dOCUMENTA (13) in Kabul: Impressions from a secluded place

While world leaders debate over when and how to withdraw troops from war-tormented Afghanistan, artists are meeting in Kabul for dOCUMENTA (13), one of the leading venues for contemporary art.

KABUL, Afghanistan, August 5, 2012 - While world leaders debate over when and how to withdraw troops from war-tormented Afghanistan, artists are meeting in Kabul for dOCUMENTA (13), one of the leading venues for contemporary art.

Every five years, art enthusiasts from around the world meet in the small town of Kassel in the middle of Germany for dOCUMENTA, an exhibit of some of the best contemporary art of the day.  This year, dOCUMENTA (13) had three satellite venues – one, in the middle of the Afghan capital, Kabul.

The Kabul exhibit ran almost four weeks in the Queen’s palace Bagh -e- Babur/ Babur Park. The exibit included works by Afghan artists, both from within the country and from the Diaspora, as well as internationally renowned artists who spent time in residency in Kabul. Many of the exhibited works address ideas of destruction, rebuilding and memory, drawing parallels between post-war Germany and Kabul – battered by three decades of conflict.

Among those featured was young Berlin-based Afghan-German artist Jeanno Gaussi. While her work for the Kassel venue – a series of family portraits – was a subtle reminder of the tormenting histories of individual families, forced into exile and the loss of congruent, personal histories and memories; her piece for Kabul was far more overtly political in its references. Peraan-e-Tombaan (pants and shirt) is a performance-based video installation, where the acting figures wear traditional, male, Afghan clothing, patterned with military insignias.

Gaussi came to this piece while visiting her country of birth.  She explained, “During my visits to Kabul in the past four years I realised how the military and police characterize the city more and more. Kabul is dominated by security and war; everywhere you turn you face blocked streets and convoys of big bulletproof cars. The streets are packed with a huge amount of men wearing various types of uniform. Their uniforms carry many indefinable military insignias. I have no idea about their rank or function. Near the old Bazaar, close to Kabul River, I came across some small shops where you can easily buy these insignias.“

Amidst all the ruins and instability of the political situation, one may wonder what impact an exhibition like dOCUMENTA will have on the country. As Gaussi explains, “There is a great need for exchange and networking among the young artists within the country. The seminars that took place before the actual exhibition, really sparked interest and facilitated this exchange. Artists are forming more groups, getting braver in what they do and how they work. There is, however, a great need for further support and extension.”

There are great initiatives abroad to give Afghan art more exposure to European and American audiences, like Leeza Ahmady’s Asian Contemporary Art Week (ACAW), but more effort is needed. As Gaussi states, “There are more and more spaces and small institutions; dOCUMENTA (13) opened the gates for discussion and exchange, but there is much more to do.”

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Dorothea Schoene

Dorothea Schoene is a Berlin- based art historian, curator and writer. She is the recipient of a Fulbright grant, a Getty research grant as well as a scholarship of the German Academic Exchange service.

Schoene studied at the Leibniz College in Tübingen/ Germany, at the University of Leipzig/ Germany as well as at the University of California Riverside. Her publications on Contemporary Middle Eastern, American and German art have appeared in numerous art magazines (x-tra, Art Tomorrow, afterimage et al.).

In addition, Schoene has contributed to edited volumes on museum and exhibition history (e.g. 2010 for the Städel Museum in Frankfurt). Dorothea Schoene has worked as curatorial assistant at the LA County Museum of Art to work on the exhibition „Art of Two Germanys – Cold War Cultures“, which showed in Los Angeles and two German venues in 2009- 2010.

Contact Dorothea Schoene


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