It is not often a painting arrives at an exhibition with the extra protection of war and terrorism insurance. But that is exactly what Jemima Montagu, the director of culture and heritage at the Turquoise Mountain Foundation (TMF), had to obtain when she planned an international art exhibition in Kabul, bringing together contemporary artists from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The show -- titled Living Traditions, and containing 50 pieces by 15 artists from the three countries -- opened October 11 in the restored Babur Gardens of the eponymous Mughal Dynasty founder.
The exhibition, organised by TMF, a charity working to preserve Afghanistan's traditional crafts, is going forward against the odds. It is scheduled to run through November 20. There were perhaps more reasons not to hold the show than to hold it. At the opening, a bomb scare saw several of the elite visitors depart hastily. Two paintings missed the opening due to transit delays, and few artists were willing to participate in an exhibition in Kabul, a city where there is as yet no sophisticated constituency for art and no PR points for those wishing to further their careers. Artists "thought if they sent their work, they would never see it again," recalled Montagu.
If it was difficult to get people to contribute their work, it was even more difficult to get them to participate in person. Why Kabul? Why now? How was it possible to ensure an exhibition of international quality with all its exacting standards? In the end, the answer to all those doubts and questions had to be answered with the single simple question: 'Why not?'
"The three countries [represented in the show] share a strong bond, particularly in art and in the way Islamic calligraphy and painting evolved," said Montagu. "These traditions can and need to be adapted if they are to survive."
Of the 15 artists who contributed their work, five were present at the opening. Among those in attendance was a young Pakistani couple, Muhammed Imran Qureshi and Aisha Khalid. A professor at the National College of Arts in Lahore, Qureshi saw participation as an act of faith. "It was exciting and scary at the same time. It is important for the people of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan to have this connection," he said, speaking as he worked to help his wife finish her installation the day before the opening. Both were well aware that they had to complete the job before dusk since -- like most of Kabul -- the exhibition grounds would have no electricity. "Things may be primitive here after the impact of years of war. But they will not remain the same. We cannot control things, but we can make efforts to change it," he said.
Both Qureshi and his wife had their sanity questioned by their friends and family who perceive Kabul as a very dangerous place. For Khalid the decision to come was impelled by her desire to challenge western stereotypes of women from this region. Khalid's exhibits center around the theme of the 'burkha,' whether it is a graphical pattern of the ruffle of the hem or how it outlines the shape of a woman. "I want to question the stereotype that goes with the image of a burkha. If the Taliban were imposing their values, so is the West," she said.
For Iranian Khosrow Hassanzadeh, this visit was the first step in what he hopes will be a continuing regional collaboration. Hassanzadeh, who has shown his work in many western capitals, said "this is more important than showing in New York. We have a shared tradition and it is important for people here to get an idea about their own rich culture."
Most of the artists were conscious that their cross-cultural exchange countered existing political tension among the three countries. "We need to look at each other rather than have outsiders look at us," said Hassanzadeh. Qureshi, meanwhile, stressed how his own perceptions about Afghanistan had been changed by the visit.
Zolaykha Sherzad, an Afghan designer who has been interpreting traditional Afghan design in contemporary form, saw immediate similarities in the works coming from across borders: the use of calligraphy, the use of certain colours, the use of gold were present in many of the art works in the exhibition, she said. Sherzad, who divides her time between New York and Kabul, said this exhibition was a way to find common ground in the midst of conflict.
Despite the attendance of Kabul's elite, largely foreigners, at the opening, Montagu made it clear this was not the target audience. "This is not a project for expatriates. There is no existing audience for arts and culture here. You have to create it," the former Tate curator told Afghans in attendance. The exhibition's most important audience will be the 3,000-4,000 school children who will attend guided tours explaining the relevance and context of the artwork, Montagu suggested.
The past three decades of conflict in Afghanistan have caused the slow and steady decimation of art in the country. Survival, displacement and violence all took their toll. Long before the Taliban's deliberate destruction of works depicting living forms, art had become a luxury that virtually all Afghans could not bother to contemplate. Post-2001 artists are back at work, but the extended, enforced hiatus has skewed Afghanistan's art environment. Much of what is being produced now is tourist kitsch. Showing contemporary art in this milieu created perhaps even more of a challenge for organizers than the security constraints imposed by international curators.
Ahead are more challenges. Montagu hopes she can take the exhibition to both Pakistan and Iran, but is not quite sure. "It is hard to raise funds for culture anywhere, but especially here, where there is often a feeling that any money spent on culture is money taken away from hospitals." Qureshi, who gave a lecture at Kabul University's faculty of fine arts, expressed his strong conviction about the relevance of this exhibition. "This kind of opportunity is historical. We will feel the value of it later."
Qureshi's special moment in the exhibition came from one of the Babur Gardens' caretakers. "He saw me doing the floor paintings and said, 'The other art pieces can be sold. But what you painted on the floor is really just for us.'"