Representations and juxtapositions
6 February 2013
The war in Afghanistan as depicted in Germany.
On a small screen inside a low-ceilinged room in a gothic hospice – now a museum – there were feet marching to a war beat; feet striding confidently in front of a brick wall; one foot hopping across the screen; finally, a pair treading cautiously – one outfitted with an artificial limb. In the background, a rustic machine was pounding away, perhaps producing prosthetics. The haunting video encapsulates all the violence, terror, pain and irreversibility of war. Rahraw Omarzad’s Gaining and Losing featured at the 2012 Documenta, an international art exhibition organised every five years in Kassel, Germany.Elsewhere, inside an elegant hall in a grand palace, the Kassel Fridericianum, a film screen simultaneously showed two young women gliding through two different palaces: the Fridericianum itself and Kabul’s Darul Aman – both depicted in states of void and semi-decay. The images conjured the unsettling architectural and historical parallels of the two locations.The Fridericianum, constructed as a princely palace and a public museum after the French Revolution, later housed a 19th century provincial parliament, and was almost completely destroyed by the Allied Forces’ bombs during World War II. Similarly, Kabul’s palace, built on the outskirts of the city by King Amanullah Khan in the 1920s, was meant to house Afghanistan’s first parliament. It was repeatedly destroyed by fires and in the 1990s became the site of battles among rival factions of the mujahideen. Mariam Ghani’s A Brief History of Collapses – which also featured at the Documenta – captures the eerie beauty of the two buildings. Like Omarzad’s film, it is a haunting condemnation of destruction. To support the visuals of the film, Mariam and her father Ashraf Ghani – former Finance Minister in the Karzai government – have put together a history of Afghanistan in the form of a pocket encyclopaedia.At the corner of another museum in Munich, an exhibition is stacked with bombproof sandbags. In the background, voices recount the impressions of German combatants stationed in Kabul, Kunduz and Mazar-i-Sharif, where they have been deployed as NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops. The soldiers – women and men – speak of their daily routine, their interaction with Afghan colleagues, the unanticipated hospitality, the beauty of the country, and their fear of the hostile environment. Soundtracks accompany the exhibition, which draws on artefacts from the museum’s collections.The exhibition also has a series of photographs: heavily armed soldiers controlling Afghan civilians’ papers, senior German officers conversing with Afghan village elders, a white man in uniform offering Gummy Bears to a burqa-clad Afghan woman, five children travelling in the trunk of a Kabul taxi, and two sisters improvising a tribal dance. Augenblick Afghanistan (A moment in Afghanistan) – the exhibition at the State Museum for Ethnology – offers an ethnographic portrayal of war. Here the intention is twofold: to offer a political approach to anthropology – often represented as apolitical – and to cast an eye on contemporary Afghanistan through the lens of the military intervention.Superficially, as events and as venues, the Documenta – held in Kassel’s Fridericianum and around the city – and the Munich exhibition have very little in common. One is an international art festival, well known and advertised – having drawn more than 800,000 visitors in 2012. The other is one of several annual exhibitions held in a sombre Bavarian museum, operating on an austerity budget with scant media exposure. But they both devoted a major effort to the same country, the same topic, in the same year: was it a coincidence? Zeitgeist? Pacifism? Nostalgia?Kassel-Kabul connectionCommonalities between Afghanistan and Germany have many layers. On the one hand, there has been a similar experience of dehumanising ideologies and subsequent atrocities. In Nazi Germany, a fascist ideology led to the systematic persecution and murder of six million Jews, and many others who were subjected to terror because of their identities (the Roma and Sinti), sexual orientation, political affiliation, or religious conviction. In Afghanistan, the Taliban dictatorship (1996 to 2001) led to the violent oppression of women, murder of dissidents, and persecution of minority groups like the Hazara. The people of Afghanistan have been victims of a civil war and external intervention for the past 30 years. While Nazi Germany cannot be compared to Afghanistan under the Taliban regime and during subsequent years, people in both countries understand the experience of atrocities, oppression, war and destruction.The linkages between Afghanistan and Germany do not end there. There are also positive associations, such as the easygoing ‘hippy period’ in the 1960s, when middle class German adolescents wore Afghan clothing, upper class Afghan women wore high heels, and German students boarded overland buses to Afghanistan, to avoid the military draft or to smoke marijuana in Kabul. But more recently, over the last 30 years, Germany has become a destination for Afghan asylum seekers. Those who had once arrived as refugee children are now contributing to German multiculturalism.The exhibitions draw on these connections and do so primarily through an appeal to emotions. Rahraw Omarzad’s video attempts to portray the current situation in Afghanistan, of an ongoing civil war, but it’s message has universal implications. Older Germans have uncles who lost a limb in the war. They often romanticise memories from childhood days spent roaming in post-war ruins, despite the risk of undetected explosive devices. They can relate to bombed buildings and the fates of mine victims.
- Mariam Ghani’s work makes the unlikely Kabul-Kassel connection crystal clear. The first post-Third Reich and post-World War II art exhibition in Germany took place in Kassel, a city that in 1945 was in ruins. It had been heavily targeted by the anti-Nazi allies because of the prevalence of military and transport industries. European and American works of art were put on display in Kassel in 1955, in buildings hastily reconstructed to protect audiences and art from rain and cold. Over 60 years later, it is large sections of Kabul that are almost in ruins, although to a lesser degree. It too has a vibrant art scene, as attested by the many Afghan artists, film makers and photographers from across the country, and by the 27,000 people who visited the Kabul venue of the Documenta.The Munich exhibition also appeals to emotions. One prominently displayed set of photos juxtaposes a young Afghan couple hunched in grief over a gravestone, with a German soldier giving a last salute to a row of coffins draped in military emblems. The photos convey the human pain over the death of a German friend or a colleague. There is also a display of toys illustrating a war-torn childhood. From Afghanistan, there are clumsy hand-carved miniature tanks, helicopters and submachine guns. From Germany, there is a collection of amulets and comforters carried by German soldiers: crosses, angels and teddy bears.Futile pacifismIt is worth questioning the broader messages that come across from these exhibitions. Once emotionally stirred, the audience would hopefully want to understand the genesis and interests behind the war in Afghanistan and to advocate for change.By resorting to visual media, the Documenta approach risked aestheticising war and violence. The exhibits certainly had the capacity to move their audience, but did not explain the path dependence of violence and destruction, and certainly did not expose the economic, political, and geopolitical interests behind persecutions, bombs, mines and battles. While the underlying intention was pacifistic, the reduction of maiming and destruction to images of symmetry and beauty was deceptive. The exhibits misinformed because they derailed from the actual causes of the armed conflict. Thus they disarmed, instead of empowering the viewer with the prerequisite knowledge for a pacifistic rebellion.At the Munich exhibition, the conversation is about Germany’s engagement in ISAF. Against prevalent public sentiment, the German Parliament had decided to join the NATO effort almost immediately in 2001. Apart from the NATO-friendly conservative parties, formerly pacifist political parties also voted for the intervention, invoking the responsibility to protect – the moral obligation of the international community to interfere against civil strife and genocide on behalf of persecuted peoples and groups.In its effort to understand and explain the German engagement in Afghanistan, the Munich exhibition uncritically identifies with the German military establishment, by using their – and the US’s – interpretation of the war as the sole narrative. It depicts the Provincial Reconstruction Teams as the only groups interacting with the Afghan people and does not criticise the misguided use of the military for humanitarian activities.Furthermore, the Munich exhibition ignores the initiatives of many Afghan civil society organisations. There are many youth groups that discuss issues in politics and media, or work to promote reproductive health. There are self-taught female teachers who instruct classes of girls in the courtyards of private compounds, and female health workers who volunteer during annual vaccination campaigns. There are also parliamentarians, lawyers’ groups and civil society organisations supporting human rights and rural development. International NGOs and bilateral development agencies are trying to help promote gender equality, and equitable access to education, healthcare, water and sanitation. Various UN agencies like the UNDP, UNICEF, WHO, FAO, ILO – to name a few – engage with the government to restore peace, employment and sustainable development. The problem is not that the activities of these individuals, groups and agencies are not presented in great detail; it is that these other voices are totally ignored.The Munich exhibition also reproduces a number of colonial prejudices in presenting the soldiers’ narratives without critical commentary. The soldiers describe Afghans as an industrious people who can help the German army as cleaners and cooks, but who need to be taught reliability and punctuality. They depict Afghanistan as a beautiful country, cluttered with garbage, where the dusty roads are clogged with incompetent drivers, and the dusky dens are inhabited by opium addicts. Their stories from Afghanistan convey a condescending picture of a poor and unenlightened country, not of a people persecuted by internal and external aggressors.More importantly, the exhibition reveals nothing about the international war machinery: the collusion with warlords to transport military supplies; the immensely tall courtyard walls stacked high with imported heavy-duty road-construction equipment that obstruct job opportunities for local people; the billions of dollars that bypass the government budget and bloat a parallel economy outside the control of the ministries. Thus, unwittingly, the exhibition fails to enlighten why this mission – purportedly to protect – is bound to fail.The Afghanistan exhibitions at the Documenta and the Munich museum touch visitors emotionally, and open eyes and ears. They offer insights and alternative viewpoints and speak to the common experiences of suffering in the two countries. As such, they are extremely important initiatives. However, they fall short of their ambitions. They do not offer analysis or convoke for change. Ultimately, they offer disappointment.~ Gabriele Köhler is a development economist interested in economic and social policy in Southasia. She is based in Munich and is also affiliated with the Institute of Development Studies in Sussex.