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Issue 225

Rahraw Omarzad on the Future of Afghan Arts

Set under the context of a new Taliban regime, Mariam Ghani speaks to the artist about how the once sustained arts in Afghanistan will ensue  

BY Mariam Ghani AND Rahraw Omarzad in Interviews , Opinion | 04 MAR 22

Mariam Ghani Could you talk a little about the Center for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan [CCAA], which you founded in 2004, its sibling organization, the Women’s Art Center, which was launched two years later, and the role they have played for artists in Afghanistan?

Rahraw Omarzad I established the CCAA with the explicit intent of starting a new movement in the visual arts by giving young people the chance to express themselves, to improve their work as individual and creative artists, and to implement a new way of looking at art as part of building towards peace, justice, democracy and civil society in Afghanistan. 

In Afghanistan, women have often been excluded from the realm of art and culture, just as they have been deprived of full participation in political, economic and social spheres. This violation of women’s rights is a deeply rooted, multidimensional, historical issue that has negatively impacted the past and present of our society and will affect its future as well, if not resisted. 

Rahraw Omarzad with a painting created by women artists at the CCAA
Rahraw Omarzad with a painting created by women artists at the CCAA

The fields of art and culture cannot progress in Afghanistan without the full participation of Afghan women. That’s why I established the Women’s Art Center, which was intended to combat fanaticism and constraints on women’s artistic activities both by providing education and by supporting contemporary artists across Afghanistan. The Center has trained more than 500 women, organized national and international exhibitions and spearheaded cultural exchange programmes. Both the Center and the women artists associated with it have gained global recognition.

MG The CCAA later came under threat and had to change its name. What exactly happened?

RO The CCAA has been funded by, and worked closely with, many international governments and NGOs, including Western embassies and cultural councils, which increased the risk attached to my work defending freedom of expression, women’s rights and human rights. As the reputations of the CCAA and Women’s Art Center grew, they attracted the attention of Islamic fundamentalists and the Taliban. They also prompted the ire of traditional Afghan artists, many of whom think of contemporary art as a product of Western culture. Some consequently propagandized against me as someone who was destroying traditional culture by promoting Westernized contemporary art. 

Following the suicide bombing at the French Cultural Center in Kabul in 2014, the CCAA was also threatened, and I was urged to close down my operations. So, in 2016, the public-facing side of the CCAA closed, but the administrative department continued its work in a secret location. Many of my students and other young artists fled and took refuge in Western countries, while I stayed in Afghanistan to continue our struggle. The CCAA then decided to continue its activities under pseudonyms or under the guise of other institutions. 

In 2019, in response to demand, the CCAA was reopened under a new name, with a focus on the development of young talents outside of a university environment. It had only recently begun its programming when the Taliban re-entered the city and operations ceased. Now that the Taliban are looking for people who have worked with Western countries, I hope my students can get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible.

Cover of Gahnama-e-Hunar , 2000, featuring a drawing of Abdul Ghafoor Breshna alongside one of his poems
Cover of Gahnama-e-Hunar, 2000, featuring a drawing of Abdul Ghafoor Breshna alongside one of his poems. All images courtesy: © Rahraw Omarzad

MG How were the arts suppressed under the previous Taliban regime, and do you see any differences in their current positions?

RO In the first period of Taliban rule, arts such as cinema, sculpture, photography and painting of living and breathing subjects were officially banned. Even listening to music was forbidden. Since taking control again in August 2021, however, they have not yet officially enforced most of these bans. They exert more control in the provinces than they do in the capital of Kabul, where they understand that their behaviour is being recorded and reflected in the media. This is a new tactic. 

MG What do you see as the future for artists in Afghanistan under the present Taliban regime?

RO Even if their tactics and attitudes seem a little different this time, the Taliban remain ideologically opposed to art. However, they must appear to abide by the terms of the international community in order to obtain vital foreign aid and recognition of their government. If artists and arts institutions are allowed to operate, it will only come as a result of the international community exerting pressure on the Taliban. 

At the moment, like other faculties at Kabul University, the department of fine arts, which had more than a thousand students, is closed indefinitely. Many faculty members have either left Afghanistan or are waiting to be evacuated, while others, who have not yet been granted asylum by another country, are still trying to get out. 

My impression is that, ultimately, art institutions may continue to exist, and artists may be able to create some work, but freedom of expression and thought will be severely restricted. For example, the departments of painting and drawing may survive with constraints, but music and sculpture will certainly remain closed. Artists will be required to propagate the thoughts and views of the Taliban. Art in Afghanistan will be subject to a regression from which it will take a long time to recuperate.

Behind these bitter realities, however, lies the hope that the majority of Afghan artists will find refuge in Europe, the US, Canada, Australia and a number of Asian countries, where they will hopefully receive support. They will then be able to return to Afghanistan in a post-Taliban era, bringing the experiences from their years of migration back into the country, and accelerating the progress of Afghan art.

CCAA students setting up their work for an exhibition of contemporary and Afghan women’s art in Afghanistan, 2008
CCAA students setting up their work for an exhibition of contemporary and Afghan women’s art in Afghanistan, 2008

MG What responsibility do Western institutions have to support Afghan artists and cultural workers? Many embassies have supported the arts in Afghanistan as part of soft diplomacy efforts, while several Western art institutions have board members and patrons who are defence contractors or arms manufacturers, who have profited greatly from the Afghan war. Does this create a different sort of obligation?

RO Yes, soft diplomacy is also part of political and military strategy, which creates obligations across several moral and political dimensions. There are many ways that countries, especially those that had a military presence in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2021, can support Afghan artists and cultural workers. 

If they recognize the Taliban government, among other urgent and necessary conditions, the international community should prioritize guaranteeing the rights and security of women and defending the freedom of artistic expression. If they do not recognize the Taliban government, the international community should put pressure on the Taliban to let artists take refuge in other countries. International governments can save Afghan artists from severe security and economic threats by evacuating them from Afghanistan, or support artists by paying their salaries until the economy stabilizes and the Taliban government can pay its employees. 

In the long term, countries can provide new training and experiences for artists, art teachers and students who are fleeing Afghanistan, so that they do not become isolated and stop developing their practices but will, instead, be ready for a post-Taliban era, when they can compensate for the damage done to Afghan arts. Countries can offer scholarships to young people and art students, so that they can pursue fully funded education in art programmes. It’s up to the countries that have helped enable the return to power of the Taliban to compensate for their cultural mistakes in Afghanistan by putting these proposals into action. 

Readers of frieze can support the Afghan Artists Protection Project (a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization based in the US) 

This article first appeared in frieze issue 225 with the headline ‘What Can Be Done?’

Main image: Cover of the second issue of Gahnama-e-Hunar, detail. Courtesy: © Rahraw Omarzad

Mariam Ghani is an artist, writer, and filmmaker based in New York. Her feature film What We Left Unfinished is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel, and in 2022 she will have solo exhibitions at the Schneider Museum of Art in Ashland, Oregon, and Ryan Lee Gallery in New York City.

Rahraw Omarzad is an Afghan artist, professor and curator living in exile in Turin, Italy. He founded the Center for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan in 2004