America’s art museums must show richer stories about Afghanistan


Over the years, the American public has shown little appetite for the war in Afghanistan. The same goes for the country’s cultural institutions. We are at war with Afghanistan and have occupied it for two decades, but culturally it has been a failure.

“It takes a lot of conviction to make anyone want to do shows about it,” said Muheb Esmat, an Afghan independent commissioner based in New York. “This war has been going on for a long time, but you only get into it when it’s a disaster.”

A year ago, Esmat organized “No End in Sight,” America’s first solo exhibition of the work of Berlin-based Afghan artist Aziz Hazara. Presented at the Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College in New York’s Hudson Valley, the works examined how media and technology, such as ubiquitous night vision technology, shaped our view of the war in Afghanistan. .

Early last year, Hazara was also the subject of an installation at the 22nd Sydney Biennale in Australia. For this show, he presented a multi-channel video installation called “Bow Echo,” which shows five Afghan boys struggling to stand on top of a windy peak as they play warning notes on a plastic bugle. The screams of the bugle, as well as the way the boys struggle mightily against the invisible force of the wind, are full of emotion and futility.

The Biennale, however, was closed just over a week after it opened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, some aspects of Hazara’s installation can be viewed online through the Google Arts & Culture initiative.

An installation view of Aziz Hazara’s “No End in Sight” at the Hessel Museum of Art.

(Olympia Shannon 2020)

The US military occupation of Afghanistan may have officially ended with the departure of the last US evacuation plane from Kabul on Monday, but the cultural ramifications of the conflict will be felt for decades to come. It remains to be seen how they reverberate in the West – particularly the United States, where Afghan cultural representation has generally been sparse or, in some cases, remains focused on the old.

Perhaps the largest Afghan art exhibit held in the United States was the traveling exhibit “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures of the National Museum in Kabul”, which landed in various institutions in 2008 and 2009, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. It featured around 200 ancient artefacts from the pre-Islamic era that exemplified the region’s strategic position as the hub of the Silk Road, a place where Persian, Greek, Mesopotamian and Indian cultures met and mingled.

Not only had these artifacts spanned the centuries, but they had gone through a particularly turbulent period of invasion and warfare at the end of the 20th century – hidden by prescient conservatives during the time of the Soviet invasion in 1979 and unearthed in 2004 after the fall of the Taliban. Roberta Smith in The New York Times described these pieces as “triumphant” – a reminder that “every survivor saves more than himself: long strands of culture, identity and history waiting to be reconnected” .

A close-up of an intricate ivory carving shows stylized human figures standing in the doorways

A decorative 1st century ivory from Begram, Afghanistan, was one of hundreds of objects hidden by workers at the Kabul National Museum during the Soviet invasion.

(Thierry Ollivier / Guimet Museum / Getty Images)

More contemporary visions of Afghanistan by Afghan artists, however, have been more difficult to come by. Often, exhibitions organized in connection with Afghanistan feature photographs of Western artists and journalists. There also appears to be a concern for girls who skateboard. (The gentle power of shredding.)

In the contemporary art world, in fact, Afghanistan is generally recorded through the eyes of Western artists – primarily the Italian artist Alighiero e Boetti, who in the 1970s fell in love with Kabul and opened the One Hotel, a guest house that has become a meeting place. place for traveling artists and critics. It was there that he designed his “Mappa” series, cards that question the subjectivity of maps and come in the form of an embroidered Afghan carpet. Boetti would commission Afghan weavers to carry out the work, which would often take years. (One of them is in the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.)

When documenta, the quinquennial held in Kassel, Germany, chose Kabul as the satellite location for the 13th edition of the exhibition in 2012, Mexican artist Mario García Torres highlighted Boetti’s legacy in his own installation. Torres, who has a long-standing dialogue with Boetti’s work, traveled to Kabul to find the location of the famous hotel and staged an imaginary fax correspondence with the long-deceased Boetti about the film he wanted to make of it.

He’s a charming rabbit hole. It also offers a limited view of art in Afghanistan.

“Everyone [in the West] whoever thinks of Kabul thinks of Boetti and his hotel, ”says Esmat. “They trace its history, but they could not trace it back to the artists who were already there when Boetti went to Afghanistan.”

Another video shows a woman in a black tunic standing on a pile of rubble and painting a fragment of a wall white.

A photo of Lida Abdul’s “White House” in 2005, which was presented as part of the Afghanistan pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale.

(Lida Abdul / Giorgio Persano Gallery)

Boetti received copious institutional treatment; the representation of works by contemporary and 20th-century Afghan artists, not so much.

A video art exhibition from Afghanistan and Iran titled “Sight Unseen,” showcasing the work of artist and educator Rahraw Omarzad, was shown at the Asia Society in New York in 2009. In 2016, the Hammer Museum hosted Afghan street artist Shamsia Hassani for a residency. Last year, artist Mariam Ghani (who happens to be the daughter of ousted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani) presented work from her “What We Left Unfinished” project at the Blaffer Art Museum in Houston. Among other works, it included a documentary of the same name that looks at the stories of five films from the Afghan communist era that have remained unfinished. (It was released in the United States last month.)

Lida Abdul is one of the best-known Afghan artists to emerge on the Western art scene. Born in Kabul, she and her family fled Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion. She eventually moved to Los Angeles, where she earned a dual bachelor’s degree from Cal State Fullerton (in philosophy and political science) and a master’s degree in fine arts from UC Irvine.

She had solo exhibitions at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2008 and at the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois in 2010. And she represented Afghanistan at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005 – the one and only time where the country had a national flag. in the exhibition. On this occasion, she presented the video work “White House”, which shows the artist painting the rubble of the former presidential palace in Kabul in brilliant white. The piece was later acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

At the end of next month, his work will be featured alongside leading American artists such as Joan Jonas and Lawrence Weiner in the inaugural exhibition of ZACentrale, a new three-year project space in Palermo, Italy, directed by Fondazione Merz.

Although she lives in the United States, Abdul’s CV shows that she has exhibited more abroad than here. And although she appeared in various group shows in Los Angeles, including several shows at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions early in her career, she has yet to land a solo museum exhibition in LA. Not even a project space. .

Rows of photos framed in large white rugs reveal the weary faces of Afghan citizens during the war

A detail from “Time, Love and the Workings of Anti-Love” by Lida Abdul, 2013, which will be presented at the inaugural exhibition of ZACentrale in Palermo.

(Lida Abdul / Fondazione Merz)

“Nobody was interested,” says independent curator Sara Raza, who has worked extensively with Abdul for nearly two decades, most recently showing her work in a group exhibition at the Rubin Museum in New York called “Clapping With Stones. : Art and Acts of The Resistance. “” They don’t care until there’s a disaster. “

And when institutions engage, the narratives presented can reinforce pre-existing notions about Afghanistan – often focusing on gender and conflict to the detriment of everything else.

Gazelle Samizay is an artist born in Afghanistan and now based in San Francisco. Her video work “Upon My Daughter,” from 2010, is in the permanent collection of LACMA. In 2019, she co-organized, with Helena Zeweri, the group exhibition “Fragmented Futures: Afghanistan 100 Years Later”, held at the Brand Library in Glendale, one of the few group exhibitions in the United States. devoted exclusively to the Afghan experience.

“I think [institutions] should reflect on the types of narratives they are used to, the orientalist narratives of the oppressed Afghan woman who is both submissive and exotic, ”she said. “These types of images and works of art sell very well in the West, but they are really harmful because they represent Afghan women in a really simplistic way that does not recognize their power of action.”

An aerial view shows a woman, from the waist down, lying on a shiny Persian-style red carpet

A photo from Gazelle Samizay’s single channel video “Upon My Daughter”, 2020, now in LACMA’s collection.

(Gazelle Samizay)

Esmat agrees. “There are different narratives and the art world has to support them,” he says. “We need to take a broader look at the whole place. “

Afghanistan, says Raza, “has a very unique cultural topography, both in terms of climate and environment, but also its politics. It’s diverse. It’s multi-ethnic. It is important to say it.

Khadim Ali is an Afghan artist of Hazara origin who is now based in Australia. The Hazara were persecuted by the Taliban and therefore Ali was born in Pakistan. His work draws on classical traditions (miniature painting and epic poetry) but also more conceptual forms (he has created sound installations from Taliban propaganda CDs). His paintings were exhibited as part of the documenta 13 presentation in Kabul and are part of the permanent collection of the Guggenheim Museum. Last year he exhibited at the Aicon Gallery in New York.

Ali’s story is more complicated than the picture usually presented in the West, and his art represents it. This spring, in an interview with Ocula Magazine, he noted that the Taliban “are children of the West”.

“They were created by Westerners in Afghanistan to fight the Soviets at the time. And then after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, these terrorist organizations found themselves without an exit plan. “

For two decades, the United States and Afghanistan have been inextricably linked. But, in many ways, our museums haven’t looked at that. The withdrawal marks a moment to take a look.

“Tell the complicated story,” Samizay says. It is the least we can do.


Comments are closed.