Aghanistan: Untitled:

Imago Mundi

Contemporary Artist from Aghanistan

Untitled, Contemporary Artists from Afghanistan, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi
Untitled: Contemporary Art from Afghanistan
As with most issues concerning Afghanistan, the subject of contemporary art in the country likewise becomes complicated for philosophical and sociopolitical reasons that are largely not confronted when dealing with the same subject in other nations. 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, seen a surge of interest from, and so 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.
Muhammad Hasib Hazinyar - Untitled, Muhammad Hasib Hazinyar, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Muhammad Hasib Hazinyar - Untitled (2013)

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. This has been an ongoing challenge over the years not only in my work with artists and attempts to explore and support contemporary artistic production in Afghanistan, but in the production and development of my own artistic practice as well.

Pedram Beheshty - Untitled, Pedram Beheshty, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Pedram Beheshty - Untitled (2013)

o, naturally, when I was first contacted about curating the Imago Mundi-10x12 Project for Afghanistan, I was skeptical, even if I was already well aware of Fabrica and Benetton’s contributions to art and culture around the world. It was November 2012, and I was in the middle of producing a complicated installation for the Kochi/ Muziris Biennale when the call came. The mobile connection between Treviso and Ft. Kochi was weak, and the conversation was intense, but brief. Upon hanging up I simply went back to what I was doing – making art. After all, I thought, I am an artist, not a curator. And although I have engaged with artists in a variety of ways in Afghanistan, including curatorial, I have never considered myself a curator. 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?

Ommolbanin Shamsia Hassani - Misleh Man (Like Me), Ommolbanin Shamsia Hassani, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Ommolbanin Shamsia Hassani - Misleh Man (Like Me) (2013)

Sayed Naweed ul Haq Fazle - Untitled, Sayed Naweed ul Haq Fazle, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Sayed Naweed ul Haq Fazle - Untitled (2013)

So I forgot about the conversation for some time.
But once I had a chance to research the Imago Mundi project, and its various incarnations around the world including in the USA, 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. What this specifically meant for me was not only another manifestation of my relationship with contemporary art in the country and an interesting way to engage with friends in Afghanistan (as well as make new friends and see new works), but also an opportunity to confront Afghan artists on behalf of “the outside world” in the same way artists would be confronted in other countries - where the production of contemporary art is perhaps more “expected” or, at least, less surprising, less questioned, and less complicated.

Navidu Rahman Alam – Untitled, Navidu Rahman Alam, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Navidu Rahman Alam – Untitled (2013)

Durkhanai Stanizai - Untitled, Durkhanai Stanizai, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Durkhanai Stanizai - Untitled (2013)

There would be no seminars, no workshops, no trainings, and no “capacity building” of Afghan artists 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 seemed to lack the preconceived attitudes towards artists in Afghanistan, as well as the expectations of what an Afghan artist should produce work about.
This caught my interest, and held it over the course of the project.

Lajaward Haqiqi - Untitled, Lajaward Haqiqi, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Lajaward Haqiqi - Untitled (2013)

Abdul Wahab Mohmand – King, Abdul Wahab Mohmand, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Abdul Wahab Mohmand – King (2013)

However, although possessing a conceptual approach that provided a more interesting creative space within which the artists could work and interact on an equal par with artists from other countries, the actual implementation of such a project in Afghanistan cannot avoid facing, and being embedded in, the largely contextual set of difficulties, obstacles, surprises, and emotions.

Narges Noori - My Thoughts Make Me Beautiful, Narges Noori, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Narges Noori - My Thoughts Make Me Beautiful (2013)

Fardin Hamidi - Untitled, Fardin Hamidi, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Fardin Hamidi - Untitled (2013)

Afghanistan is a country that is still very much “in” rather than “post” conflict, and so it is impossible to completely separate oneself from that experience, especially when the production of art is often so intricately tied to the environment within which it is produced. The start of the conflicts in 1979 essentially froze the production of contemporary art that had started to take root at the still-emerging Department of Fine Arts of Kabul University. What was maintained was the even earlier “plein air” style modernism that had been brought back from Europe by Afghan artists, such as Ghulam Mohammad Maimanagi, sent by King Amanullah Khan in the ‘20s to study art and who ended up inspiring countless artists into the present-day to recreate an artistic tradition and an art market in Afghanistan.

Ahmad Murtaza Habibyar - Suhl (Peace), Ahmad Murtaza Habibyar, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Ahmad Murtaza Habibyar - Suhl (Peace) (2013)

Arif Bahaduri - Untitled, Arif Bahaduri, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Arif Bahaduri - Untitled (2013)

Furthermore, the current environment, the war itself and the development culture that has mushroomed in response to it, have impacted the way in which contemporary art has re-emerged in the country, the subjects artists tend to gravitate towards, and the
actual production of it by Afghan artists. What this has meant is a sort of creative tunnel vision that made the Imago Mundi project a challenging experience for the artists; many of whom were daunted by the creative freedom of not having (or being expected) to make a piece of work for the project that centered around some of the above-mentioned “public service” style themes, or that were not being dictated by an external donor.

Sayed Elias Hashimi - Untitled, Sayed Elias Hashimi, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Sayed Elias Hashimi - Untitled (2013)

Tahera Afzali – Untitled, Tahera Afzali, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Tahera Afzali – Untitled (2013)

So even after having spent hours with artists discussing the possibilities of the project, artists did not seem to be flocking at the chance to create something for it. As mentioned before, artistic production in Afghanistan is often understood as being tied to a project and the message it wants to spread. But it is also understood as being supported with a budget. I have tried to do projects with friends in the past, installations in public spaces using the money in our own pockets, and when approached about it, 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?

Khyber Hashimi - Untitled, Khyber Hashimi, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Khyber Hashimi - Untitled (2013)

Ahmad Reza Amiri - Untitled, Ahmad Reza Amiri, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Ahmad Reza Amiri - Untitled (2013)

However, at the same time I have other friends calling me asking when the next workshop or exhibition will be or telling me about installations they want to do and whether I know of a space, etc. And it has been this experience, working closely with artists, that has shown me the potential for creating art here that is beyond the bubble of conflict; and that speaks to the simple inner need of an artist to create. It is this potential that I saw as contributing to the Imago Mundi project, where although we do find some standard, and even expected, symbols connected to Afghanistan (i.e. the burqa, the 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.

Hamida Ansari - Love, Hamida Ansari, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Hamida Ansari - Love (2013)

Storai Stanizai - The Eye, Storai Stanizai, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Storai Stanizai - The Eye (2013)

Sitting with a friend in a café one afternoon, we spoke about what the direction of contemporary art could be for Afghanistan. He had just returned from finishing a four- year Bachelor’s program in fine art in Lahore, Pakistan. He was excited to speak about the program and show his portfolio that had, since I had met him several years ago, expanded creatively in terms of conceptual development, material use, and technical skill. But he was already worried about missing the stimulating conversations and collaborative encouragement he experienced in Lahore, and did not know whether he would be equally stimulated now that he was back in Kabul. He was uncertain about his own growth as an artist, and that of contemporary art overall, in the country; not an uncommon concern among artists here.

Ayatullah Ahmadi - Untitled, Ayatullah Ahmadi, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Ayatullah Ahmadi - Untitled (2013)

Rashed Rahmani - Untitled, Rashed Rahmani, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Rashed Rahmani - Untitled (2013)

But ultimately, that growth is in the hands of the artists themselves, and what made my own doubts and concerns disappear was when he (and others over the course of the project) told me that they felt this project provided an unprescribed space within which artists could discuss ideas, styles, and approaches to the work. And as I began receiving the finished pieces, their words were only strengthened as it became obvious that the physical size of the canvas was irrelevant in comparison to the potential size of the work in terms of themes, creativity, dialogue, and conceptual openness.

Azizullah Hazara - Untitled, Azizullah Hazara, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Azizullah Hazara - Untitled (2013)

Folad Anzurgar - Untitled, Folad Anzurgar, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Folad Anzurgar - Untitled (2013)

But the uncertainty and the instability is real, and manifests itself in the logistical challenges of implementing such a project in Afghanistan as much as it might in the artists’ creative practice. With 142 artists to engage and keep track of, there are inevitably problems of access to artists who may live in insecure areas of the country and problems of assurance that those artists curated into the project 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.

Sughra Hussainy - Untitled, Sughra Hussainy, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Sughra Hussainy - Untitled (2013)

Arezo Hassani - Untitled, Arezo Hassani, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Arezo Hassani - Untitled (2013)

This uncertainty is reflected everywhere, including in the titles given (perhaps I should say not given) to the majority of works created by the artists – Untitled. 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.

Zahra Mohammady - Silence, Zahra Mohammady, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Zahra Mohammady - Silence (2013)

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. As a result, the works cover a range
of technical and conceptual development. But this is what I felt was necessary, what felt natural – not a narrow “best of” or “who’s who” of artists in the country, but rather a wide net that captures the contemporary artistic production of what in the past I had been hesitant to call, though now feel it can be nothing but, a movement.

Amanullah Mojadidi

Hamdullah Arbab - Untitled, Hamdullah Arbab, 2013, From the collection of: Imago Mundi

Hamdullah Arbab - Untitled (2013)

Credits: Story

Project management
Amanullah Mojadidi

Valentina Granzotto

Editorial coordination
Enrico Bossan

Luciano Benetton | Amanullah Mojadidi | Rahwad Omarzad

Editing and translation
Carlo Antonio Biscotto | Emma Cole | Abdul Hamid Hemat | Pietro Valdatta

Art direction
Namyoung An

Marco Pavan (artworks) | Lorenzo Tugnoli

Marco Pavan

Qamardeen Chishti - Untitled

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not represent the views of the institutions whose collections include the featured works or of Google Arts & Culture.
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