Lida Abdul came to international attention in 2005 when she represented Afghanistan at the 51st Venice Biennale, the only time the country has had a national pavilion. Forced to flee her native country in the wake of the Soviet invasion of 1979, Abdul was unable to return until after the American invasion of 2001. The three film works she presented at Venice resulted from her confrontation, after two decades’ absence, with the abundance of graves and ruins she found there.
It was the five-minute-long White House (2005) that captured the imagination of the international art world. In a landscape strewn with ruins, the black-clad artist painstakingly paints the rubble of a bombed building with white paint. It is at once an absurdist gesture and a cathartic act of political resistance. The destroyed building is a former presidential complex outside Kabul. Its ruins are silent witnesses to violence, standing in for the psychological damage suffered by Afghans. The work’s playful title stands as an accusation against the United States government’s decision to invade the country and to profit from rebuilding what its military had destroyed. Her aesthetic act of purification puns visually on the idea of whitewashing history. She juxtaposes the space of politics with that of reverie, lending a wider resonance to her personal moment of epiphany. Abdul creates a powerful antimonument, a visual metaphor for healing and the trauma that remains within spaces of post-devastation.
Video documentation of two other performances, Clapping with Stones (2005) and Tree (2005), was also exhibited. In the former, a group of men in black shalwar kameez performs an enigmatic, prayer-like ritual in front of the rocks of Bamiyan, where traces survive of the ancient Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. In the latter video, young men discuss why they are cutting down a tree that still bears fruit, explaining that it was the site of many hangings and must be destroyed. The men fell the tree and carry it off into the landscape.
Having fled Afghanistan as a child, Abdul lived in India and Germany before settling in the United States. Notions of homeland and exile run through her works, in which the austere, battle-scarred topography of Afghanistan is a central character. In contrast to Shirin Neshat, who cannot return to her native Iran and often uses Morocco to stand in for her country in her films, Abdul makes her works on location. Despite the dangers and difficulties of working on-site, she has enjoyed great support from the local people whom she asks to act in her films.
In addition to greater renown, the year 2005 marks a shift in Abdul’s practice from performer to director, as she began making her work in Afghanistan and developing a language of visual metaphors exploring its state of trauma. Previously, Abdul had used her own body in provocative performance and video work that dealt with her identity as an exile or an “oriental” woman. In Global Porn (2004), for example, the artist, eyes painted with kajal and wearing a black headscarf, mischievously spits out honey and glitter.
The years 2005 and 2006 were fertile ones for Abdul. Dome (2005) documents her chance encounter with a boy dancing like a whirling dervish in a ruined mosque. He is consumed in spinning around, looking upward at the blue sky, an optimistic gesture, despite the American military helicopter that passes overhead. In the films What We Saw Upon Awakening (2006) and War Games (What I Saw) (2006), groups of men try unsuccessfully to pull down ruined walls with rope, the latter group mounted on horseback. In Brick Sellers of Kabul (2006), windswept children line up to sell bricks taken from ruined buildings to a construction worker. The scene has a troubling atmosphere of futility, and yet there is hope that something can rise from the rubble. Abdul was struck by the way Afghan children—unlike their parents—were better able to forget a little of the trauma the country had recently endured in order to move forward. This spirit is captured by the video In Transit (2008), which shows a group of boys’ attempt to “heal” a Soviet plane by stuffing its bullet holes with cotton wool and tying it with ropes as if they could fly it like a kite.
Abdul’s pavilion at Venice in 2005 was very well received. She was subsequently invited to show internationally, including at many other festivals, from São Paulo and Gwangju in 2006, to Sharjah, Moscow, Gothenburg, Auckland and Riwaq in 2007. She was also the recipient of several awards—the Taiwan Award at Venice in 2005, the Pino Pascali Award and the Prince Claus Cultural Award in 2006 and the UNESCO Prize at Sharjah in 2007—and in 2008 she was nominated for the Artes Mundi Prize. This international recognition enabled Abdul to produce more work in Afghanistan, where her works have been received with curiosity and pleasure by the country’s small art audience. White House, now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, is still exhibited regularly, most recently at Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon, this year.
Despite the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, it is heartening that Documenta 13 ran programs there, while also exhibiting work by Afghan artists in Kassel. In Abdul’s two-channel film for that exhibition, What We Have Overlooked (2011), a man holds up a red flag as he wades into a lake, intermittently losing his balance and becoming submerged. The flag, an abstract symbol of nationalist ideology, is contrasted with the survival of the individual in this doomed endeavor. Abdul is one of a generation of diaspora artists creating a more textured world, one rarely found in the popular media. The “petition for another world” embodied in her art remains as urgent as ever.