Alla ricerca delle parole

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Photo by Kevin Frayer / AP

Ieri l’Afghanistan ha vissuto l’ennesima giornata di sangue: tre attentati in tre città (Lashkar Gah, Kabul, Kandahar) e decine di morti. Nel corso della giornata facevamo appena in tempo ad assimilare l’orrore di una notizia che ne seguiva un’altra: sono state ore pesanti, col pensiero ancora una volta a coloro che hanno come unica colpa quella di lavorare nel posto sbagliato.

A livello personale giornate così aggiungono il dubbio alla fatica emotiva di essere testimone indiretto di una guerra che sembra non avere mai fine. In giorni come quello di ieri sembra più difficile darmi delle risposte convincenti sul perché sia non solo importante, ma anche necessario, occuparsi di arte e di produzione culturale in un momento come questo in un paese come l’Afghanistan. Il malumore che genera questo affanno diventa difficile da gestire sia per me che per chi mi sta intorno. Il silenzio in questi casi non é mai produttivo, così come non lo é indulgere nel proprio malessere. La frustrazione resta e cerca vie d’uscita.

Eppure, non finirò mai di sorprendermi del fatto che le risposte arrivino sempre quando uno meno se le aspetta.

Ho incontrato un vecchio amico, K., e mi ha raccontato una storia. A novembre scorso ho organizzato un seminario di formazione per 120 artisti di varie discipline, provenienti da ogni angolo dell’Afghanistan. K. ha partecipato al seminario e da allora continua a dire quanto sia stata un’occasione unica di incontro e di scambio. In generale non amo le lusinghe e quindi più di una volta gli ho detto che stava esagerando ed era così generoso solo perché siamo amici. Sorseggiando la sua tazza di te mi ha raccontato che, senza che io lo sapessi, uno degli artisti partecipanti al seminario era analfabeta: un musicista che suona meravigliosamente, ma che non sa né leggere e né scrivere. Il metodo partecipativo e interattivo che ha caratterizzato il seminario, e l’uso delle lingue locali invece dell’inglese come solitamente accade, ha consentito al musicista di partecipare e di trarne grande motivazione.

Per non perdere i possibili frutti di questa conquista, K. mi ha detto che alla fine del seminario lui e il musicista hanno fatto un patto visto che concretamente esiste per la prima volta la possibilità che il suo lavoro venga promosso e sostenuto nonostante non sappia né leggere e né scrivere. Il patto é questo: K. si é offerto di aiutare il musicista a fare domanda alla fine dell’anno per accedere ai finanziamenti previsti dal mio progetto a condizione che cominciasse ad andare alle scuole serali.

Il musicista, di cui non conosco il nome, ha iniziato infatti il corso di alfabetizzazione per adulti all’inizio di gennaio.

Sprazzi di speranza come questo sono un’ancora di salvezza e un dono inaspettato che offre le parole per dare una risposta, almeno temporanea, alle mie domande.

A journey to the Other Iraq

This article was initially published in Domus 958 in May 2012.

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Photo Credit: Sebastian Meyer

The Autonomous Region of Kurdistan has in recent years been in the news as the “Other Iraq”. In 2011, National Geographic described it as an oasis of peace and development, and The New York Times placed it 34th out of 41 best travel destinations— beating Miami, which finished up in last place. In reality, the region is not so much a tourist attraction as it is land prized by multinational and private investors. After Saddam Hussein’s bloody ethnic persecution, a decade of armed conflict between Iraq and Iran, two wars to export democracy, and one civil war, Iraqi Kurdistan today is striding towards a new state of political and economic stability. Its long history of war and violence has left indelible marks and scars. At the same time, however, it has created a unique situation characterised by openness and opportunity. The future is all there to be invented, there is plenty of scope for experimentation, and the direction to be followed can still be chosen. Erbil, the regional government capital and one of the world’s most ancient cities, inhabited without interruption for thousands of years, is an extraordinary example of that condition. One of the principal artifices of this growth is Nawzad Hadi, governor of Erbil since 2004. In a recent interview, with the clarity of a visionary he illustrated to me the steps required to fulfil what he calls a great dream: the building of a city worthy of being an international capital, “a new Dubai”. That is no mean statement, considering that Kurdistan is not even an officially recognised state. “I am doing it for my people, who deserve it after years of oppression.” The magnitude of Nawzad Hadi’s challenge is quite incredible. It began with the asphalting of roads and the guarantee of standard access to water and electricity, continued with the completion and implementation of a master plan and the prospect of a green belt around the city, and is now on its way to transforming Erbil into an economic and commercial hub. In an explosive mixture of individual profit and common good, the governor has embraced the city’s historic and cultural profile as the symbol of this rebirth. He has started a restoration of the Citadel, Erbil’s ancient heart, by working with UNESCO to have it included in the list of World Heritage Sites. At the same time, with an eye to the international trends of the architecture star system, he appointed Daniel Libeskind to design a museum of Kurdish memory, an audio-visual project for the historical and narrative reconstruction of the Kurdish genocide. Work on the museum is scheduled to commence this year.

The Autonomous Region of Kurdistan chose Erbil as the emblematic image of its capacity for self-government, and in this case investment in its urban growth has been notably political. Through the concession of land-tax benefits and structural support, the regional government is encouraging the circulation of private capital. This has made a significant impact on the city’s development and building prospects. In the past five years the world’s biggest corporations have staked claims in the city, luxury hotels have multiplied, and new residential complexes have sprung up suggesting the possibility of exclusive lifestyles and their desirability. Dream City, Empire City, English Village, Royal City, Vital City and Italian Village are gated communities now occupying a large slice of Erbil’s outer ring road, not far from the construction site of the Marriot Hotel and from the 23-storey Hotel Divan tower. Erbil’s economic prosperity is just one of the multiple sides of this transition to a mature state of democracy. Traces of years of conflict—and the fact that virtually all investment has been confined to the growth of this capital city—are on the other hand dramatically evident in the rest of the region. Contrasting the enthusiasm of this new prosperity are the mountain villages and refugee camps where resilience and the art of making ends meet are means of ensuring survival. Wlaxlw is a village of about 50 mud-and-stone houses, on the border between Iraq and Iran. Its geographical position made it a constant target of bombardment during the war between the two countries. To this day it is surrounded by the aftermath of that conflict in the shape of missiles, bullets and bombshells, ammunition boxes and helmets. Over the past 20 years the inhabitants of Wlaxlw have made a virtue of necessity, by utilising the debris and rubble as building material for their postwar reconstruction. Thus Katyusha rockets have become support beams for ceilings or pillars for pergolas, missile casings are converted into drainpipes, and helmets (those without bullet holes at forehead level) are used as flowerpots or to collect rainwater, while landmine warning signs serve as firewood props, and ammunition boxes sunk into the ground provide steps to the higher part of the village. Wlaxlw is a cross-section of an amazing world, a bizarre combination of a post-apocalyptic landscape and an oil painting by an 18th-century orientalist. But it is not the only example of the contradictoriness of these coexistences. Stories of this kind are illustrated by the various army buildings once occupied by Saddam Hussein’s troops stationed in Kurdistan. From the end of 1996, at the height of the civil war, these structures began to be converted into “villages”, complete with mosques, small shops and elementary schools. Ma’asker Salam, Top Khane and Raparin are three such villages, located a few kilometres from Sulaymaniyah, the second largest city in the Automous Region of Kurdistan. Ma’asker Salam is where Saddam’s army stables were situated. Today, some 300 families have found accommodation there. Not far away is Top Khane, a group of 12 buildings formerly used as an arms depot and now occupied by another 300 families. Raparin, located closer to the city centre, was in Sadam’s day a large industrial complex used to produce and repair weapons. Today it hosts a maze of self-built huts, inhabited by some 70 families. By a curious twist of fate, what were once the building-symbols of the Ba’athist regime’s military oppression have been transformed into a safe haven for hundreds of families, the place of refuge they call home, while waiting (with ever diminishing faith) for the politicians to keep their promises of compensation and assignment of public housing. During this long wait of more than 15 years, the old army buildings have changed their appearance as a result of spontaneous actions by inhabitants. Using improvised materials and traditional construction techniques, they have gradually turned this political aberration into something more like a familiar and hospitable landscape. Haji Mahmoud and Nadja, two residents of Ma’asker Salam, recount that local and international NGOs helped refugees to settle into the abandoned military structures. At Ma’asker Salam, the stables were initially divided by makeshift walls into rooms to accommodate one or more families each. In the course of time and with a growing awareness that the situation would take years and not months to be resolved, the inhabitants of these permanently temporary villages began to expand. They partitioned the rooms assigned to them in order to meet the needs of their families and to create more comfortable living conditions.

Nadja lives in a corner house and changes the colour of its interior three times a year. With her husband she has laid out a garden, its flowerbeds bordered with stones and broken bricks. There are also three trees, grown from the kernels of fruit and each planted to mark the birth of her three daughters. “All I’d like is a nice house,” she says, “nothing more”. With snow-capped mountains on the horizon, the landscape of Ma’asker Salam and Top Khane has a surreal look. The picturesque impression of mountain villages clashes with memories of a cruel and dramatic past which the inhabitants have not yet managed to cast off. The old stable buildings at Ma’asker Salam are today barely visible. Covered with satellite dishes, they are now a mass of irregular dwellings built from cement blocks, stone and rough earth bricks, and wrapped in coloured striped plastic sheets for winter insulation. In a surprising combination of improvisation, recycling and vernacular architecture, remnants of plastic and metal mark out Haji Mahmoud’s garden, where birds are kept off by scarecrows made of snipped plastic bags. In the courtyard next door, his son and daughter-in-law have built a pergola with the wooden poles of building sites, while their neighbour has used the door of a derelict car as the gate to a courtyard surrounded by a dry wall. Between the sushi bar on the 21st floor of a 5-star hotel in downtown Erbil and the Katyusha rockets used as construction material in Wlaxlw, observing the anthropised landscape can be an outstanding means of interpreting what is often, abstractly, defined as a postwar dimension. The iniquitous distribution of wealth derived from the postwar reconstruction efforts has left indisputable signs of the temporality of a twisting and frequently obstacle-strewn path. In Iraqi Kurdistan, improvisation and resilience are the other side of the coin to massive urban development and the dream of becoming the next Dubai. Torn between far-sightedness, forgetfulness and selective memory, territory is revealed as neither a neutral nor an innocent platform, on which political debate and intervention are staged and the future takes shape.

Devices for Political Action

Photo Credit: dpr-barcelona

Photo Credit: dpr-barcelona

My new e-book with a brilliant photo-essay by Leo Novel is finally out!

Devices for Political Action. The Collective Towns in Iraqi Kurdistan looks at the case of Collective Towns in Iraqi Kurdistan as an example of how State interventions on the ground are often instruments utilised to implement broader political plans. Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s the Iraqi government made full use of spatial planning as a constitutive part of the strategy of “dealing with the Kurdish problem”.

The Ba’ath regime adopted urban planning and space design as social engineering devices in its larger scheme of shaping society into a more homogenous and simplified form.

The Iraqi government used the combination of ethnopolitics and a centralised ideology of modernisation to heavily intervene in the management and design of territory, causing a systematic disruption of local knowledge and practices.

The book is part of dpr-barcelona’s Emancipatory Space Series and can be purchased here.

 

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.