At first all we see is the black fabric. Soon a hand appears, cutting away at the cloth — there’s a woman inside, cutting through her chador, or burqa, like a chick first cracking through its shell, to create an opening through which she can view the world.
Then she begins embroidering. The hand, with many rings and painted nails, maneuvers the needle and thread, making the veil a beautiful work of art. After she has completed a floral tapestry on the black fabric, another hand passes scissors — the instrument by which she can escape — but she pushes the scissors back out of the hole. They drop to the floor, making a jarring sound — the only sound we hear in this video. Examining the culture of the veil, as well as issues relating to body, gender and religion, the film reminds us of the power of art in understanding complex cultural customs.
“Although simple and low budget, it is moving,” says Deborah Hutton, associate professor of Asian and Islamic art history at the College of New Jersey. “When I saw it, I realized that art is not just a luxury for people in developed nations, but a basic part of humanity.”
The 11-minute video by Rahraw Omarzad, who lives in Kabul, Afghanistan, is one of many treasures on view in “Art Amongst War: Visual Culture in Afghanistan, 1979-2014,” at the College of New Jersey Art Gallery through Thursday, April 17. Curated by Hutton, the exhibit seeks to explore what a third of a century of war has done to the visual culture, and how Afghans have used visual culture to respond to the trauma of war.
It has been 35 years since the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Since then the country has been in a near constant state of armed conflict or occupation, and an entire generation of adults has come of age with war as the primary experience of their country.
Those of us old enough to remember the images from the evening news can still picture the mujahideen men and boys who resisted the Soviets in their wool hats and vests with ammunition. The U.S., under President Ronald Reagan, supported this loose collection of resistance groups to shoot down Soviet helicopters. The war dragged on for a decade, filling Afghanistan with landmines and creating a huge refugee population. “The Afghan Girl,” featured on the cover of National Geographic in 1985, symbolized the nexus of beauty and suffering.
From the refugee camps, Islamic extremists formed the Taliban and ruled from 1996 to 2001. In 1999 the Taliban dynamited two sixth-century Buddha statues at Bamyan following a decree that all the statues around Afghanistan be destroyed. Under the Taliban, strict interpretation of Islamic law was enforced, banning music, dance, kite flying, and art depicting humans. Photography, television, and film were outlawed. One photographer, Najibullah Musafer, was imprisoned for seven months when it was discovered that he had been practicing photography in secret.
Today, most Americans think of Afghanistan as a war-torn, dusty, barren, cold, and barren land, based on what they see in the news, says Hutton. “But as the art on display makes clear, Afghan culture survives. It has been transformed by the decades of war but has not been broken.”
“College art galleries have a responsibility and an opportunity to present complex and daring exhibitions that expand and enhance the educational experience of students and the public,” says TCNJ Art Gallery director Emily Croll. “’Art Amongst War’ is one of the most challenging exhibitions ever presented in TCNJ’s art gallery (and) provides a rare opportunity for visitors to view the work of contemporary Afghan artists, many of whom have never presented their art in the U.S.”
Hutton — a Trenton resident originally from Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, and raised in New York state by IBM-engineer parents — first became smitten with Afghan literature, poetry, music, and architecture in 1995, while working toward her PhD at the University of Minnesota. She was researching Gawhar Shad, the 14th to 15th-century Timurid queen who commissioned cutting-edge monuments in the Afghan capital of Herat. Hutton’s travels to South Asia took her to Peshawar, Pakistan, where she was transfixed by the market at the heart of the old city, at which museum-quality pieces were for sale.
“It was only in retrospect that I realized the museum-quality pieces were very likely from a museum, perhaps the National Museum of Afghanistan, struck by a rocket in 1994,” she says. “These experiences taught me that art history is not just an intellectual enterprise, but the objects and images we study are someone’s heritage, key parts of their identity and, sadly, too often pawns in political conflicts.”
Many of Afghanistan’s cultural treasures and historic monuments have been targets of destruction, yet Hutton sees hope in the growing number of young artists and photographers expressing themselves about the conflict. “While many talented photographers and artists from around the globe have created thoughtful and provocative works dealing with Afghanistan, we felt it important to show that Afghans themselves are, and have been even at the height of the conflict using visual culture to express themselves, to provide economic relief and to record what has been happening to their country.”
In an honors seminar at TCNJ Hutton explored and contrasted the recent history and social circumstances of Afghanistan against the country’s rich cultural history. The 14 students prepared essays for the catalog accompanying the exhibition, including topics such as Afghanistan’s Buddhist heritage, the impact of war on land and cities, the human mind and body, and Persian miniature painting in present-day Afghanistan.
On display are some of the “war rugs” — beautiful carpets that incorporate cars, helicopters, and weapons, as well as camels and other animals. Handcrafted textiles have been a traditional means of economic support to the region, and after the Soviet invasion in 1979 the traditional motifs were replaced by landmines, soldiers, fighter jets, and targets marking Soviet soldiers and other foreigners.
After 1989, according to an essay in the catalog by Kelly Wilson, a student, the rugs changed, and then again in 2001 when they were made to appeal to American troops with portrayals of the destruction of the World Trade Center. “These newer rugs tout American views, rather than Afghan ones, pointing to the conclusion that they are woven only with the intent to sell,” writes Wilson. Also, “the rugs serve as vehicles for expressing Afghan identity and its changing meaning in a world of globalization and a country filled with outsiders. Their memorialization of Afghanistan’s history is a way to preserve their past and their culture during times of upheaval.”
Both rugs and posters also serve as visual aids for a largely illiterate population (years of war have destroyed the country’s educational system), warning not to touch land mines. Some Soviet-planted landmines resembling butterflies were mistaken for toys, leading to many casualties among children.
Getting the work shipped for the exhibit was possible because Afghanistan has a large refugee population living in the U.S. Some of the younger artists grew up in the U.S., their families having fled when they were babies, and still live here. The artists range in age from 21 to 50. The average age of the Afghan Photographers Network is 29 — the new generation of photographers began in 2001.
For the past 30 years, Afghans have comprised the largest refugee population in the world, and Pakistan is host to the largest official refugee populations in the world: 1.6 million registered Afghans and an additional 1 million unregistered. Photographs in the exhibition show refugees — with little opportunity for education or employment — in communities with tattered tents and residents washing clothes in pans of soapy water.
With U.S. troops scheduled to withdraw by the end of this year, Afghanistan will hold elections for president Hamid Karzai’s successor on April 5. Among those running is Ashraf Ghani, a political science and anthropology scholar who left Afghanistan for the U.S. during the civil wars, returned in 2001 to serve as presidential advisor and a finance minister, and ranked fourth in the polls in the 2009 presidential elections.
Ghani’s daughter, Mariam Ghani, is a Brooklyn-based video artist, born in New York in 1978, who has been awarded New York Foundation for the Arts and Soros fellowships and has exhibited in museums internationally. At TCNJ she has an interactive installation about the 2014 election and will be coming to the campus Wednesday, March 19, to present a screening of “History of Histories: Afghan Films, 1960-Present,” a compilation of fiction films, newsreels, and documentaries.
“While not flinching from showing the devastating effects of war on the physical environment, social justice, human bodies, and human spirits, the works in this exhibit also reveal the constructive, creative, and poignant ways in which the people of Afghanistan have and continue to respond to their tragic circumstances,” says Hutton. “There is beauty, hope, and humor alongside the depictions of destruction, suffering, and struggle.”
Art Amongst War, TCNJ Art Gallery, Arts and Interactive Multimedia Building, 2000 Pennington Road, Ewing. Through Thursday, April 17. Tuesdays to Thursdays, noon to 7 p.m., Sundays 1 to 3 p.m. Free. tcnj.edu/artgallery or 609-771-2633.
History of Histories: Afghan Films, 1960-Present, TCNJ Library Auditorium. Wednesday, March 19, 6:30 p.m. Screening of a compilation of fiction films, newsreels, and documentaries from Afghanistan’s national film archive compiled by artist Mariam Ghani.
Kandahar Treasure: Empowering Afghan Women One Stitch at a Time, TCNJ Library Auditorium. Wednesday, March 26, 5:30 p.m. Presented by Rangina Hamidi, activist and founder of Kandahar Treasure, an enterprise dedicated to empowering Afghan women by reviving traditional crafts;
Combat Paper Project, Arts and Interactive Multimedia Building, Room 125. Wednesday, April 2, 5:30 p.m. Artist and veteran David Keefe will discuss the mission and activities of the Combat Paper Project, helping New Jersey veterans tell their stories through a paper and print making program.
Skateistan, TCNJ Library Auditorium. Wednesday, April 9, 5:30 p.m. Presentation by Benafsha Tasmim on the NGO based in Kabul that empowers Afghan girls and boys by teaching them to skateboard.