen. Fotos in diesem Blog stammen sämtlich vom Autor soweit nicht anders gekennzeichnet. Das Reproduzieren oder die Verwendung in anderen Formen bedarf der ausdrücklichen Zustimmung.