The past two decades of social conflict have devastated the cultural infrastructure. During the Taliban’s rule (1996–2001), music performances and films were banned, and artworks were destroyed. Bombed and looted repeatedly during Taliban sieges of the capital, the Kabul Museum, also called the Afghan National Museum, was once home to the most important collections of antiquities in Central Asia, and does not exhibit modern or contemporary works.
The country’s art community has grown slowly but significantly over the last decade with the support of NGOs. The country’s primary art organization is the seven-year-old Center for Contemporary Art Afghanistan (CCAA), currently directed by video artist Rahraw Omarzad. The CCAA organizes art classes, exhibitions and workshops in Kabul, and runs the Female Artistic Center (FAC), an educational facility for women. In October, the CCAA published the first catalog of contemporary art by women in Afghanistan, featuring some 40 artists and an introduction by Omarzad.
Two other NGOs are instrumental in the development of Afghanistan’s contemporary art scene. Established in 2003, the Foundation for Culture and Civil Society, backed by the World Bank, the Open Society Institute and the European Commission, organizes local cultural events.
The Turquoise Mountain Foundation (TMF), founded in 2006 by President Hamid Karzai and Prince Charles of the United Kingdom, is dedicated to preserving the country’s architectural and cultural heritage. One of its most important urban regeneration projects was completed this year: the restoration of 65 buildings in the Murad Khane district in the Old City of Kabul.
Within Murad Khane, TMF established the Institute of Traditional Afghan Arts and Architecture, which opened formally on April 3 in several restored historic 19th-century Kabuli buildings. The Institute trains Afghans in customary craft techniques and building. Abroad, TMF collaborated with London-based Erickson Beamon jewelry boutique, where students from the Institute showcased and sold their jewelry (6/7–7/15). Due to a lack of staff, TMF did not hold the fourth annual edition of the Afghan Contemporary Art Prize.
The Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) Afghanistan promotes the conservation and reuse of buildings and public spaces in Kabul through its Historic Cities Programmes. In March, AKTC organized “Views of Kabul” at the Queen’s Palace of Bagh-e Babur, which attracted more than 27,000 visitors (3/5–28). Supported by London’s Tate Modern, the show presented photographs by Nasratullah Ansari, M. Hassan Zakizadeh and Fardin Waezi—all produced during workshops given by British photographer Simon Norfolk to the group of young Afghan photographers in late 2010. The three Afghans’ work was featured alongside 19th-century pictures of Kabul by Irish photographer John Burke and Norfolk’s own photographs. “Views of Kabul” was later complemented by “Burke + Norfolk” (5/6–7/10) at Tate Modern, with Simon Norfolk’s new series on Afghanistan.
Despite an absence of local galleries, contemporary Afghan artists have gained recognition from international organizations. New York-based Mariam Ghani has continued to exhibit internationally, debuting her new commission at the Sharjah Biennial (3/16–5/16) about Afghan translators used by the US military. In South Korea, Ghani participated in “American Chambers: 20 Contemporary American Artists” (9/8–11/27), at the Gyeongnam Art Museum, and in London was the only Afghan artist included in Calvert 22’s “Between Heaven and Earth: Contemporary Art from the Centre of Asia” (10/14–11/13). As part of the documenta 13 research team, Ghani collaborated with her father, the renowned anthropologist and political scientist, Ashraf Ghani, on a lexicon that explores the cycles of repeated collapse and recovery that Afghanistan underwent over the course of the 20th century.
Berlin-based mixed-media artist Jeanno Gaussi collaborated with Diala Khasawnih and Ola Khalidi on their show “Home?” at California Institute of Integral Studies, in San Francisco (9/8–11/6), creating participatory spaces to explore notions of home not linked to geographical place but found in a taste, a sound, a smell or a few words overheard. Gaussi also participated in “The MENASA Studio Dispatches” in Dubai, a series of five-minute audio works, commissioned by the Island and Art Dubai Projects (3/16–19).
Lida Abdul, one of the country’s leading artists, moved back to Kabul from Los Angeles, and is working on projects that explore the relationship between architecture and identity in contemporary Afghanistan. Three of Abdul’s videos were exhibited in Paris in “Persistance des Ruines” (10/1), an event organized by le Peuple Qui Manque.
Finally, the CCAA continues its agreement with the Oslo National Academy of the Arts, in which the Norwegian academy will run workshops and exhibitions for FAC students until 2012.