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Afghanistan’s artistic side

The Afghan Contemporary Art Prize: The shortlisted artists, winner, and the art scene in Afghanistan.
By Constance Wyndham | Jul 2008

I show the class Braque’s Cubist painting of a clarinet. "What do you see?" I ask. "A gun!" three Afghan students shout in unison. This is day two of an art workshop organised as part of Afghanistan’s first contemporary art prize. Sitting around the table are the 10 shortlisted artists, women on one side, men on the other. The walls are covered with posters scrawled with art terms such as "installation" and their translations into Dari.

Art was scarce during the Afghan civil war and largely forbidden under the Taliban but in spite of disorder in certain provinces, a cultural scene is slowly blossoming in Kabul. Pioneers include Rahraw Omarzad, director of the Centre for Contemporary Art, Afghanistan, where Afghan girls make art after school, and Timor Hakimyar, who runs the Foundation for Culture and Civil Society, an exhibition and performance space. The choice, however, to be a professional artist holds little prestige here. Kabul University has a faculty of fine arts, but many of the students failed their other subjects. In a country in which everybody wants to be a doctor, the cult of the artist has yet to take hold.

Abdul Wasi Hamdard, 34, a professional artist with his own gallery, is a somewhat reluctant participant in the workshop. "Come to my studio and I’ll show you my real work," he says, referring to his traditional depictions of alleyways and marketplaces which he sells in Pakistan to make a living. More interesting is his hobby: confident paintings full of energy and expression. The oldest artist in the group, Hamdard has a style reminiscent of Philip Guston. It is occasionally hilarious; one work shows a pyramid in sunglasses smoking a cigarette, enveloped in a swirling mist.

The Afghan Contemporary Art Prize was founded by Tamim Samee, Jemima Montagu and me; Samee is an Afghan entrepreneur and amateur artist, while Montagu and I are from Turquoise Mountain, a cultural heritage non-governmental organisation based in Kabul. After a national call for submissions via radio, television and posters a jury of Afghan and international cultural figures assembled to shortlist 10 artists from the 75 entries. The jury was looking for innovation, something beyond paintings of burkha-clad figures in alleyways, scenes of buskashi (the polo-like national sport) and watercolours of the Minaret of Jam. The 10 chosen artists were Sahba Shams, Alka Sadat, Abdul Wasi Hamdard, Imal Hashemi, Mohammad Yasin Haideri, Sara Nabil, Wakil Kohsar, Ramzia Tajzada, Mohammad Ismael Zadran and Fareeha Ghezal Yousufzai. The five men and five women work in a variety of media.

As part of the workshop, the artists were asked to think about public art for Afghanistan. Apart from a few Soviet mosaics, Kabul’s few pieces of public art look dishevelled. Several roundabouts sport a broken concrete globe that has rolled off its plinth or a miniature Eiffel tower. "TV Mountain", a hill famous for its cluster of antennas that dominate the Kabul skyline, was chosen as the potential location. Alka Sadat, a filmmaker from Herat, designed a huge "Mother Afghanistan" cloaked in the Afghan flag; Mohammad Ismael Zadran, a sculptor from Khost, decided upon a large cup of overflowing green tea which would provide water for the houses on the hillside, while Hamdard wanted to wrap the entire hill in orange material. He had never heard of art’s master wrapper, Christo, famous for shrouding the Bundestag in fabric.

Few of the artists had had exposure to art outside Afghanistan and only a couple had visited Kabul’s National Gallery, a dusty collection of Impressionist-style works by Ustad Breshna, Afghanistan’s most revered painter. Zadran, a shy 36-year-old, is the only artist in his village and has received threats for making his colourful sculptures. Ridiculed by his friends, he has been working alone in his basement for 20 years. His skilfully crafted wooden constructions with drawers, tissue-holders and pincushions have an outsiderish look.

The women tended to focus on women’s rights. Alka Sadat directed a sophisticated film in washed-out sepia about the dangerous life of an Afghan female judge, combining documentary footage with her own fictionalised narrative. Nabil, a confident 14-year-old with a headscarf in the colours of the Afghan flag, described how her painted gold pot full of broken bangles, burnt shreds of fabric and shards of mirror represented the dashed hopes of married women. "When a woman gets married and moves into her husband’s home, her life is ruined, her heart broken and she slowly wastes away."

Photographs by Imal Hashemi and Wakhil Kohsar, the two shortlisted photographers, have been exhibited and published internationally. Some of their work involves considerable risk: for one photograph Hashemi crouched in a ditch to capture panicked soldiers fleeing during an assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai this year.

After the two-week workshop artists produced a final piece for exhibition at Babur’s Garden’s, where the Mughal Emperor’s tomb and gardens have been restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. The jury chose Sahba Shams, an 18-year-old law student, as the winner of the $2,000 prize. Her final piece, "World", is a vast canvas covered with precisely arranged collaged drawings. Her artistic language of signs and motifs includes clocks, spectacles, Muslim, Buddhist and Christian symbols to describe the world’s social problems.

Art can seem superfluous in a country that doesn’t yet have proper roads, but it is becoming a vehicle through which Afghans can express themselves. The quality of the art and the development of ideas by these artists is impressive. One wonders whether the art world, having focused its attention on neighbouring India, might soon come looking for new heroes in Afghanistan; if so, it would not be disappointed.


Constance Wyndham

Cultural Projects Officer, Turquoise Mountain Foundation, Kabul.

(First published in The Financial Times, 2 July 2008)

The Afghan Contemporary Art Prize

Founded in January 2008 by Turquoise Mountain and Afghan entrepreneur Tamim Samee.

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