Martin Gerner, freelance journalist & correspondent, reports from Afghanistan
Samstag, 30. Mai 2015
Untitled: Afghan Contemporary Art
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)
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.