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Center for Contemporary Art Afghanistan (CCAA)

Afghanistan

The Center for Contemporary Art Afghanistan (known as CCAA) is a small arts centre in Kabul, which offers courses, workshops and a place to work for young artists, mainly women, from the age of approximately 16-25. The Center is not the grand building with galleries, shop and café that is now standard across the developed world, but a small house and garden with no special studios or facilities, approached from a dirt road and closed behind a rickety iron gate. It is equipped simply, with essential materials for visual arts, sculpture and new media work. There is no government subsidy, no regular funding or endowment from a generous patron. Yet it is the only Center for Contemporary Art in Afghanistan.

CCAA was founded and is run by Rahraw Omarzad, a writer, artist, curator and journalist, who has committed himself to creating new opportunities for contemporary art and artists in Afghanistan. His work began as a refugee in Pakistan in the late 1990s, where – despite the extreme conservatism of that time and place – he set up a magazine about contemporary Afghan art and artists, including interviews with various artists and commentators – including a ‘Taliban’ representative. This periodical, Gahnam-e-Hunar, which continues to be published sporadically, remains the only specialist publication about Afghan cultural life. At the same time, in Pakistan, Omarzad set up classes in drawing, painting and sculpture for young Afghan refugees. These actions were not only pioneering in the context of Afghanistan at that time, but were also at great personal risk.

The Islamic fundamentalist Taliban government in Afghanistan was in power from 1996-2001 and is known world-wide not only for its violent and repressive regime, but also for its hostility to the arts. Many artists were persecuted during this period; picked up and beaten merely for having artists’ materials in their possession, or paintings depicting the human form. In March 2001, the Taliban blew up the 1500-year-old giant Buddhas carved out of stone niches in the Bamiyan valley, in central Afghanistan. It was a powerful media stunt which shocked the world, demonstrating the Taliban government’s disregard for history and the icons of the past, and their intention to wipe the cultural slate clean.

Omarzad writes of his concern that during this time of hostility to the arts, ‘the younger generation would grow up without any knowledge of art… [which] would be a great loss for future generations and our national life.’ In 2002, after the fall of the Taliban, Omarzad returned to Afghanistan and, with the aid of some seed funding, began to run classes and workshops in contemporary art. This work, as well as his magazine, Gahnam-e-Hunar, began to attract the attention of the newly-arrived international community, and with support from international cultural organisations such as the Goethe Institut and the Prince Claus Fund, he travelled internationally, participating in conferences and visiting international arts centres. In 2002 he founded CCAA, which was refocused as a specifically women’s art center in 2006.

A recent publication about the work of CCAA states: “The main goal of CCAA is to provide equal opportunities for both men and women and to provide young artists the chance to express and improve their artistic talent as individual and creative artists, and implement a new way of looking at art in Afghan society as a vehicle for communicating peace, justice, democracy and civil society and to support sustainability and institutionalization of these beliefs in the light of Islamic and national values.”

The statement captures the challenges facing the center – a place which Omarzad founded as a refuge and place to develop and support artists, and yet which also has the potential to be a vehicle for social change. Inevitably, CCAA has been seized upon by many international organisations, now present in the ‘NGO city’ that is present-day Kabul, as a way to achieve their own objectives in bringing peace, justice, democracy and civil society to Afghanistan. Due to the need to find funding, CCAA has had to move with the times, and meet the various but sometimes conflicting demands of different donors and patrons. One NGO might fund the Centre solely for its work with young women, while another NGO might support the Center as a means of expressing democratic values. This of course is not uncommon and many organisations across Afghanistan have become deft at juggling the diverse needs of donors. However, it does highlight the difficulty of retaining artistic freedom, and at the same time retain the right of the artist to work independently of social and political ends. It also highlights the need for core funding, so that CCAA can run a core programme without needing to be constantly reactive to the desires of each different donor.

In early 2012, Omarzad explained that after 10 years he is still looking for core funding, but is facing a very uncertain future. The political horizons, with the withdrawal of international troops, have left many feeling pessimistic about the future, and there are fears that the position of women will deteriorate once again. Omarzad reiterates that the future of contemporary art in Afghanistan does not rest just with his centre – that the country needs many more art institutions, galleries and curators to begin to build a strong contemporary arts scene.

There are still only two art colleges in Afghanistan, the Faculties of Fine Arts in Kabul and Herat Universities. Only those students with the lowest marks, who are rejected from other more respected faculties, such as Engineering or Sciences, are eligible for entry. Omarzad teaches at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Kabul and acknowledges that the teaching is still largely traditional. While some of the professors have studied abroad, like Omarzad himself, many have not and are not acquainted with developments in international art. Therefore the opportunity to maintain traditions but at the same time introduce more culturally diverse, contemporary, perspectives is limited. A large library of contemporary art books, with the latest Phaidon and Tate editions, donated by a generous international organisations, sits dusty in a locked cupboard at the university – most students and teachers cannot read or interpret the works inside.

Meanwhile the arts scene in Kabul itself, and the artists who gather at CCAA, are restless with energy and determination. Young women artists, many of them pursuing other careers or studies at the same time as working as artists, are fully committed to developing a contemporary art scene in Afghanistan and putting their country on the world arts map. CCAA regularly holds exhibitions at different venues across the city, and has organised some international projects. In 2008, Omarzad presented a major survey of women’s art in Afghanistan, part of which toured to Berlin and New Delhi, and in 2010 and 2012, there were major exhibitions of women’s art at the French Cultural Centre in Kabul in 2010 and 2012. Several artists have won international awards, such as Sheenkai Stanakzai, who was runner-up for the Freedom to Create prize in 2009. Omarzad was himself selected to show at Documenta 13 in Kassel in 2012, and was part of the international programme which simultaneously took place in Kabul. Now new breakaway artist groups, such as Berang Association, are forming in Kabul, many of the artists taught or nurtured through CCAA. It’s a positive sign that the bedrock offered by CCAA during very difficult years is now bearing fruit. These artists, with access to the internet, are more internationally-focused than previous generations, and already presenting themselves and their work online.

Their style of work varies from traditional figurative painting, to abstract expressionist work, to digital media, graffiti or installation art. Of course topical issues such as war, political corruption and women’s rights surface in their work, but many other subjects are there too. These artists want to be recognized for their achievements beyond being ‘Afghan artists’, focusing on subjects such as democracy or justice. They need opportunities to show and develop their work, both locally and globally, to build careers as international artists.

But practical questions hang in the air – what is the future for Afghanistan, and how will this help or hinder opportunities for young contemporary artists?

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