Nationality, Identity, and Art
20 March 2017
In conversation with Afghan-American artist Aman Mojadidi.
(This is an interview from our March 2014 print quarterly, ‘Reclaiming Afghanistan’. See more from the issue here.)
Contemporary creative practices can provide a microcosmic perspective on larger geopolitical dynamics. In a country like Afghanistan, cultural activities could become a lens through which to analyse the potentials and shortcomings of development as well as their short and long-term consequences. In the following conversation, Aman Mojadidi and I analyse the role that contemporary art and cultural practices can play in the current phase of political transition. We reflect on the role that foreign artists and international donors play in shaping the artistic community in Kabul, and on the complex meaning and interpretation of public space in relation to the growth of civil society.
Aman Mojadidi is an Afghan-American artist who refers to himself as “Afghan by blood, redneck by the grace of God, and a radically politicised artist.” His work springs from a combination of ethno-anthropological studies, do-it-yourself, and the aesthetics of found objects, and tackles questions of identity and representation in a sarcastic and (self) ironic manner. The internal violence and corruption that undermine the foundations of a country in transformation like Afghanistan occupy a pivotal position in the development of his work.
People run art collectives and do projects with very little money all over the world, the same thing can happen here.
Francesca Recchia: There is so much debate around what 2014 may mean for Afghanistan; it has become an almost mythical date often discussed as if in a vacuum. However, if we want to understand what is happening in the country today in terms of cultural production, international funding, or the growing interest in contemporary art, we need to have at least a ten year perspective.
Aman Mojadidi: In recent years we have witnessed almost a fervour with which art and culture have come into the scope of vision of international organisations, donors and project-implementing agencies in Afghanistan. As you have international presence starting to shrink, you see them shift their more straightforward and direct development projects and start looking at cultural components. “How can we instil ideas of modernity into the cultural fabric of the place?” This seems to have become something that they are trying to do in particular through supporting the arts. You can’t dissociate this from what has happened in the past ten years. Nobody can deny that the contemporary art activity that you see in Kabul now would not be here without this international influence. I wouldn’t say it would have never happened without the past decade of invasion and occupation, but at this point in time I don’t think we would have seen it to this extent.
It will be interesting to see whether this same focus on art and culture is going to be here after 2014. And whether what is happening now has legs strong enough to stand on its own when foreigners will stop supporting it, which I think will inevitably happen as funding will shift to new places and priorities. Whether this cultural ferment is going to be able to stand on its own remains a question. There are so many little pockets of activities happening now in Kabul: in music, painting, film, photography. You have tonnes of them, but how much of this will keep going? Time is going to tell. There is the potential for cultural activities to move forward, but a lot of organisations have become dependent on international money and presence. If this deteriorates, will local cultural organisations have the motivation to keep going rather than continue to be psychologically and financially dependent? In practical terms, there would be no real obstacle: you are a group of artists and you do art. There is nothing to it: you don’t have to have funding. People run art collectives and do projects with very little money all over the world, the same thing can happen here. But when you immediately connect the creation of art with a donor, a project, a budget, then this is the sign of a very damaging mentality that can kill the potential of these cultural initiatives to move forward.
FR: I am interested in what you are saying about the role that culture has played on the international agenda in Afghanistan. My feeling is that there is a contingent approach to funding, but no real vision in terms of cultural policy-making. This is extremely limiting as cultural change does not come from sporadic funding episodes.
AM: I agree. At one level, things have to become more institutionalised here: the problem is that there is no overall vision and political decisions are still taken on the basis of the individual interests of those who are in charge. At another level, one-off events aren’t going to have any profound impact on art and cultural activities. I always use the analogy of hard dried earth that has had this huge bucket of water dumped on it: that bucket of water is modernisation, cultural activities, art, music, internet, English, money, everything. It spreads across the surface of the dry earth widely, it covers a huge swathe of earth, but it doesn’t penetrate at all and it evaporates before it actually gets into the ground. That’s what’s been happening in Afghanistan over the last decade. So, yes, one-off events are problematic, not useless by any means, but don’t provide that kind of long term sustainable impact.
FR: You mentioned the word institutionalisation and that is a bit problematic: if we think of contemporary art production in the West, rarely does good work come out of the institutions, commercial galleries, or ministry-sponsored festivals. In a place like Afghanistan, however, if there isn’t the political will to change, things can’t move forward. How do we reconcile these two opposites?
AM: I don’t see these as polar opposites. The difference is mostly that in the West artists aren’t necessarily looking for institutional validation. In Afghanistan, art has never been recognised as a career, so there is a cultural need for respect and recognition. And this comes from validation by the family first of all, and then by the institutions. The next step will be to find ways to embed contemporary art broadly within Afghan society and to create a deeper relationship between the artists and the public.
In Afghanistan, art has never been recognised as a career, so there is a cultural need for respect and recognition. And this comes from validation by the family first of all, and then by the institutions.
FR: This issue brings about the question of the relation with tradition. Contemporary art seems to be often understood as a foreign, colonising cultural form. Whether it is because of prejudice or fear, these resistances can be understandable.
AM: I think a part of it is fear; there is a serious identity crisis in Afghanistan now. In this last decade, the combination of hyper modernisation and the desire to stay rooted in Afghan tradition and in what makes us Afghans has created a sort of schizophrenia. People don’t really know where to root themselves and this can sometimes create a more extreme desire to look back at tradition. So then all these contemporary activities are perceived as disconnected from what makes us Afghans.
Cultural changes are not about evolving, but are about shifting, absorbing and merging. Afghanistan itself was actually created through this process of intercultural mixing. A lot of people still see contemporary art as something entirely Western, this is why people often ask “What is Afghan about this kind of art?” Why does it have to be? The question is a manifestation of this fear. And it is also attached to the idea of what makes one an artist. There is a very real sense of progression here: if you haven’t learnt the basics of painting or drawing then you can’t do contemporary art. There is a very linear notion of how art is meant to progress, which is then mixed with today’s fear of cultural invasion. The national identity project in Afghanistan never really stuck and it is still not there. People try to root themselves in something, but at the same time they don’t exactly know what it means and how they can move forward – not even move forward, just move in terms of their culture and identity as Afghans. So this need to be rooted in something traditional, it is a fear of what is ahead and what the possibilities are.
FR: This brings us to discuss two important issues: authenticity and essentialism.
AM: Definitely. And essentialism is very hard to break. Even for Afghan artists it becomes very difficult to say: “If I don’t do something that is essentially Afghan, will others really want to see it or care about it?” So they get stuck because that’s almost what is expected, because that is how the system works. But that then contradicts or comes into conflict with people’s attempt to create something that is truly authentic, something that is truly theirs.
FR: How do we connect authenticity with openness and change?
AM: I will answer with a question: what is it that may make an open society in Afghanistan, what are the criteria towards which people may point to Afghanistan as being more open, more liberal? There was a horrible article in the LA Times where they were saying how cosmetic surgery is an indicator of a more open society in Afghanistan because women who were working and earning their own money were also making cosmetic surgery decisions for themselves. But you also have fathers who were taking their daughters to get nose jobs because it would make them more valuable and the bride’s price would go up. So is that really an indicator of a more open society? And is cosmetic surgery a benchmark of openness anywhere else in the world? If there are more contemporary art activities in Afghanistan, does it make for a more open society? Not necessarily. These activities don’t inherently possess a more open or liberal idea, so I think we have to be very careful. If we need to point to things as indicators of what makes a more open society or culture in Afghanistan, we have to shift perspective as this can be very much shaped by our own, Western experience and understanding of what is an open society.
I don’t think there needs to be an Afghan identity as such, but the development of contemporary art anywhere happens within the context of the place so it’s going to develop on its own without having to force it.
FR: What you are saying brings us to discuss the perceptions and assumptions with which a lot of people – artists included – arrive in Afghanistan. As Westerners we use our linguistic frame of reference to understand a place, but we often impose our language on it. If you push this consideration to its extreme consequences, then we get to one of the reasons why the whole Western project in Afghanistan has failed. We came here with a model, the place didn’t fit, hence it is the place that failed. I have the impression that in the arts the conceptual dynamics are pretty much the same.
AM: Yes, I think so. And this goes back to why I think contemporary art in Afghanistan needs to find some sort of grounding within institutions, organisations, public spaces, because otherwise there is no way that it will develop its own identity. You know that I don’t think there needs to be an Afghan identity as such, but the development of contemporary art anywhere happens within the context of the place so it’s going to develop on its own without having to force it.
FR: Following the same train of thought, there are two concepts that I would like to discuss with you. One is the idea of civil society, and the other is that of public space. Both have very strong contextual and cultural connotations that we often forget. In the West, we almost have a standard notion of what civil society and public space are, a standard notion that is very much taken for granted. I have the impression that there are ways of creating public space here that are very different from what we intend. In the West we understand civil society in terms of participation – as a one-to-one, each person has a vote, a voice – whereas here it may work in a very different way. Again we would be pushed to think that there is no civil society in Afghanistan, just because it works really differently from what we as Westerners understand.
AM: Society in Afghanistan operates on a completely different structure. The US promotes individualism, it is very much about you as an individual, whereas here you have more of a collectivity. You don’t just exist as an individual, you exist within your family unit, and then there is a hierarchy of elders, who become representatives for your family, and so on. Here participation is very much representative. There are people who represent communities, or groups of participants as opposed to the one-to-one notion. The same for public space: public and private here have a different kind of manifestation. Even with the ways in which space is divvied up, the participation of people within those spaces has a whole lot of other components. Take a park in the US: there everyone can come. Here you have a park and not everyone is going to go, because that is tied to other cultural norms and restrictions – gender restrictions, for example. There is, in fact, a kind of play with the lines between public and private.
FR: There are quite a few artists coming here promoting public art or community art, with very little understanding of how society works in Afghanistan.
AM: Yes. Most artists come to Afghanistan because they find it cool: this goes back to what I call conflict chic. I remember there was a Dutch artist who came and started running through the streets with a white flag. Everyone in Kabul knows that a white flag is the Taliban flag. There was a hole in the flag and I guess he was trying to make some sort of comment, but if you don’t build the context around what you’re doing, then everybody would only see a Taliban flag with a hole in it. Ultimately, I think it is only about the artists wanting to do something in Afghanistan that feeds their own creative practice. I am not necessarily against it, but I don’t think it has a lot of impact or does much for the art scene here.
FR: I agree: if they want to do it, fine, but my concern with this is that very few people understand what could be the backlash of their actions.
Most artists come to Afghanistan because they find it cool: this goes back to what I call conflict chic.
AM: That’s the case if the work has some kind of ripple effect or can be potentially controversial. And people actually want to take advantage of that controversy as part of their agenda to promote what they are doing. That can surely have some serious backlash for Afghans, who maybe see it and try to replicate it or get inspired by it. But responsibility lies on both sides. Even though a young Afghan artist may be very impressionable, he knows the context within which he’s living. If he emulates the foreign artist in ways he knows are problematic then there is a certain degree of individual responsibility that has to come into play. Afghan artists should be conscious about how they can do what they want in ways that wouldn’t be dangerous. This, however, doesn’t make what the foreign artist is doing any better.
A lot of people perceive Afghans as victims to such an extent that they can’t do anything for themselves, they almost can’t think for themselves, they have no agency of their own and this I think is complete bullshit. I think Afghans have an incredible amount of agency, they are able to figure out what works for them and what doesn’t, what they can or can’t do and can be incredibly entrepreneurial and creative even now. I think there is no way you can look at Afghans participating within society and see them as being weak and victimised. Young artists may be so impressionable that they do something wrong, but at the same time they are not just sheep. To see Afghans like that can be very much rooted in the old Kipling ‘white man’s burden’ description of people as half children, half devils. Victimisation of Afghans is almost that: they are naïve and violent and they don’t have much more capacity than that in terms of their thought processes.
FR: A friend once told me: “People come to Afghanistan, organise a workshop and teach us ABC, but we always stop at A because every time someone new comes, he starts from A and doesn’t think that we can go any further.”
AM: I agree with this 100 percent. You have a lot of foreigners who come in thinking, “I am going to do a workshop on something because no one has done it before and these Afghans don’t know anything about this.” But again, I put responsibility on both sides, because you also have institutions saying, “Yes please do come and give that workshop,” even if they have already had five of them exactly like that in the past. But this is a way for them to get money, materials, prestige, maybe more connections with international institutions. Afghans should say, “No, we actually already had three workshops that dealt with this subject, could you give us a workshop that deals with this instead?” This doesn’t happen. You get so dependent that you just take whatever they are going to give you: a ‘whatever is better than nothing’ kind of approach.
FR: One last question. Humour plays an important role in situations of conflict. You always say that Afghan society is more light-hearted than it appears on the surface.
AM: There are two things that have kept the suicide rates in Afghanistan from being over-the-top: one is the fact that it’s so sunny, and the other is that Afghans actually do have a pretty good sense of humour. If you overhear boys and girls talking, they are constantly teasing each other. And there is a political satire TV show called Zang-e-Khatar (The Warning Bell) where they are making fun of all the ineptness and inefficiencies of the government. The fact that there can even be such a show is remarkable. Oscar Wilde said “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” And this says a lot about society here and the ability of Afghans to use humour to get through all their shit.
Francesca Recchia is an independent researcher and writer who has worked and taught in India, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Palestine, among other places. She is currently affiliated with the Centre of South Asian Studies, SOAS, and Milan’s Università Bocconi, and is organising the first Kabul literature festival.