Art can reflect the soul of a nation. But for the past three decades, Afghanistan has been defined by the art of war that has painted its countryside in broad strokes of red and black.
Despite both the conflict and the former Taliban regime, who opposed the depiction of any human or animal forms in photographs, drawings, or paintings, art has not only survived in Afghanistan, but has re-emerged as a creative and provocative force in the capital of Kabul.
Painter and video artist Raharan Omarzad deserves much of the credit. Omarzad was a student of fine arts at Kabul University, but fled to Pakistan during the reign of the Taliban. While in Pakistan he started an art magazine for Afghans, keeping the creative spark alive in the middle of a national diaspora.
“There was nothing for Afghan artists during that time,” he says, “no way to share our work with others.”
When the Taliban government was forced from power by the Northern Alliance, who was backed up with US air power and special forces troops, Omarzad returned to Kabul and continued publishing the magazine.
With the help of several international organizations like the Open Society and Women of the World Foundations, he also opened the Afghan Center for Contemporary Art and the Women’s Art Center.
“This is a place where we can teach each other new skills and reflect on our country.”
The Center has also held joint exhibitions in Kabul, Germany, and France.
Omarzad shows us the gallery space in the back of his building. It's a high ceiling, loft-like structure with a gravel floor and egg cartons paneling the walls. Inside are more than a dozen engaging works from a recent exhibit called Balloons.
“The balloons in this exhibit are the symbol of empty promises," he says referring to works in which balloons are depicted with burqa-clad women, balloons are surrounded by barbed wired, and even a skeleton holds a deflated balloon in a work called, The Balloon Seller.
While the Center offers Afghan artists a chance to create in a relatively secure environment, including speaking out artistically against government corruption and betrayals, Omarzad tempers his speech like a man who knows the threat to free speech never completely goes away.
“Freedom of expression all over the world has some limitations. You cannot find any country that has full freedom of expression and Afghanistan also has some limitations... ,” says Omarzad. “Working as an artist there is some risk, but you have to accept that risk. Without accepting the risk you cannot be a responsible artist.”
Here the risks have been embraced. While the canvas is small, Omarzad feels Kabul’s contemporary art movement has a chance to reflect a new Afghanistan, in promises both real and empty.
Here is a video tour of the Afghan Center for Contemporary Art.
All text and photos by Kevin Sites.
Kevin Sites is a rare breed of journalist who thrives in the throes of war. As Yahoo! News’s first war correspondent between 2005 and 2006, he gained notoriety for covering every major conflict across the globe in one year’s time and fostering a technology-driven, one-man-band approach to reporting that helped usher in the “backpack movement.” Kevin is currently traveling through Afghanistan covering the tumultuous country during "fighting season" as international forces like the US pullout. Keep coming back to VICE.com for more dispatches from Kevin.
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