After the withdrawal, U.S. museums need to tell a richer story about Afghanistan

Over the years, the U.S. public has shown little appetite for the war in Afghanistan. The same can be said about the country’s cultural institutions. Culturally, Afghanistan has been in conflict for over two decades.

” It takes a lot convincing to get anyone to do shows about Afghanistan,” states Muheb Esmat (an independent curator from Afghanistan based in New York City). “This war has been going on for a long time, but we only get into it when it’s a catastrophe.”

Esmat hosted “No end in sight ,” an inaugural solo U.S. show featuring work by Aziz Hazara (based in Berlin) a year ago. The works were presented at Bard College’s Hudson Valley Hessel Museum of Art. They explored the impact of technology and media on our perceptions of the war in Afghanistan.

Early last year, Hazara was also the subject of an installation at the 22nd Biennale of Sydney in Australia. He presented “Bow Echo,” a multichannel video installation that featured five Afghan boys standing on top of a windy peak while they make notes on a plastic bugle. The boys’ struggle with the unseeable force of wind and the piercing sounds of the bugle are both poignant and futile.

The Biennale, however, was shut down a little more than a week after it opened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, you can view some aspects of Hazara’s installation online via the Google Arts & Culture initiative.

A large screen showing a landscape through night vision goggles is paired with a small monitor showing Afghan men

An installation of Aziz Hazara’s “No End in Sight” at the Hessel Museum of Art.

(Olympia Shannon 2020)

The U.S. military occupation of Afghanistan may have officially ended with Monday’s departure of the last U.S. evacuation plane from Kabul, but the cultural ramifications of the conflict will be felt for decades. It remains to be seen how they will impact the West, especially in the U.S. where Afghan cultural representation is often sparse or focuses on the old.

The biggest exhibition of Afghan art to be held in U.S. was perhaps the traveling show “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures From the National Museum, Kabul,” which landed at various institutions in 2008 and 2009, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. It featured an estimated 200 ancient objects from the pre-Islamic era that illustrated the region’s strategic position as a Silk Road hub, a place where Persian, Greek, Mesopotamian and Indian cultures met and mingled.

Not only had these artifacts survived the centuries, they had made it through a particularly turbulent period of invasion and war at the end of the 20th century — stashed away by prescient curators around the time of the Soviet invasion in 1979 and unearthed in 2004 after the Taliban’s fall. Roberta Smith in the New York Times described these pieces as “triumphant” — a reminder that “every survivor saves much more than just itself: long strands of culture and identity and history waiting to be woven back together.”

A close-up of an intricate ivory carving shows stylized human figures standing in doorways

A 1st Century decorative ivory from Begram (Afghanistan) was among hundreds of objects that workers at Kabul’s National Museum kept secret during the Soviet invasion.

(Thierry Ollivier / Musee Guimet / Getty Images)

More recent visions of Afghanistan from Afghan artists have been difficult to find. Exhibitions that are connected to Afghanistan often feature photographs by journalists and artists from Western countries. Skateboarding girls seem to be another popular topic. (The soft power and shredding. )

In the world of contemporary art, in fact, Afghanistan is generally registered through the eyes of Western artists — mostly famously, Italian artist Alighiero e Boetti, who in the 1970s became enamored of Kabul and opened the One Hotel, a guesthouse that became a gathering spot for itinerant artists and critics. He created his “Mappa” series of maps, which question the subjectivity and are presented as a embroidered Afghan rug. Boetti would hire Afghan weavers for the work, which often took years. (One of these resides in the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. )

When documenta, the quinquennial organized out of Kassel, Germany, chose Kabul as a satellite location for the 13th edition of the show in 2012, Mexican artist Mario Garcia Torres highlighted Boetti’s legacy in his own installation. Torres, who has a long-running dialogue with Boetti’s work, went to Kabul to find the location of the famous hotel and staged an imagined fax correspondence with the long-dead Boetti about the film he wanted to make about it.

It’s a charming rabbit trail. It also gives a limited view to Afghanistan’s art.

“Everyone who thinks about Kabul [in the West] thinks about Boetti and his hotel,” Esmat says. “They trace his history back, but they couldn’t trace it back to the artists who are already there at the time that Boetti was traveling to Afghanistan.”

A video still shows a woman in a black tunic standing on a pile of rubble and painting a fragment of wall white.

A still from Lida Abdul’s “White House,” 2005, which was presented as part of Afghanistan’s pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale.

(Lida Abdul / Giorgio Persano Gallery)

Boetti has received copious institutional treatment; the representation of work by contemporary and 20th century Afghan artists, not so much.

A show of video art from Afghanistan and Iran titled “Sight Unseen,” featuring work by artist and educator Rahraw Omarzad, appeared at New York’s Asia Society in 2009. In 2016, the Hammer Museum hosted Afghan street artist Shamsia Hassani for a residency. Last year, artist Mariam Ghani (who happens to be the daughter of deposed Afghan President Ashraf Ghani) presented work from her project “What We Left Unfinished” at the Blaffer Art Museum in Houston. Among other works, it included a documentary of the same name that looks at the stories of five films from Afghanistan’s communist era that were left unfinished. It was released in the U.S. last week. )

Lida Abul is one of the most well-known Afghan artists to have emerged in the Western art scene. She was born in Kabul and fled Afghanistan with her family after the Soviet invasion. After the Soviet invasion, she and her family fled to Kabul. She eventually settled in Los Angeles where she earned a pair of bachelor’s from Cal State Fullerton in philosophy and political science and a master’s degree from UC Irvine.

She has had solo exhibitions at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2008 and the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois in 2010. And she represented Afghanistan at the 51st Venice Biennale in 2005 — the one and only time the country has had a national pavilion in the exhibition. She presented “White House,” a video of her painting of the rubble from Kabul’s former presidential palace, which she said was the first time that Afghanistan had had a national pavilion in the exhibition. The piece was later acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Late next month, her work will be featured alongside that of high-profile U.S. artists such as Joan Jonas and Lawrence Weiner in the inaugural exhibition of ZACentrale, a new three-year project space in Palermo, Italy, run by the Fondazione Merz.

Despite being born in the U.S.A, Abdul’s resume shows that she has shown more internationally than she has here. Abdul’s CV shows that she has exhibited more extensively abroad than she has in the United States. She has been in several group exhibitions in Los Angeles, including many at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, early in her career. But she has not yet been able to exhibit in a museum solo in L.A.

Rows of photos framed in big white mats reveal the weary faces of Afghan citizens during the war

A detail from Lida Abdul’s “Time, Love and the Workings of Anti-Love,” 2013, which will be presented at the inaugural exhibition of ZACentrale in Palermo.

(Lida Abdul / Fondazione Merz)

“No one has taken any interest,” says independent curator Sara Raza, who has worked extensively with Abdul for almost two decades, most recently featuring her work in a group exhibition at New York’s Rubin Museum titled “Clapping With Stones: Art and Acts of Resistance.” “They take interest only once there is a disaster.”

And when institutions do take an interest, the narratives presented can reinforce preexisting notions about Afghanistan — often dwelling on gender and conflict at the expense of everything else.

Gazelle is an artist from Afghanistan who is now based in San Francisco. Her video work “Upon My Daughter,” from 2010, can be found in the permanent collection at LACMA. In 2019, she co-curated, with Helena Zeweri, the group exhibition “Fragmented Futures: Afghanistan 100 Years Later,” held at the Brand Library in Glendale — one of the rare group shows in the U.S. devoted exclusively to the Afghan experience.

” She believes [institutions] must reflect on the narratives they have been exposed to, particularly the Orientalist narratives about the oppressed Afghan woman, who is both submissive as exotic.” “Those kinds of images and artworks sell really well in the West, but they are really harmful because they portray Afghan women in a really simplistic way that doesn’t acknowledge their agency.”

An overhead view shows a woman, from the waist down, lying on a brilliant red Persian-style carpet

A still from Gazelle Samizay’s single-channel video “Upon My Daughter,” 2020, now in LACMA’s collection.

(Gazelle Samizay)

Esmat concurs. He says that there are many narratives, and the art world must support them. We need to look at the entire .”


Afghanistan has a “very unique cultural topography both in terms climate and environment but also its politics.” It is diverse. It is multiethnic. It’s important to say that.”

Khadim Ali is an Afghan artist of Hazara origin who is now based in Australia. Ali, a Hazara person who was persecuted in Pakistan by the Taliban, was born in Pakistan. His work is a combination of classical traditions (miniatures and epic poetry), but it also incorporates more conceptual forms. He has made sound installations using Taliban propaganda CDs. His paintings were shown as part of documenta 13’s presentation in Kabul and are held in the permanent collection of the Guggenheim Museum. Last year, he had an exhibition at New York’s Aicon Gallery.

Ali’s story is much more complex than the image presented in the West. His art reflects that. This spring, in an interview with Ocula Magazine, he noted that the Taliban “are children of the West.”

” The were founded by Westerners in Afghanistan in order to defeat the Soviets. And then after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, these terrorist organizations were left with no exit plan.”

For two decades, the U.S. and Afghanistan have been inextricably linked. Our museums have not been able to look at this in many ways. This is a time to stop and take a look.

“Tell us the complex story,” Samizay says. It’s all we can do.

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