A Bright Future for Afghan Art – Spotlight on 6 Talented Artists

Afghanistan’s artistic landscape is undergoing a profound transformation. After decades of conflict, during which the majority of artistic activities were repressed or banned, Afghan artists in all disciplines are reconnecting with their craft once again. Today, thanks to renewed local interest in arts and culture as well as greater international financial support for these activities, Afghanistan is home to both an exciting contemporary art scene and a reinvigorated traditional arts and crafts practice. Read on to learn more about six artists and artisans who are changing the rules of the game and showing the world the best of Afghan art.

Azim Fakhri

Having spent most of his childhood and youth outside of Afghanistan, Azim Fakhri returned to the country in 2002 with a passionate commitment to helping develop his country and represent his generation through the arts. His works, which he creates under the name Kabul Knights, span a variety of disciplines, including painting, stenciling, sculpture, and graffiti. Often compared with artists like the controversial street artist Banksy, Fakhri creates art that is playful and political at the same time, using surprising visual substitutions—like replacing grenades with pineapples or tank guns with clarinets—to puzzle and provoke his viewers. Once of Fakhri’s most recent projects is “Street Angels,” a photo series dedicated to Afghan children, which he discussed when he was a featured speaker at the TEDx talk series in Berlin.

Akram Ati

Based in Herat and a graduate of the Fine Arts Faculty of that city’s university, Akram Ati mixes traditional subjects with non-traditional materials and techniques to create paintings that are both stunning and subtle. Instead of using conventional, store-bought paints, Ati creates his own paints from natural materials like mud, dust, stones, and brick, which he grinds down and mixes with a type of homemade glue. According to Ati, these natural paints are not only more durable and less dull than artificial paints, they also represent and reflect the true essence of Afghanistan’s character and struggles. The subjects he captures in his monochromatic works are traditional scenes of everyday life in Afghanistan, including villages and country landscapes, the national game of buzkashi, and traditional dances and celebrations.

Mohsen Hossaini

Born and based in Kabul, Mohsen Hossaini draws the inspiration for his challenging works from everyday life in modern Kabul, which he describes as being difficult for ordinary people. His paintings use dark colors like black and dark green contrasted with stark red to represent what Hossaini views as the alienation of the individual in contemporary society, and the effect that solitude and lack of relationships can have on modern Afghans. In addition to painting, Hossaini is a director and an animator; his short film “Shelter,” a paper animation, was an official selection at a number of international film festivals.

Arif Bahaduri

Arif Bahaduri’s work stands out, literally, due to its three-dimensional texture. Bahaduri works with materials like bandages and crumpled paper to bring a sense of unevenness and tactility to his pieces, which typically represent abstract images of familiar things, like homes or tombstones. According to Bahaduri, his use of bandages and plasters is a specific choice, made to represent the pain and unhealed wounds that he explores through his art. In addition to his larger works, Bahaduri is a skilled sketch artist. His sketches of street life in contemporary Afghanistan are striking snapshots of a particular political and cultural moment.

Nasser Mansouri

In contrast to the artists above, Nasser Mansouri reaches back into the past for inspiration. As an artisan affiliated with the Turquoise Mountain Institute, master woodworker Mansouri is one of many traditional arts and crafts specialists working to restore Afghanistan’s artisanal legacy and rich crafting heritage. And while Mansouri may talk about being unsure of how to describe his own practice—artist, woodworker, carver, teacher, and businessman are all terms he uses—there’s little question as to the beauty and artistic value of his work. Through extensive study of historic Afghan buildings, Mansouri replicates and recreates intricate carvings and latticework, building beautiful, interlocking designs that are put together without nails. Recently, some of Mansouri’s work was featured in the exhibit “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan” at the Freer Sackler gallery in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

Abdul Matin Malekzadah

Another teacher at the Turquoise Mountain Institute (and also featured in the same Smithsonian exhibition as Nasser Mansouri), Abdul Matin Malekzadah is the newest artisan in a line of potters that stretches back hundreds of years. Malekzadah is based in the village of Istalif in central Afghanistan, which has many rich seams of clay, natural materials for glazes, and wood for firing kilns. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that Istalif has become known as a village of potters. In recent decades, the village has been destroyed three times, but the villagers, including Malekzadah and his brothers, have always rebuilt their homes and workshops. Today, Malekzadah is proud to continue the artisanal legacy of his village, and to provide an important link between Afghanistan’s past and present.

What You Need to Know about LEARN & Play

right to play logoChildren learn best through play. That’s the major principle behind Right to Play, a global organization that uses sports and games as tools to help teach kids the essential life skills they need to overcome challenges like poverty, conflict, and disease, and to create better futures for themselves and their communities.

Recently, in its capacity as secretariat to the Sport for Development and Peace International Working Group (SDP IWG, an initiative of the United Nations), Right to Play published a report showcasing a number of different SDP IWG initiatives and looking at the transformative effect these programs had on local children and their communities.

Among these programs was LEARN & play, a program launched in Kabul and Parwan province and spearheaded by the German development organization AfghanistanHilfe Paderborn. Read on to learn more.

What were the objectives of LEARN & play?

With more than half of Afghanistan’s entire population currently under the age of 18, initiatives that target children’s welfare and development are an absolutely vital part of the country’s rebuilding process. Street children are a special focus of many initiatives, as estimates indicate that in Kabul alone, as many as 20,000 children are living on the street with no permanent home or adult care.

The objectives of LEARN & play were to provide disadvantaged children in Kabul with the opportunity to attend school regularly and to participate in sports and games, to provide street children in particular with a safe environment for learning and skills development, and to teach them skills essential to future success like reading and writing and computer skills. The program also sought to teach participants about cooperation and conflict resolution skills through football.

How was the LEARN & play program designed?

The target demographic for LEARN & play was children aged 8 to 12 who were either living on the street, had been orphaned, or were from struggling single-parent homes. In Afghanistan, many children who fit this description have to help provide financial support for themselves and their families, and are therefore able to attend school. Furthermore, life on the streets carries many risks, including the greater likelihood that children will become involved in crime and drugs.

The LEARN & play initiative used football to attract children to the program; the idea being that the program’s participants would come for the football and stay for the academic training. As part of the program, children received one meal; three hours of academic lessons in fundamental subjects like reading, writing, computers, and English; and two hours of football practice.

All classes were taught by instructors approved by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education and were held in the safe environment of buildings belonging to AfghanistanHilfe Paderborn, the program’s lead organization. Two centers for the program were established—one in Kabul and one in the eastern province of Parwan—and classes were held in shifts so that more children could attend. For maximum effectiveness, eligibility for the LEARN & play program required a five-year commitment from the participants.

What organizations were involved in the delivery of LEARN & play?

While AfghanistanHilfe Paderborn was responsible for overall administration and project coordination, a number of other groups provided additional support for LEARN & play. These included the Afghanistan Football Association, which organized football teams and tournaments; Handicap International, which provided training clinics for team coaches; Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education, which oversaw the teachers employed in LEARN & play’s non-formalized schools; and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), which provided financial support for the curriculum design of the program, as well as much-needed moral support for project staff.

What impact did LEARN & play have?

LEARN & play reached approximately 600 of Afghanistan’s most disadvantaged children: 400 in Kabul and 200 in Parwan province. At the start of the project, only about 10% of participating children were enrolled in a formal school; by the end of the project, that figure had grown to 60%.

Based on reports from project staff members, LEARN & play participants developed greater self-confidence and became more energetic and more cooperative as a result of their football training. Because of the teamwork involved in playing football, children also had plenty of opportunities to practice problem solving and positive conflict resolution, and to boost their communication and interpersonal skills by interacting with a diverse range of people, both peers and adults, with whom they would not likely have had contact before the program.

The children also enjoyed greater recognition from their neighbors and peers as a result of LEARN & play’s respected community status; street children and orphans are often marginalized in Afghan society. Finally, LEARN & play provided important health benefits for participants, both through the provision of a daily meal and through the regular physical activity at football sessions, which helped improve their strength, stamina, and coordination.

Spotlight on the Amazing Phototheca Afghanica

Decades of turmoil and conflict have destroyed many elements of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage, including the vast majority of historical photographs of the country. Today, a visual record of the time before Afghanistan’s troubles is all but non-existent, leaving the country with very little visual heritage to look back on with pride or to pass on to future generations as a record of the past.

However, not all photographs were lost, and one unique project is working to ensure that those photographs that were saved from destruction are safely preserved and made publicly accessible. Read on to learn more about the Phototheca Afghanica and its work to preserve and restore Afghanistan’s visual heritage.

What is the Phototheca Afghanica?

old photosThe Phototheca Afghanica is a project initiated and maintained by the Swiss Afghanistan Institute (SAI), a politically and religiously neutral institution that has been systematically researching and documenting the history and culture of Afghanistan for more than 35 years.

The image archives of the SAI have served as the primary source of material for the Phototheca Afghanica; these archives contain approximately 50,000 photographs derived mainly from collections that were lodged with the SAI or entrusted to other safe individuals and institutions for protection during Afghanistan’s conflict years. It was a common practice during this time for important cultural artifacts to be hidden or sent out of the country for safekeeping, as objects that remained in the country were at great risk of destruction.

At present, the aim of the Phototheca Afghanica is to make roughly 5,000 historical photographs available for research and accessible to the general public through exhibitions, publications, or online.

Why were so many of Afghanistan’s photographs destroyed?

Afghanistan’s photographs—again, like so many other cultural artifacts—suffered from two waves of destruction. In 1978, pre-revolutionary photographs were destroyed by communist activists attempting to erase what they viewed as the country’s bourgeois past. Then, from the mid-1990s onwards, images depicting living creatures were destroyed as the regime believed them to be blasphemous.

What has the Phototheca Afghanica been doing to preserve photos?

The practical work being carried out by the Phototheca Afghanica is all about ensuring that the photographs are preserved in as good condition as possible, and that it is easy to access and search through the collection of photos. Practical steps to this end include: preparing a comprehensive inventory of existing photographs, including albums, prints, negatives, and glass plates; scanning and digitizing all available material; physically safeguarding the photographs by mounting them in special acid-free paper folders and then storing them in acid-free boxes; compiling individual descriptions of each photograph, including the identification (as far as possible) of the people and places featured and the date of the photo; and assembling searchable databases so that photos can be found based on selected criteria such as photographer, location, etc.

What kinds of photos can be found in the Phototheca Afghanica?

The Phototheca Afghanica has already made a select number of images available online from the following collections:

The Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880)—Photos from this collection are some of the earliest photos of Afghanistan in existence, as photographic technology was unknown in the country prior to the late 1870s, when it was brought over from Europe. These particular photographs were taken by the British Royal Engineers during the Second Anglo-Afghan War; the aim was to photograph military action on Afghan territory to supplement conventional military documentation of the time.

Souvenirs d’Afghanistan—This intriguing series of photographs was initiated by the Afghan ambassador in Paris in 1924. At this time, the recently independent Afghanistan was a relatively unknown player on the world stage. The ambassador’s intention was to introduce people to his country through a series of photographs depicting Afghanistan as a modern, up-and-coming nation. The collection primarily featured buildings, cars, and bridges, with very few people appearing—and then only members of the royal household dressed in Western apparel.

Why is preserving these photos important?

Photographs provide a vital record unlike any other of a country and its culture. Particularly in a country like Afghanistan, which has seen so much change over the years, photographs stand as an important reminder of a past that has been all but lost. For example, many historic buildings that feature in some of the photographs have since been demolished or destroyed, and the photograph is therefore the only reminder of their existence.

In addition, while preserved photographs have a cultural importance all their own, they can also serve a very practical purpose in helping with the rebuilding of Afghanistan. According to the Phototheca Afghanica, photos from its collections have already been used in the reconstruction of Bagh-e Babur, the famous gardens in the heart of Kabul, as well as the buildings of the Afghan National Museum, the Afghan National Gallery, and some of the oldest parts of the Presidential Palace.