Celebrating art in Afghanistan

Sara Nabil is not your typical 14-year-old artist in Afghanistan. Her gold-painted, glass sugar bowl with strips of material sprouting from the top symbolises the corrupt nature of marriage, she says. When you lift the sugar bowl’s lid, you see that the ends of the material are burnt and there are pieces of a broken mirror and bangles. “Why should the life of an Afghan woman be like this?” asked Miss Nabil. “When a woman gets married and moves into her husband’s home, her life is ruined, her heart broken and she slowly wastes away.” Welcome to just one of the entries for Afghanistan’s first contemporary art prize. Sponsored by the Turquoise Mountain – a foundation dedicated to supporting local Afghan arts and crafts – and a local businessman, the prize aims to support the small contemporary art scene in the country. ‘Important communicator’ More than 70 people from across Afghanistan submitted entries for the $2,000 prize and 10 artists – including Miss Nabil – were shortlisted. “Art is an important communicator and reflects what’s going on in society,” said Jemima Montagu, one of the organisers of the prize. “I think it’s important that Afghanistan isn’t just a place of trauma but that it’s a place where a cultural life can begin to develop like another city.” Other successful entries by Afghan artists include a beaded snake in a glass jar; a pink rose whose stem is pierced by pins; and a wooden lampshade in the shape of Afghanistan and painted in the colours of the national flag. Mohammad Ismael Zadran, 33, was so excited when he heard the radio advertisement for the prize that he hired a taxi and packed it full of 200 pieces of art. From his small, conservative village in the north-eastern province of Khost – where he is the only artist – he made the eight-hour bumpy journey. “Three of my wood sculptures were destroyed during the journey,” said Mr Zadran. “But it was a chance I had to take.” Contemporary art in Afghanistan is far removed from the world of contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. ‘Good thing’ It has roots in the period when the former Soviet Union occupied the country. “Contemporary art is difficult for most Afghans to understand,” said Timor Hakimyar, a former president of the Artists Union of Afghanistan. “But it is a good thing to start, to encourage people to learn about the arts.” All art forms suffered heavily during the Afghan civil war and then during the Taleban takeover. The Taleban movement regarded most art as “haram” – forbidden in Islam – particularly work that showed any depiction of the human form. As part of the prize, the 10 nominees are participating in a two-week workshop that aims to explore the concepts of contemporary art. Local and international artists have been invited to speak to Afghan artists to help them develop new ideas. Afghanistan has been wracked by 20 years of war and there is currently an insurgency in many parts of the country. Organisers believe that contemporary art offers the Afghans a way of channelling their trauma and discussing topics that are still largely taboo in society. During one of the workshops, the artists were asked to buy items from the local market and make a piece of contemporary art. One participant’s exhibit had twigs sticking out of a doorway, and the debris of a small two-person figurine, a statue of a dog, a smashed light bulb, a cigarette butt and vegetables strewn on the ground. He said it symbolised the scene of when his house was hit by a rocket in Kabul in the early 1990s. Organisers say that an exhibition of this new artwork will be held next month followed by an announcement of the first winner of the contemporary art prize.

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