Monday, December 17, 2012

From Kabul, with love and fear

Amanullah Mojadidi, a featured personality at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, talks about life as an artist in strife-torn Afghanistan

Photo: 'Jihadi Gangster: After a Long Day’s Work' 

By Shevlin Sebastian

Afghan artist Amanullah Mojadidi was supervising a JCB earth excavator, which was removing mud to form a cavity, in a wooded area in Fort Kochi, Kerala. Suddenly, one of the tyres burst. “I immediately dived to the ground and covered my head with my hands,” says Amanullah. “That is what happens when you live for nine years in Kabul, where there is the ever-present danger of bomb blasts and AK-47 machine gun bursts by Taliban fighters. The fear holds you in a tight grip. My beard, which was black, has turned grey.”

But Amanullah is having a new experience in Kerala. “In Kochi there are no bombs going off, nor are there any checkpoints with armed policemen,” he says. “I am revelling in the freedom. It is calm and quiet.”

And in this tranquility, as a featured artist of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Amanullah is creating a unique mud installation. Amanullah’s ancestors are Naqshbandi Sufis, who went from Afghanistan and settled in Sirhind, 40 kms from Chandigarh. 

Later, several descendants returned to Kabul and called themselves as Mojadidi, which is Amanullah’s surname. In Sirhind, there was an Islamic scholar named Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi (1564-1624). And it is one of his relatives who makes a trip to Kochi and settles down.

So, Amanullah has made a brick outline of the house. There is an archaeologist’s tent at one side, with a rickety table and a chair, and glass cases which contains artifacts from Kerala and Afghanistan.  

The idea is to challenge historical assumptions,” says the artist. “In Afghanistan they only want to look at Islamic history, and not at our Buddhist or Zoroastrian heritage. The people are not interested to study the influence of other cultures.”

But Amanullah is, despite having grown up in Jacksonville, Florida, USA. “As I became older, I wanted to reconnect with my country’s history and culture, and do something to help,” he says. “Afghanistan has gone through so much of conflict, because of the Russian invasion in 1979, the Taliban rule, and now the NATO presence.”

Today, in Kabul, Amanullah produces mixed media installations, photos and short films, in response to the experiences he has had there. In his short film, ‘Payback’, he explores the ‘tea money’ that taxi drivers routinely pay to policemen. So Amanullah wore an Afghan police uniform and set up a fake checkpoint. “Instead of taking money I offered 100 Afghanis and an apology on behalf of the police,” says Amanullah. Most people were scared to take the money, but in the end, greed prevailed. Out of 20 drivers, 16 took the cash. “Everybody loves free money,” he says, with a smile.  

And since the influence of the Taliban is pervasive, Amanullah made a remarkable series of photos called ‘Jihadi Gangster’. In one photo, called ‘After a Long Day’s Work’, a man is wearing a black turban and has a golden gun hanging like a necklace around his neck. A woman, in a backless top and hot pants, but with a blue veil, her back to the camera, is kneeling next to the man on the sofa. On a low glass-topped table, there are bottles of whisky, an ashtray full of cigarette butts, several bullets and a half-filled glass of wine.

These jihadis have used political corruption and religious intimidation to become rich and powerful,” says Amanullah. “They say, ‘I did jihad for ten years and so I deserve all these things’. My work is a critique of the abuse of power by individuals, as well as a kind of parody.”

But when it was shown to the review committee of the ministry of information and culture they said it was tauheen (an insult) to national heroes. “They called it un-Islamic and a criticism of Afghan culture,” says Amanullah. “For these reasons, they have never allowed me to show my work in a public space.”

This censorship has had an impact on his art. “Because there is so little direct criticism of things that are wrong in Afghanistan I have felt the need to make my work direct and to the point. In free societies, you can use metaphor and symbolism, but that would have little impact in my country.” 

(The New Indian Express, Sunday Magazine, South India and New Delhi)


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