Snapshot of Afghanistan:
Fear and Yearning in a Ravaged Land
For the first time ever, a German museum is attempting to look at the subject of Afghanistan from the point of view of German soldiers deployed in the Central Asian state. Although soldiers could be regarded as having always also been cultural mediators, bringing foreign countries closer to home through their letters, reports, and the objects they brought back with them, they have rarely been given the chance to speak out – at least where Afghanistan is concerned.
Following lengthy internal discussions, the curators at the State Museum for Ethnology in Munich decided it would also show the soldiers’ point of view – a courageous step, especially given that museums for ethnology rarely focus on contemporary issues. Recordings, official photo material, and personal objects provide surprising insights into the life of soldiers on a combat mission.
But there is more to the exhibition Snapshot of Afghanistan than this. The impressions of the foreign soldiers are appropriately complemented by the perspectives of young Afghan photographers. In the early twentieth century, members of Afghanistan’s genteel elite were fascinated by photography and took photographic portraits of one another. Abused by the Soviets for political propaganda purposes and banned altogether by the Taliban, since 2002 photography has once again been gaining in popularity. By setting up media institutes and organising festivals, workshops and exhibitions, foreign foundations are contributing to the improvement and dissemination of photographic material. For example, the photographs exhibited in Munich were taken for a photo competition that was run in conjunction with the Goethe-Institut in Kabul in early 2012. The aim was to get young artists to capture their day-to-day experiences in photographic form. Exhibition visitors primed by mass media images of Afghan misery and the devastation caused by war will be surprised by these images too.
Snapshot of Afghanistan is not about analysing, politicising, and explaining; it is about raising questions and expanding horizons. Using a balanced mix of the various educational formats available to museums, the State Museum for Ethnology presents Afghanistan in the year 2012 and brings it to life for visitors. The layout and design of the exhibition, which is based on the colours of Afghanistan and its different landscapes, invite them to feel their way into the material, which is at times confusingly complex. Key words are emblazoned on the wall in large letters in an attempt to create order and aid comprehension.
Compelling, despite some problematic aspects
Given that the exhibition catalogue was published by an institution devoted to ethnology, a little more gender sensitivity in the choice of authors and themes would have been welcome. All too often, the living situations of Afghan women are used as an argument for the foreign combat mission and to help legitimise it. These women deserve more qualified and more nuanced attention. On this level, some of the captions are also deserving of criticism, namely those that seem to aim to correct the Western image of Islam, and to draw a clear line between this and the abuse and misogynist perversion of Islam by extremists. However, some of the formulations were ill-chosen, and this has drawn fierce reactions from some visitors.
That said, the exhibition works. It opens up new vistas and allows for balanced and nuanced reflection on a country that truly does have more to offer than chaos and war. Afghanistan: a country of contrasts and uncertainties, a country of cultural wealth and breathtaking landscapes.
The intention is for all foreign combat troops to be withdrawn from the country by the end of 2014. After that, Afghan society will have to show whether it is ready to embark on the road to independence, responsibility, and peace. Then, at the very latest, it will be time to take another ‘Snapshot of Afghanistan’.The exhibition Augenblick Afghanistan – Angst und Sehnsucht in einem versehrten Land [Snapshot of Afghanistan: Fear and Yearning in a Ravaged Land] runs at the State Museum for Ethnology in Munich until 15th September 2013. The eponymous exhibition catalogue is published by Tobias Mattern and Christine Stelzig.
is a political scientist and expert in Islamic Studies. Her main focus is contemporary issues in Arab / Islamic societies, and her main research topic is the realities of women’s lives.
Translated by Aingeal Flanagan
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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