Art in Afghanistan: A Time of Transition

This piece was first publish in Muftah’s Special Collection Art of Pakistan and Afghanistan

Photo Credit: Lorenzo Tugnoli

Photo Credit: Lorenzo Tugnoli

2014 is slowly running its course. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is expected to withdraw by the end of the year retaining only a very light foothold in the country. Many international donors are responding to the impending transition by reducing their work in Afghanistan as well. In the first few months of the year, attacks against foreigners increased, pushing many international NGOs to cut their presence on the ground to the bare minimum. Reduced military and humanitarian engagement means significantly less money flowing into the country. This will inevitably impact the sustainability of the nation-building process. Reduced cash inflow will have direct repercussions at various levels, affecting the maintenance of armed forces, the funding of salaries for government employees and NGO workers, the creation of new job opportunities, and the provision of basic security.

As is often the case, culture is among the first sectors to suffer funding cuts in times of crisis. To a certain extent, this is happening today in Afghanistan. On the one hand, culture is low on the agenda of donor priorities. This marks a radical change compared to the past few years, when cultural projects were supported, largely in an instrumental manner, to demonstrate the great achievements that resulted from Afghanistan’s occupation. On the other hand, in a revamping of the ‘winning hearts and minds’ counterinsurgency doctrine, donors are likely to continue using arts and culture to convey social and political messages – a subtle yet sneaky form of propaganda.

As Afghanistan transitions into a new phase, this is a prime opportunity to begin assessing the role international funding has played, and can continue to play in the country’s cultural practices.

International Donors in Afghanistan

In general, the centrality of capacity building and deliverables, combined with the fact that decisions are mostly made away from Afghanistan, have created funding priorities that focus on the start-up phase of projects instead of the less exciting work of institutionalizing initiatives. This has triggered a vicious circle of endless beginnings, and left limited funds for investing in long-term sustainability.

Commenting on this phenomenon, an Afghan friend once told me: “People come to teach us ABC, but we always stop at A because every time someone new comes, he starts again from A as he doesn’t expect that we can go any further.” The consequences of this attitude are potentially paralyzing, generating both dependency and irrelevance for many projects, including but not limited to those in the arts.

As an independent researcher living in Kabul, I have had the opportunity to collaborate with different organizations working in arts and culture in Afghanistan. In the past two years, I have directly witnessed these dynamics at the grass-root level, including the (not always so healthy) interactions between donors and practitioners.

Since culture is considered a relatively ‘harmless’ field, it is often experimental ground for scores of armchair experts and adventurous, self-appointed intellectuals to come and teach Afghans how to express themselves. One reads time and again of people who visit Kabul for a week or so to ‘discover’ Afghan art (or literature, or music, or poetry) and give voice to the ‘locals.’ They work to ‘enlighten’ the youth about how to emancipate themselves from an oppressive society, how to reject tradition, and liberate themselves from the burden of cultural backwardness. All this is often done under the incorrect supposition that Afghanistan is a homogenous, black and white place – demonstrating an appalling lack of knowledge (or worse, interest) in the actual conditions on the ground.

But this is also a two-way street. Beneficiaries sometimes take advantage of patronizing Western perspectives. They are happy to let the money flow, take what they can, and have at least some form of support for their activities.

In a recent interview, Afghan-American contemporary artist Aman Mojadidi commented on these circumstances:

There is the potential for cultural activities to move forward, but a lot of organizations 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. […] 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.[1]

To meet donor requests and attract more funds, events like thematic festivals, and photo, visual arts, or painting exhibitions, have multiplied. Many of these projects focus on topics of interest to Western funders, including women’s rights, children, peace or attempts at countering violence, drugs, and corruption. This has generated a significant amount of conceptual confusion between visual communication and genuine artistic expression, producing an abundance of mediocre, if not plain bad, art.

Locating Independent Arts and Cultural Organizations in Afghanistan

Over the past two years, I have invested a great deal of effort as an academic and practitioner in both understanding and responding to this situation. One of my greatest preoccupations has been to address – in theory as well as in practice – the agency that has been ignored or denied by Western aid practices.

In undertaking this work, my first step was to determine which of the existing cultural organizations would have enough commitment and determination to continue their work regardless of donor funding. I was not necessarily looking for antagonistic groups that were against the donor model, but rather for organizations that had a good balance of self-determination and external support.

In Afghanistan, I found quite a few organizations and artists that fit the bill. Whether in the field of visual arts, music, film, or poetry, there are a number of individuals and groups that have engaged in constructive but critical dialogue with the international funding system and are not fully dependent on these funders. Most of these genuinely independent initiatives lie below the radar, are very localized, operate offline, communicate in Dari or Pashto, and serve relatively small communities of people.

Among these is Berang Arts, a collective of young visual artists, who came together in 2009 after participating in the first edition of the Afghanistan Contemporary Art Prize. Investing their own funds, they managed to rent an apartment in Kabul and turn it into a contemporary art center – the first artist-led space in the country – with studio facilities for young artists and a small gallery for exhibitions. With time, the group has become a legitimate local partner for prestigious international cultural institutions, such as the Van Abbemuseum in Holland, the Prince Claus Fund, and documenta13.

Because of a lack of financial resources, artists and independent institutions tend to be protective of their achievements and ‘territory,’ making it difficult to have conversations with different groups engaged in similar activities. From both personal and formal conversations, I realized that the art’s community would benefit from more professional spaces that go beyond occasional workshops and vocational trainings. Many artists expressed a desire for more structured discussions around art theory, the history of art, as well as marketing and selling art to learn how to make a living through their practice.

In the last year, I have started working more closely with Berang Arts in an attempt to counter the damaging ‘ABC mentality’ and offer an alternative to the insularity of Kabul’s small cultural scene. Berang Art wanted to make the most of its space, and open itself up to artists coming from different backgrounds and working in various genres.

With small financial support from the Goethe Institute, the Agha Khan Trust for Culture, and the Dutch Embassy in Kabul, Berang Arts and I joined our resources and started working together to respond to shared needs and desires in Kabul’s art community. Together, we established an independent Contemporary Art Academy that offers young, but experienced artists advanced education in contemporary art history and theory, while also providing a personalized mentorship program to support them in their work.

Independent Cultural Organizations Are the Future

Berang Arts is a beautiful example of the great potential embodied by independent and self-sufficient arts and cultural organizations in Afghanistan. Groups like Berang foster advanced thinking about contemporary art, while operating strictly within a framework of local, cultural values and norms. They are proactive and independent, yet know how to relate to and benefit from the Western donor community.

Given their ability to navigate this world, these are the organizations that will likely come out the strongest once the country’s current financial and political transition has passed. This slippery terrain will work as a filter, helping good art and strengthening those groups and individuals whose commitment to arts and cultural practices in Afghanistan is rooted and genuine.

 

[1]Francesca Recchia, “Nationality, identity and art” Himal Southasian Special Issue Reclaiming Afghanisttan, Vol 27 No 1, 2014, p. 75.

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