Beyond the frame

Published on THE HINDU /Magazine, by AUNOHITA MOJUMDAR, September 14, 2008.

In Afghanistan, where art is frowned upon, a group of young women use abstract and contemporary lines to explore themes of violence and regeneration. Their paintings are exhibited in Kolkata from September 19 to 27

… The Taliban ban on most forms of art along with other forms of cultural expression is by now quite well known. Paintings were dragged out of homes, offices and museums and burnt, books with art work were burnt, museum collections were systematically destroyed and film archives were purged to cleanse them of the “unIslamic” depiction of the living, especially human form.

Tradition of suppression:

The damage to Afghan art did not however begin or end with them. The Soviet interpretation of art stifled creativity in the 1980s when the country was under a Soviet-backed regime. The mujahideen who replaced them in power after the fall of the last communist president Najibullah at best tolerated some forms of art and music, with the more conservative elements amongst them disapproving of it entirely.

Even when not directly damaged due to State policies, art suffered during the decades of conflict as people struggled for survival, being forced to pack their belongings and move ­ again, again and again. Art, a luxury, became one of the first casualties of war.

Since 2001 and the removal of the Taliban there is no political repression of art. However, conservative attitudes remain entrenched in a large section of Afghan society. The long hiatus of the years of war has however meant there was scant opportunity for art or art appreciation to develop. Today the streets of Kabul and the small number of art galleries are dominated by kitsch:

imitative paintings of Napoleon on a horse, Western stereotypes of Afghanistan with the mandatory Bactrian camels, burkhas and Bamiyan Buddhas. At its best, the art is well executed renditions of realistic or classical paintings. At its worst, it recreates the picture postcards sold as souvenirs …

The development of art is further constrained by the insecurity and difficult economic conditions. Fighting has steadily escalated in large parts of the south and the last three months have seen a doubling of the number of incidents of violence. Bombings, suicide attacks, kidnapping and criminality are quite routine even in the capital city Kabul.

On the economic front, despite $15 million in aid having already been disbursed in the country since 2001, the economic conditions of most Afghans is difficult if not desperate as the gains of aid have been inequitably distributed amongst peoples and regions. Food insecurity has grown and in a situation where 35 per cent of the population cannot meet its minimum dietary needs, art still remains an unaffordable luxury.

Words won’t do: … (full text).

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