On Advocacy and Policies

Below is the keynote address I delivered in occasion of the Fall Meeting of the Global Consortium for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (GCPCH)

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It is a great privilege to be here today and have the opportunity to deliver this address on Advocacy and Policies.

Considering the amazing amount of institutional knowledge in the room, the best way I can meaningfully contribute to the conversation is by bringing to the table my experience from “the ground.”

Over the past fifteen years I have been working as an independent researcher supporting artists, cultural practices and productions in countries in conflict. For me, it is hardly possible to think of cultural heritage without thinking of people first.

I would like to begin by showing you a short art film from Afghanistan.

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The film, directed by Farahnaz Yusufi, is titled Ruyeeha-e Parihaa which in Farsi means Angel’s Dream.

There is not much to add to such a testament to the power of ingenuity. Farahnaz Yusufi opens for us a window to the never-ending quest for poetry. In the film, she also makes a complex reference to Sufi mystical culture that I have no time to unpack now, but we can certainly return to later in the discussion. Works like this, which combine a multiplicity of emotional, cultural and symbolic layers, interpellate us – as professionals who work towards the protection, preservation and revival of cultural heritage – with many fundamental questions. These questions, rather than the answers to them, will be the fil rouge that will guide my presentation.

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Baqer Ahmedi, Silent Face, 2014

A few days ago I met up with Baqer Ahmedi, one of the most talented emerging artists in Afghanistan, whom I have had the pleasure to mentor since he started his artistic journey. He updated me about his work and told me that he was not entirely satisfied with the progress he was making: for several months he could not draw as he had ran out of wasli paper and there wasn’t any available to buy in Kabul. Baqer Ahmedi is a contemporary artist, who works on a kind of handmade paper called wasli that is traditionally used for miniature painting – you can see here a couple of images from his work.

Baqer is about to leave Afghanistan as many artists have done before him. He’s going to Pakistan in a couple of weeks to begin his bachelor’s degree in Lahore. There he will be able to buy more paper and resume drawing. His matter of fact tone in telling this story stayed with me: there was no resentment. This is how often things are there in Afghanistan; it is normal not to have paper and not to be able to draw: there’s not much else to add.

It is from this lack of paper that we should probably start when we think of our role in protecting and reviving cultural heritage.

Luckily not the whole world is experiencing the same extreme conditions of Afghanistan, but I believe there’s much to learn from situations of conflict. I have just come back from Kabul, where I have been based for the past five years. In spite of the immense problems that the country is facing to shape itself into a mature and diverse nationstate, it is absolutely remarkable to see the relevance and centrality that culture and heritage play in the political debate.

During the last year, as a programme specialist with the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, I worked closely with the Afghan Minister of Information and Culture to design a roadmap for both a National Cultural Policy and for the National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The challenges have been and still are enormous. I would like to share some thoughts on my experience and perhaps we can further discuss them in our roundtable later on.

Working at the crossroad between international organisations, funding agencies and public institutions requires a lot of juggling. There are petty power games, there is the pressure to show progress and present deliverables, there is the aspiration to be relevant, to be accurate, to be meaningful. It is a jigsaw made of tons of tiny moving pieces: each of them requires full attention as the puzzle needs them all in order to be complete. Any attempt at cutting corners simply backfires. The greatest dilemma is between the urge to be efficient and the ethical desire to be sustainable.

Here the biggest variables are “the people” and time.

Because of my personal political history, I have always distrusted top-down decisions. This attitude has a profound influence on how I conceive my work. More on this later.

To go back to the issue of “the people” and time, when working in the context of so-called developing countries, our activities are measured by the strict sets of deadlines dictated by donors’ fundings. It is the logic of projects that orientates us along with the requirement to show short-term tangible results matched against large, sustained financial investments. This is all well and good, but it is also extremely easy to lose perspective and forget the big picture.

Most of what I do is to work with people, but working with people requires time and the kind of time that is needed to gain trust and build an equal relationship is out of sync with the temporality of a project-driven modality.

Let’s think of the National Cultural Policy for Afghanistan as an example. The quickest I could envision a roadmap for its development was on a three year scale with at least two rounds of nation-wide consultation with civil society organisations, local elders, religious and community leaders. In a country like Afghanistan, though, even three years into the future are difficult to envision: hardly any donor engages in such a “longterm” commitment, many of the decisions are personality-driven and so directions change along with the high turnover of the people in charge. Moreover, from next April the new electoral season will begin and the uncertainty that this entails may discourage anyone to engage in anything that at this point would appear utterly impossible.

I do not intend to paint a hopeless scenario here, I am rather trying to think out loud about the rationale that is behind what may seem a more pragmatic and certainly faster approach, whereby experts are brought into the picture for short-term consultancies to give answers and supposedly solve problems. Not always, however, is the specific professional competence of these experts paired with a nuanced understanding of the complexity and uniqueness of the context.

This way of working raises a number of questions. Will this ever be impactful? Will the results ever last? Will people ever feel ownership of any of the decisions made in such a detached manner?

The answer to this lack of space and time is often found in advocacy. An unavoidable component of every project proposal, it becomes the way to reach out to the people, to involve them, to make sure that we tick the box of inclusiveness.

In this sense, the idea of advocacy is often mistaken with public campaigning, with large scale mobilisations that bring attention to pressing issues. By doing this, we hope to inculcate new ideas, to communicate to the people the urgency of concentrating our efforts for the preservation of physical and intangible heritage. Besides actions taken within the institutional framework, there are also special events that serve the same purpose.

Here are a couple of examples of individual initiatives that have quite successfully brought to the public attention elements of endangered cultural heritage.

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In 2015, Zhang Xinyu and Liang Hong, two Chinese philanthropes, built in Bamiyan a 3D laser projector to create a 50-meter-tall hologram of the Buddhas that were destroyed in 2001 by the Taliban. This hologram was presented in a public event where 150 people participated.

 Another beautiful example is the “before and after” series of photographs that Joseph Eid took in 2016 in Palmyra.

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Joseph Eid/Getty

 Expressions like these are significant examples of advocacy, but I believe it is important to think beyond them. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against campaigning and public mobilisation. I am however suspicious of an approach to advocacy that is limited to that. In these terms, in fact, advocacy becomes a tactic, almost a quick fix instead of a form of strategy.

I just finished reading a book by Italian psychoanalyst Massimo Recalcati titled L’ora di Lezione. Per un’erotica dell’insegnamento.

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Massimo Recalcati, L’ora di lezione. Per un’erotica dell’insegnamento. Cover Photo.

There is no English translation of the book yet, the title roughly means The Lesson’s Hour. For an Erotic Approach to Teaching. The book addresses the profound crisis that the Italian school system is undergoing. It looks at how the great social transformations of the last four decades have had an impact on School (with capital S) as an institution as well as on the role that teachers play in the educational enterprise. This is not the right time to go into further detail about the book, but there is one point that Recalcati makes that may be useful for our discussion. He believes that teachers should reclaim their role in presenting to the students the objects of knowledge as erotic objects. In other words, the task of the teacher is to activate the desire to know. In Socratic terms, this is an unearthing process rather than an imposition. The maieutic art of teaching recognises potentials, nurtures desire and facilitates the space of expression.

I wonder if we can use the same model and re-think of advocacy in such terms. This will require, however, a serious shift in attitude.

A few weeks ago, I gave a talk at a gathering of geographers and GIS experts in Bangalore in South India on the role that mapping can play in heritage preservation. Most of the participants came from a non proprietary OpenStreetMap (and a free software) background and the discussion that followed ended up focussing on the possibility of communities’ involvement and participation in the identification and geo-localisation of heritage sites. At this point a member of the audience, the only urban planner in the room, stood up and quite forcefully stated that people don’t know what is relevant; it is therefore our duty to teach them the importance of heritage. She left the room soon after, but the echo of her statement informed the rest of the conversation.

The presumption that we, all of us in a position of power and responsibility, know better than “the people” is a scary beast and it encages the nature of heritage within narrow and “managerial” parameters.

Statements like these are problematic at a multiplicity of different levels and they are – whether in a spoken or unspoken fashion – more common than one would be willing to admit. The first order of troubles comes from the fact that we (the experts, the bureaucrats, the academics) set ourselves apart from them, the people. We forget that beyond our expertise it is our cultural roots to make us who we are – be it by embracing or by opposing them. Somewhere, somehow, beyond our professional lives, we belong, we are members of a community and we are shaped and defined by a set of cultural practices, places and meanings that we share with others.

It is remarkable how quick we are in forgetting this when we wear our professional hats.

The second layer of problems with such statements comes from the fact that they ossify the idea of heritage within strict rules and regulations thereby ignoring its granular and embodied nature. In both physical and intangible terms, heritage is malleable and ever-changing, it is that particular tree, that folktale, this street corner that a community aggregates around and identifies with.

When my sister tells the story of where we come from, she loves to say that local dialects change every few kilometres and with every single village. What sets our hometown apart, she would go on, is the fact that we don’t have any distinctive dialect as the city was entirely destroyed by an earthquake in 1915.

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Photo by Lansing Callan for USGS (Us Geological Survey)

It is apocryphal stories like this one that help us shape our narratives as individuals who belong to a place and a community. It is stories like these that perpetuate a notion of living traditions.

I have recently discovered an incredibly inspiring document written under the auspices of UNESCO in 1998 in occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the Declaration of Human Duties and Responsibilities, which quite simply responds to the rights we claim with a set of duties and responsibilities that we have in order for our rights to come alive.

The Declaration is a manifesto of the ethics of responsibility and helps us conceiving the shift between moral and legal duties: it is about what we ought to do in order to guarantee the survival of the universal democratic values we cherish and claim as fundamental.

The strive towards equality and meaningful participation in public affairs is at the core of the document.

Relevant to our context, Chapter 11 of the Declaration is dedicated to Education, Art and Culture. Within this section, article 38 reminds us that within communities there is both an individual and a collective responsibility to provide a framework for and to foster arts and culture.

It is on this note that I want to conclude my address today.

As professionals who work towards the preservation of heritage – as well as as individuals who belong to a particular community – our job is also our duty.

When we create the conditions for the protection and the full enjoyment of cultural heritage we are basically performing our civic, obligatory and reciprocal duty as citizens.

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Liberticide

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“It happens slowly, irreparably, slyly. What was the title of that song? Killing me softly. That’s how freedoms are killed – for the most.”

I write on Chapati Mystery about the slow, inexorable curbing of freedoms.

You can find the full article here.

UR/Unreserved

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UR/Unreserved is an arts project stemming from the collaboration between maraa arts collective and Anish Victor. UR/Unreserved embarks on a train journey to investigate the margins of negotiation of identity in contemporary India.

The trigger for the project was an SMS that circulated in Bangalore in 2012 targeting specifically the population of the North Eastern states of India. The message warned the receivers that, had they not left immediately, they would have paid the consequences. The SMS proved to be fake, however, many people fled overnight, by train, fearing for their lives.

Interrogating what it means to belong, how people identify, what are the processes of representation connected to identity, what are the markers that “give away” who people are. These are fundamental questions that urgently need to be addressed in the current political context in India.

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Eight young artists from Karnataka, Kerala, Assam and Kashmir will travel for a month in sleeper coaches and unreserved train compartments engaging fellow travellers in conversations around their own experience of individual and collective identities. Through performative techniques, magic tricks, songs and games they will facilitate the possibility of an exchange around a subject that is now too risky to address with strangers. The material gathered from these conversations will become part of public happenings and of a travelling exhibition.

To make this important arts project possible there is an ongoing crowd-funding campaign.

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To support Unreserved by contributing to cover the production expenses, you can give your contribution here.

Cultural Heritage, Conflicts, and the Map

On the 27th of July at 6 pm, I will speak as part of GeoBLR at the Mapbox office in Bangalore about Cultural Heritage, Conflicts, and the Map.

For the past 15 years I have been working in the promotion and revitalisation of cultural heritage and practices in countries in conflict. Mapping can be an important device to support locating archeological remains as well as living traditions.

The talk explores the challenges and opportunities of mapping in this context. It further addresses the issue of the value of (cultural) objects on the map. As there are many questions and no definitive answer, I hope that the presentation will turn into an engaging collective discussion.

Find the Mapbox office here on the map.

Mondana Bashid

Un concerto a Manchester; una gelateria a Baghdad; un sabato sera di divertimento nel cuore di Londra; un crocevia trafficato, una manifestazione, un funerale a Kabul. Morti e feriti a decine se non a centinaia. E tutto questo senza contare quel che ci sfugge del resto dell’Iraq, della Siria, della Nigeria e di tutti i paesi che a stento fanno notizia.

Sono giorni difficili di fatica e paura. La chiusura e il sospetto sembrano la soluzione migliore: sicuramente quella più semplice. Alzare i muri e chiudere le porte. Girare le spalle a tutto ciò che è altro da noi. Ma si tratta della scelta peggiore: vuol dire cadere nella trappola, giocare alle regole del terrore, cedere al ricatto.

Manchester, Baghdad, Kabul e Londra rispondono a gran voce al rischio di scivolare nella bigotteria.

Stamattina nella metropolitana di Londra un cartello diceva: “Tutti possono cedere, è la cosa più facile che il mondo possa fare. Ma la vera forza sta nel tenere i pezzi insieme quando nessuno si stupirebbe del collasso.” E la gelateria di Baghdad ha riaperto cinque giorni dopo essere stata attaccata. E Kabul, con le code per donare il sangue e gli appelli all’unità e i dottori che hanno lavorato senza sosta e i giornalisti che non hanno mai smesso di essere in prima linea, continua a ricordarci il valore senza prezzo dell’umanità.

In Afghanistan, dove una cultura cortese dà ancora valore al rito di scambiarsi i saluti, ho imparato uno degli auspici più belli: Mondana Bashid – che tu possa non essere mai stanco.

Non penso ci sia niente di meglio da augurarci a vicenda in un momento del genere quando la stanchezza, la paura, lo sfinimento, il senso di impotenza rischiano di prendere il sopravvento.

Mondana Bashid ai cittadini di Kabul, ai medici di emergency, ai miei amici afghani che credono nel futuro.a tutti e ciascuno di noi; a tutti quelli che, ovunque si trovino nel mondo, hanno ancora il coraggio di continuare a sperare e lavorano per rendere le cose un po’ migliori.

In search for words

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Photo by Kevin Frayer / AP

Yesterday Afghanistan has lived through yet another bloody day: three attacks in three cities (Lashkar Gah, Kabul, Kandahar) and tens of casualties. We had barely managed to process the horror of one event that another followed. It has been a difficult time and our thoughts were once again with those whose only fault is to work in the wrong place.

At a personal level, days like these add doubts to the emotional tiredness of being an indirect witness of a war that never seems to end. On days like yesterday it seems more difficult to give myself a convincing answer on why not only is it important but also necessary to work on art and cultural production in a country like Afghanistan in a moment like this. The uneasiness that this hesitation generates is difficult to manage both for myself and for those who are close to me. Silence in these circumstances is never productive neither is indulging in the malaise. The frustration, however, is there and needs an outlet.

Yet, I’ll never cease to be surprised by the fact that answers always come when you least expected them.

I met an old friend, K., who told me a story. Last November I organised a training for 120 artists from various disciplines coming from different corners of Afghanistan. K. took part in the training and since then he has been telling me what a unique opportunity of exchange and encounters it was. I really don’t like flattery so more than once I told him that he was exaggerating and was being so kind only because we are friends.

Sipping his tea, he told me that, without me knowing, one of the artists participating in the seminar was illiterate: a musician who can play wonderfully, but cannot read and write. The participatory and inclusive method that characterised the seminar, as well as the fact that it was conducted in local languages rather than in English as it is generally the case, allowed him to take part in it and draw from it great motivation.

In order not to waste the possible fruits that could come from this achievement, K. told that he made a deal with the musician since for the first time his work could be promoted and supported irrespective of the fact that he cannot read and write.

The deal is this: K. offered to help the musician to fill the form to apply for the grants that my project offers on the condition that he would enrol in an evening school.

The musician, whose name I don’t know, has started attending a literacy class at the beginning of January.

Moments of hope like this one give me strength and are an unexpected gift that provides me with the words to give an answer, however temporary, to my doubts and questions.

A tavola – Pensando al Kashmir

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Due settimane fa preparavo la cena: pasta col sugo d’agnello come da tradizione abruzzese e doon chettin, una salsa di noci tipica del Kashmir. Volevo che a tavola ci fosse tanto il sapore delle sue montagne che delle mie: sapori ruvidi che scaldano il cuore.

Quella sera, dopo cena, siamo venuti a sapere che avevano arrestato (con accuse prive di giustificazione legale) Khurram Parvez, un attivista per la difesa dei diritti umani che da anni lavora per denunciare la brutalità di cui è vittima inascoltata la gente del Kashmir. Il giorno prima di essere arrestato, gli era stato impedito di imbarcarsi sull’aereo per Ginevra dove avrebbe dovuto partecipare alla riunione della Commissione per i Diritti Umani delle Nazioni Unite.

E’ da quella sera che continuo a pensare al sapore di quella cena, al conforto del cibo di casa, ma anche alla moglie di Khurram Parvez che non sa quando potrà condividere di nuovo un pasto con lui e a tutte quelle donne che in Kashmir in questi giorni piangono mentre preparano il piatto preferito dei propri figli che sono stati uccisi in questi tre mesi.

Dopo 84 giorni di scontri ininterrotti in Kashmir, tra India e Pakistan tirano venti di guerra. Da entrambe le parti, gli strateghi da salotto cantano le lodi di un attacco nucleare. Inebriati di nazionalismo fascista sembrano non considerare che il confine che li divide è una linea immaginaria tracciata sulla carta e che le possibili conseguenze non si fermano a chiedere il permesso di varcare la frontiera.

I titoli dei giornali e la poca attenzione internazionale hanno raccolto al volo l’occasione per concentrarsi sulla dimensione astratta del conflitto lasciando passare in secondo piano quello che questo scontro significa per la gente. Ancora una volta il Kashmir ritorna ad essere discusso come uno spazio conteso al di qua e al di là di una linea sulla mappa invece che come il luogo di appartenenza di un popolo che da decenni lotta per il diritto a decidere per sé e per il proprio futuro. La discussione geopolitica diventa la scusa per distogliere lo sguardo dai raccolti di mele distrutti e dai campi coltivati bruciati dall’esercito, dalle ambulanze sequestrate, dai raid notturni e dagli arresti indiscriminati.

Quanti altri posti vuoti a tavola, quante cene piene di assenza ci vorranno prima che ci si renda conto che il diritto all’autodeterminazione è inviolabile e sacrosanto? Quante altre madri dovranno piangere i propri figli prima che ci si accorga che la violenza e la brutalità non riusciranno a sradicare il desiderio di libertà?

The photo that wasn’t there

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Afghanistan National Museum Motto

Yesterday I went for lunch at the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University to see Nancy Dupree. I count the pleasure of her company among the most precious gifts I received from this city. We spent a couple of hours together and we ate an enormous plate of garlic beans and a bowl of sour yogurt.

Nancy is an amazing raconteur and an inexhaustible source of enchanting stories: her intimate knowledge of the country offers, to those who have the privilege to listen, a vertiginous journey across space and time.

Over the years, it never happened to me to spend some time with her and leave without a memorable story to cherish and remember.

Yesterday, when I arrived to her office, she was working on a photo-gallery about the pre-historic tools that are part of the collection of the National Museum. As a cover image for the gallery she wanted to use a photo of the façade of the museum before it was destroyed during the Civil War. She told me she went looking in her extensive photo archive and to her great surprise she could not find any image of that kind. She then went to see the director of the museum to ask him for a copy from their own archives, but he said they did not have any even there. Ever more surprised, she reached out to those who were in town in those years or could have had access to documents of that time. Nothing. It seems that before the Civil War no one considered taking a photo of the façade.

Her story ended there and our conversation moved on, but the thought of the photo that wasn’t there stayed with me.

There are so many moments and details that, there and then, appear entirely unremarkable. There are so many things that we take for granted and let slip away without thinking twice. It is strange to think that these details can then come back unannounced and reveal themselves through their absence in an unexpected future. It is strange to think that they end up becoming witnesses of a past that has left no visual trace.

La foto che non c’era

NMA motto copy

Afghanistan National Museum Motto

Ieri sono stata a pranzo all’Afghanistan Center at Kabul University da Nancy Dupree. Conto il piacere della sua compagnia fra i doni più preziosi di questa città. Abbiamo passato due ore insieme e abbiamo mangiato un piatto smisurato di fagioli all’aglio e una ciotola di yogurt.

Nancy è una grande narratrice e una fonte inesauribile di storie appassionanti, la sua conoscenza intima del paese offre a chi ha il privilegio di ascoltare un viaggio vertiginoso nel tempo e nello spazio.

Nel corso degli anni, non mi è mai capitato di lasciarla dopo un po’ di tempo passato insieme senza una storia memorabile da conservare.

Ieri, quando sono arrivata nel suo studio, stava lavorando ad una galleria fotografica sugli strumenti preistorici conservati al Museo Nazionale. Come immagine di copertina voleva usare una foto della facciata del museo prima che fosse distrutto durante la guerra civile. Nei giorni scorsi ha cercato nel suo archivio fotografico e con sua grande sorpresa si è accorta di non avere nessuna immagine di questo genere. Mi ha raccontato di essere andata a trovare il direttore del museo per chiedere a lui una copia dai loro archivi, ma niente neanche lì. Sempre più sorpresa e incuriosita, ha mandato messaggi e chiamato tutti quelli che in quegli anni erano in città o potevano aver avuto accesso a documenti di quel periodo. Niente. Pare che prima della guerra civile nessuno si sia preoccupato di fare una fotografia alla facciata.

Il racconto è finito lì e la a conversazione ha poi preso un’altra direzione, ma il pensiero di questa foto che non c’è è rimasto con me. Strano pensare a quanti momenti e quanti dettagli là per là non sembrano affatto degni di nota, quante cose diamo per scontate e tralasciamo senza considerazione. Strano pensare come questi dettagli poi possano ritornare e rivelarsi nella loro assenza, in un futuro inaspettato, come testimoni di un passato di cui non restano tracce visive.