Coming to Terms with the Past

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    Art in a War Zone
    Why the Kabul dOCUMENTA Was Not What It Wanted to Be

    The dOCUMENTA in the German city of Kassel is said to be the world’s biggest exhibition of contemporary art. The 13th dOCUMENTA was held this year, and for the first time Afghanistan was a focus of the exhibition programme.

    Works by Afghan artists, both from within the country and from the diaspora, as well as by internationally renowned artists who had spent time in residence in Kabul were shown not only in Kassel but also in Kabul itself, where a complementary exhibition was displayed in the former royal Babur Gardens from June 20th to July 19th. Prior to this, the organisers held a series of seminars in Kabul and Bamyan.

    ‘War creates facts. But art, too, can create facts of a highly different order,’ writes Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, the director of the thirteenth Documenta, in an essay about why, in Kabul and Cairo, she chose two places dealing with war and conflict as complementary venues for this year’s exhibition. 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 to all those 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’, in ways ‘that do not isolate people even further, but provide opportunities for the opposite’.

    In this spirit, a delegation from the Documenta’s core team first visited Kabul in late summer 2010. A series of lectures and more than seven seminars followed, one in Bamyan and the majority in Kabul, most of which took place in early 2012. Some of these culminated in a series of artworks produced by international and Afghan artists both from within the country and from the diaspora. Other works were commissioned separately by and for the Documenta. Some of these artworks were exhibited in Kassel for the traditional period of 100 days, while others could only be seen in Kabul. But while the two parts were supposed to complement each other like an artistic equation, in the absence of any picture or film footage from the ‘other city at war’ there was in fact no opportunity for the visitors in either Kassel or Kabul to form a concrete impression of the ‘twin’ exhibition in the counterpart location. (Kabul is still at war, and Kassel’s history as an important city for the German arms industry before and during World War II, as well as its subsequent destruction, have been highlighted by the exhibition’s curators.)

    Ultimately, probably only a few dozen people had the privilege of appreciating the Afghan focus of the Documenta in its entirety in both Kassel and Kabul. Apart from the geographical limitations imposed on artistic discourse in a war zone, the organisers were also confronted by the challenges of the social, political and psychological context of Afghanistan. While the core team and artists associated with the Kabul programme stressed that teaching and exhibiting in Kabul was to be an exchange without prejudice and not a ‘colonialist approach’, some of their recent reactions and accounts suggest that some of them only realised the full implications of the project ‘on the job’.

    ‘Embedded’ as an outsider

    The Polish artist Goshka Macuga produced two large tapestries for the Documenta 13. One was exhibited in the Fridericianum, the Documenta’s main venue in Kassel, the other in the Queen’s Palace in the Afghan capital. She says she experienced Kabul ‘very much as an outsider, conditioned and limited by never-ending security measures equal to those [in place for] elite groups, the NGOs and the international contractors based there. I was embedded in the activities of the Documenta programme, 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’ among 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, Menke adds, ‘the situation changed and participants started to express their own concerns and positions’.

    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, was 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 such an exhibition could be instrumentalised by foreign interests and donor countries.

    The risk of donor logic

    ‘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 in 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,’ says Mojaddedi. This conceptual problem led to a number of discussions behind the scenes of the Documenta, but surprisingly it was not what interested any of the 2,000 or more journalists present at the opening press conference in Kassel.

    Although Mojaddedi, who grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, does not categorise the Kabul part of the Documenta as a donor-orientated aid programme, he agrees that, more generally, a constant dependence on foreign funds impedes the motivation of Afghan artists. ‘Often people are waiting for the money to come in before they actually start doing something. For me, sustainability is an obscure word. It suggests that solutions always come from 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 an more sustainable approach.’

    The Kabul art scene

    Some collectives of artists have in fact emerged in Kabul in recent years. One of these is ‘Roshd’, a group of young male and female artists who currently face an interesting internal debate on whether or not to apply for registration with the Ministry of Culture and Information. 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, this is a no-go area. The ‘Jump Cut Group’, a collective of male filmmakers and cameramen, has opted to work on a two-way strategy, depending partly on funded projects with hardly any artistic value while dedicating the majority of their time to independent artistic productions. ‘This is a training for ourselves,’ says Jalal Husseini, one of its members. ‘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 towards ‘tanzim thinking’ and ethnic division, even among young artists. They take the position that this does not allow for free artistic thinking in the Afghan context.

    Zainba Haidary, a young female artist with the Roshd group, comments on something one hears repeatedly about the Kabul artistic environment: ‘At university, in my faculty, I cannot paint in the same abstract style I’m exhibiting here in Kassel.’ Zainab 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 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 in this respect she found the Documenta seminars in Kabul very encouraging. 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 were until recently the rooms of a Chinese restaurant, refurbished for the occasion and located in the shadow of the big Fridericianum. In these small, individually decorated rooms a number of Afghan artists had the opportunity to meet only with German and international media and gallery owners, as they had to go back to Afghanistan to finish their artworks in Kabul the day the Kassel exhibition opened to the public. As a result, the Documenta organisers missed the opportunity to engage them in a wider exchange of views with the public in Kassel.

    The Babur Gardens Bubble

    Visiting Kabul two weeks after the Kassel opening, and following the Kabul Documenta up until the end, the figures sounded very positive indeed: around 15,000 visitors in four weeks, with a peak of 2,000 in the Princess’s Palace, located in the Babur Gardens, on each of the four Fridays after the opening on 20th June. The number of visitors the Documenta attracted seems, at first glance, to indicate that it was a success. Families from different walks of life, workers as well as intellectuals, mixed with foreign diplomats and NGO workers. All wandered through the pompously renovated and refurbished building, where Kabul’s five-star Serena Hotel restaurant also opened a branch a few months ago.

    Some of the visitors to the exhibition took the time to stand in front of the art works for a short period of reflection, and later signed a guest book laid out at the entrance. This records statements of support or enthusiasm rather than of rejection, as might have been expected for the rather avant-garde art on display. Some of the comments refer to ‘the beautiful rooms’ of the palace, which at times seemed to overshadow the artworks themselves.

    Other visitors, who had not come to see the exhibition but were simply picnicking with their families on the lower lawn of the Babur Gardens, were attracted by people queuing at the entrance to the palace in the upper section and became curious about what was going on. Later, one saw some of these random visitors, somewhat disorientated, rushing through the aisles of the palace and saying, on leaving, that ‘there was nothing there’ (‘chis na bud’). To be fair, in a modern art context such rejection by parts of the audience is nothing out of the ordinary, and is encountered even in the biggest Western art capitals. The exhibition venue in Kabul’s Babur Gardens effectively became an ambiguous place where cultural perceptions clashed.

    However, there were also other respects in which the good intentions expressed by the Documenta’s core team at the start of the exhibition were not translated into actions. Although they insisted that they had shown cultural sensitivity over the two-year period of designing the Kabul programme and the preceding seminars, no space was created for the Afghan curator to make a statement at the opening of the Kabul exhibition. The Afghan Minister for Information and Culture, Sayed Makhdum Rahin, pronounced some solemn words on the occasion, but this hardly made up for the omission.

    Art and ‘nation building’

    A number of reviews in German newspapers in the days after the opening welcomed the curator’s courageousness in staging the event in Kabul. The reviewer in the TAZ, for example, saw a ‘transfer (of ideas) that works surprisingly well’, and ‘the rare case of an intervention that will go down in the history books, really awakening the forces of [Afghan] civil society, which are to carry the country’s future in the period ahead’. The Swiss Neue Züricher Zeitung takes a more nuanced approach, welcoming the exhibition as ‘art therapy’ for Afghan society, while referring to Western governmental policies having tried in recent years to make use of modern art events in conflict zones as a tool to propagate a rhetoric of democratisation. ‘In Afghanistan, too,’ the author writes, ‘funding for the art scene is part of democratic nation building and the establishment of a civil society.’ However, in my experience of the Kabul art scene over the past ten years, I doubt whether – with the exception of a number of more general statements on the relationship between the arts and conflict, and reshaping state structures in conflict environments – one could identify anything that could be described as an international strategy to help the Afghan culture and art scene build its own identity, and to do this with care and reserve rather than with a offensive approach.

    In fact, some of the Documenta’s statistics also reflect this Western-centric approach. Only three of the twenty-seven artists exhibited in the Babur Gardens and in Kassel grew up in Kabul, or are currently and permanently living there. The rest were international artists, or Afghans who grew up abroad and/or have largely mixed identities, people with a sound understanding of how the mechanisms of the Western art scene function. Not surprisingly, in both Kabul and Kassel the interaction between the foreign artists and the group of Afghans artists from the diaspora was more intense than with the Afghan artists from the country itself.

    ‘For us as Kabuli artists, the works presented in the Kassel and Kabul exhibitions and the artistic discourse of the Documenta was something totally new, often too far away from our realities,’ one of the three Kabuli artists told me.

    Of the few in-depth reviews of the Kabul Documenta that I encountered, the one by Robert Kluijver, who has been familiar with the Afghan art scene for a long time now, stands out. He points out that some of the limitations of the Documenta ‘are caused by the fact that [its organisers] ended up relying heavily on the US-Afghan connection. This of course doesn’t detract from their quality as artists. But how tuned-in are they to contemporary developments in Afghanistan? Their relationship with this country is coloured by their dreams of a homeland that would conform to their expectations, which are in turn shaped by the nostalgia of their exiled parents. Their art reflects this and, in my experience, doesn’t resonate much with Afghans that didn’t grow up abroad.’

    Which Afghan cultural identity?

    The Kabul Documenta has certainly enriched the local art scene and provided fresh inspiration to its – mostly young – artists. It has also made an international audience – both donors and buyers – aware of Afghan art; they will now know who to contact when looking for something original in terms of art from a war zone.

    But herein lies the problem. It can hardly be argued that, in terms of quality, the exhibition in the Babur Gardens has introduced new standards to Afghan art and cultural identity. On the contrary: with the end of the month-long exhibition the reality looks less bright. The Kabul art scene is scattered and is limited to a few individuals in each field, contrary to what the regular headlines from a supposedly lively artistic environment suggest. And at times some of the activities of these dynamic youngsters seem to have been encouraged or even initiated by foreigners – their presence, contacts and money – rather than emerging from an independent creative reflex. In fact, the international headlines about the ‘first Afghan punk rock group’, the ‘first graffiti artists’ or ‘first female rapper’ simply show how much Western media copy from one another while being unable substantially to judge and spend time in the Kabul art scene.

    That said, the more traditional branch of Afghan art, involving demonstrations of poetry and literature, also exists, but was not considered for this exhibition. This is in part obviously to do with limitations of time and space, as well as an apparent lack of desire to open up to broader sections of the Afghan population and its customs. Other reasons may lie with an approach that seems to concentrate solely on a context of modernity for which the Afghan capital stands; or, as a graffiti artist has sprayed in blue on one of the walls of a narrow street in Taimani: ‘Kabul is a bubble’.

    The Kabul art scene still has to struggle with reflexes of censorship and self-censorship. On the opening day, two art works by young Kabuli artists were confiscated by the Afghan state authorities, i.e. the Ministry for Information and Culture. One of the artists claims that he was slapped and held in custody for an hour. The Afghan authorities say there was misuse of writings and the significance of the Koran, whereas the young artists say they simply hinted at a social reality: that lots of Afghans ‘read’ the Koran on a daily basis without knowing its exact meaning, a fact generally known throughout the country. 

    The self-censoring aspect of incidents like these is clearly apparent. Artists or journalists in the Afghan media are unable to obtain a clear definition of terms such as ‘blasphemy’ if they are accused of wrongdoing and need to defend themselves before the law.

    The final question

    So after a month-long exhibition in Kabul and two years of preparation and seminars in Afghanistan, what influence has the Documenta had on the international artistswho taught and performed in Kabul? This question is comparatively easy to answer. The experience of being in situ seems to have resulted in approaches that are more humble. Goshka Macuga expresses hers in the following 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 materialise through imposing the heritage or system of Western traditions’.

    The question of whether the Documenta is in any way important for Afghanistan, and whether ordinary Afghans have any benefit from it, requires a more critical answer. ‘Probably not,’ answers the philosopher Christoph Menke. He realises 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 daily struggle for their livelihood and the implications of the military conflict. And while Afghanistan incorporates a large number of cultural identities, the Documenta has basically reached out to Kabul alone. With the exception of Bamyan, where the US artist Michael Rakowitz held a one-week seminar on stone carving with the aim of reviving this traditional skill intrinsic to the Hazara region, the approach was a unilateral one. As for the wider cultural and artistic context and the impulses exchanged: as one participant put it, maybe the Documenta needed Kabul more than Afghanistan actually needed the Documenta.

    And as for the future of the independent Afghan art scene, any answer will need to consider the fragility or even absence of structures for supporting Afghan art – the lack of galleries, art museums, in-depth art education, art publications and media devoted to the issue, etc. It is also far from clear what of the existing art landscape, with its often-foreign impulses, will survive beyond 2014, and in what form. However, looked at positively, the approach of the Kabul Documenta has highlighted the fragility of the Afghan art scene and its ambiguities in the current international context.
    Martin Gerner
    is a German journalist and filmmaker. Afghanistan is a focus of his work.

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    November 2012

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