Arts in a War Zone: Afghanistan at the Documenta

Teaser Image Caption
Shamsia Hassani is a graffiti artist based in Kabul

The Documenta in the German city of Kassel is said to be the world's biggest exhibition of contemporary art. Taking place every five years, it is curated each time by a single foreign curator and his team of international agents and aides. For this year's 13th edition, for the first time Afghanistan is a focus of the exhibition’s program. Presented are works of Afghan artists, both from within the country and from the Diaspora, as well as from internationally renowned artists who spent time in Kabul in residency.

"War creates facts. But art, too, can create facts of a highly different order", writes Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, curator of the 13th Documenta, in an essay about why, with Kabul (and also Kairo), she chose two places in war and conflict as complimentary venues for the exhibition's 13th edition. Christov-Bakargiev, an American with Italian and Bulgarian roots, admits that these choices may be "possibly pretentious and naïve", but she also likes to see them as an encouragement for everyone involved. She is convinced that "art has a major role to play in the social processes of reconstruction", with "imagination as a crucial force in that process" and in ways "that do not isolate people even further, but provide opportunities for the opposite".

Discussions and seminars in Kabul and Bamiyan

In this spirit, a delegation of the Documenta's core team visited Kabul for the first in late summer 2010. A series of lectures and of seven seminars followed, five of them in Kabul and two in Bamian, most of them held in early 2012. Some culminated in a series of artworks produced by international and Afghan artists, both from within the country and from the Diaspora. Other works were separately commissioned by and for the Documenta.

One part of these artworks is now exhibited in Kassel, the other part can only be seen in Kabul. They are supposed to complement each other like an artistic equation. Nevertheless, the complete Afghanistan focus of the Documenta will only be accessibly for a few privileged people who are able to travel both to Kassel and to Kabul.

And there are not only geographical limitations for an artistic discourse in a war zone. The organizers also have been confronted with the challenges of the social, political and psychological context of Afghanistan. While the core team and artists associated with the Kabul program stress that teaching and exhibiting in Kabul is about an exchange without prejudice and not about a "colonialist approach", some of their recent reactions and accounts suggest, though, that some of them discovered the full implications of the project only when "on the job".

Between security gate and cultural exchange

Goshka Macuga, a Polish artist who has produced two large tapestries for the Documenta 13, that are presented separately in the Fridericianum, Documenta’s main venue in Kassel, and in the Queen's Palace in the Afghan capital, says she has experienced Kabul "very much as an outsider, conditioned and limited by never-ending security measures equal to those for elite groups, the NGOs and the international contractors based there. I was embedded in the activities of the Documenta program, and mainly met people involved with it. The threatening presence of the military, the segregation of international elites from the ordinary citizens of Kabul, made me wonder who I was making the work for".

While it is probably true that experience can only be gathered on site, Christoph Menke, a German philosopher, who held one of the seminars in Kabul, recalls a "fascinating element of protest" amongst the mostly young Afghan participants. "In the beginning they treated us like authorities who had been flown in. We were somehow supposed to answer all of their questions, including fundamental ones such as ’What is good or bad art?’ or ’Should one make art in the first place?’. However, the situation changed and participants started to express their own concerns and positions."

Instrumentalisation of the art scene?

Aman Mojaddedi, an Afghan artist who has worked in Kabul from 2002 onwards and has influenced the Afghan capital’s art scene in different ways, is now one of two curators for the Kabul Documenta. He is well aware of the mutual cultural learning process such encounters regularly include. But he also sees the obvious risk, that the exhibition could be be instrumentalized by foreign interests and donor countries. "In the last three years there has been a major international push in Afghanistan on supporting and funding art and cultural activities, as part of their propaganda and information campaigns. This goes for the United States, Britain, France and others, investing a lot of money into these activities as a way to create a sense of Afghanistan being in a supposedly much better state than it was before, leading up to what is potentially going to be the extraction of the countries militarily."

This conceptual problem has led to a number of discussions behind the scenes of the Documenta, but it was surprisingly not what interested any of the 2,000 or more journalists present at the opening press conference in Kassel. Some German papers credited the Documenta makers for its "international solidarity" with Afghanistan (taz 10 June 2012, also Süddeutsche Zeitung, 8 June 2012), and so far a number of them has focused on the international artists in residence in Kabul rather than on the young generation of Kabuli artists.(3)

Although Mojaddedi, who grew up in Jacksonville/Florida, does not want to put the Kabul part of the Documenta into the category of donor-oriented programs, he agrees that more generally a constant dependence on foreign funds hampers the motivation of Afghan artists. "Often people are waiting for the money to come in before they would actually start doing something. For me sustainability is an obscure word. It suggests that solutions would always come from the outside. Which would be a false concept. Probably forming collectives of artists, coming from the Afghan artists themselves, with exhibitions on their own initiative, would be a way to have a more sustainable approach."

Fragile Art Scene

A couple of collectives have actually emerged over the past years in Kabul. Among them is Roshd, a group of young male and female artists, who currently face an interesting internal debate on whether to apply for registration with the Ministry of Culture and Information or not. Creating the legal framework for being a cultural NGO is tempting for some in the collective as long as funds are available. For others in the group it is a no-go area. The Jump Cut Group, a collective of male filmmakers and cameramen, has gone into working on a two-way strategy, depending partly on funded projects with hardly any artistic value, while dedicating the bulk of their time to independent artistic productions. "This is a training for ourselves", one of its members, Jalal Husseini, says. "Those filmmakers who solely work and rely on funded films right now will face a more difficult transition later on." Other, more recent Kabul-based art collectives, like the Bad Artists who have split from other groups and are still in search of their own identity and freedom, are fed up with what they call a tendency of "tanzim thinking" and ethnic divides even among young artists. They take the position that this does not allow for a free artistic thinking in the Afghan context.

While Afghan Diaspora artists tend to be well tied to the western and/or international art markets and agents, the Kabul art scene seems still fragile, as the low number of artists involved in graffiti spraying or rock music shows. Although the mostly young art scene is acting fearlessly in one way, some are concerned that a certain support is still missing on the other hand. "At university, in my faculty I cannot paint in the same abstract style I am exhibiting here in Kassel", Zainab Haidary says, a young female Kabul artist who has received most of her education at a private Kabul art school and from Afghan teachers who had emigrated to Iran. "My professors at university would declare my work for insane and stupid. Not so much because they haven't seen this kind of art before but because the academic structures don't allow for a new thinking." Haidary says that she found the Documenta seminars very encouraging in this sense. They helped her "to believe in and respect my own thinking".

Haidary’s work and that of half a dozen other Afghan artists is exhibited off the main stage in Kassel, in what until recently were the rooms of a Chinese restaurant, refurbished for the occasion, and lodged in the shadow of the big Fridericianum. In these small, individually decorated rooms, a number of Afghan artists only had the opportunity to meet with German and international media and galerists, as they had to leave for Kabul again on the day of the opening in Kassel to the public to finish their artworks in Afghanistan. As a result, they missed the opportunity to engage in a wider exchange of views with the public of the Kassel documenta.

The question what influenced the Documenta has had on the international artists who taught and performed in Kabul is comparably easy to answer. The experience on site seems to have resulted in approaches that are more humble. Goshka Macuga puts hers in question: "Do we, let alone Documenta, have the capacity to accept that other cultures have different aspirations and definitions of how humans thrive and flourish, which are equally valid and valuable?" And she concludes that "the exploration and appreciation of other cultures cannot materialize through imposing the heritage or system of western traditions."

The question whether the Documenta is in any way important for Afghanistan and whether ordinary Afghans have any benefit from it, deserves a more critical answer. "Probably not", answers philosopher Menke. He realizes that even the best intentions cannot easily change the course of a country and a population whose abilities to consume art and to reflect on it are hampered by the struggle for their daily livings and the implications of the military conflict.

And while Afghanistan incorporates a big number of cultural identities, the Documenta has basically reached out to Kabul only. This is because its core team took two cities (Kabul and Kairo) and not two countries as focal points for their attempt to organize cultural encounters, by linking the World War II history of Kassel (that was heavily destroyed by allied bombardments) with aspects of war and conflict in Kabul. Also, the selection process for the more than 20 Afghan participants who would be able to follow all the seminars in Kabul reduced the chance for students and artists from other cities to participate in the adventure. The exception was Bamian, where a one-week seminar on stone carving was held by US artist Michael Rakowitz, aiming at recuperating this traditional skill intrinsic to the Hazara region. A second seminar is to follow later in July, about the modern reading of the Shahname, Firdawsi’s famous "Book of Kings".

As the doors of the Kabul Documenta are now open for a month in Babur Garden, the people of Kabul themselves will give an answer, to which degree they want to engage in a dialogue with the art works exhibited and in how far they value the varying degrees of abstraction in them. As for the wider cultural and artistic context and the impulses exchanged, as one participant put it - maybe the Documenta needs Kabul more than Afghanistan actually needs the Documenta.


This article was first published on June 20, 2012 at Afghanistan Analysts Network


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