Interview with Rahraw Omarzad, Founder of the Center for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan
10 apr 2014 by Ashton Chandler
Ashton Chandler speaks to Rahraw Omarzad, Founder of the Center for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan (CCAA), about the state of Afghan contemporary art, his artistic endeavors under the Taliban, the artistic opportunities offered through the CCAA, and the incredible increase of support for female Afghan artists.
AC: Can you give a brief overview of the art scene in Afghanistan and the role of the CCAA?
RO: We have had three periods of the development of visual arts in Afghanistan. The first period was in the 16th century, but it was not until 2002 that there were some possibilities for having new experiences about visual arts. At this time, there were possibilities to break the circle of repetition in visual arts and the possibility to have the freedom to use a variety of materials to express ideas. Then the third period started after 2002 with the new movement.
When we started the first contemporary art center in Afghanistan, we gave an announcement not about contemporary art, but about the painting, drawing, and photography courses. So, the young generation applied for the courses, and it was through these courses in which we slowly gave the students information about contemporary art. Then they began to practice contemporary art, which eventually led to having an exhibition - the first exhibition of contemporary painting, video performance, and installation. From that, we started new activities as part of the new movement in Afghanistan. Today, compared to 2004, there are many young artists that have started practicing contemporary art. After 2004, this movement has mostly been supported by international artists who come here and give workshops and seminars and invite Afghan artists abroad, and these opportunities have been really important to this development.
AC: How has the CCAA been received publicly and after the establishment of the contemporary art center, have more art programs been developed?
RO: Compared to 2004, we are now in a better position as we can train more young artists. Since 2004, we have trained over 500 students in this center. Society’s reaction to contemporary art is a very interesting discussion because people don’t know about this new movement, therefore they aren’t against it, but also they are not quite appreciative of it. From one side, we couldn’t introduce contemporary art to society because of the very limited possibilities, such as the government not cooperating when we have an exhibition and not having the opportunity to announce the exhibition to the public. From the other side, the government also doesn’t have the time to support this kind of exhibition and so less people know about when we have an exhibition. Thus, we can not exactly speak about supporting contemporary art because we need the opportunity to at least introduce people to contemporary art and then we can show them and discover their reaction. In the past when we hosted an exhibition, we didn’t face a negative reaction from the people, though most were the young generation who very much liked it.
In Afghanistan, we can not find the funders to support these young artists for the long-term. This is one of the problems we face which results in us losing the young people. However, we do have one group of prominent young contemporary artists that are giving the dream light for the future of Afghan contemporary art.
There are a few reasons why people are against contemporary art: some people think that contemporary art will destroy tradition and that is why we shouldn’t support it, while some people think it doesn’t have a clear message and that’s why it shouldn’t be influencing society.
AC: How has the CCAA fostered creative expression?
RO: With many other art centers, there is not any ground for self-expression as they are basically teaching technique and present a model which the students should represent. These centers are in control of choosing what colors and compositions the students will implement. At CCAA, we also start with this type of presentation at the beginning. When students come to the center, they are usually unaware about contemporary art. They are most interested in learning about the techniques of how to paint, how to take photos, etc. We start with these primary classes, but then slowly introduce the students to contemporary art. We are working with their minds to give them more information about art. As their minds become more open with information about contemporary art, we begin a contemporary art workshop. In this workshop, they have new experiences and see that there are many opportunities to express yourself. After this point, we separate these students from the new ones coming in who are starting the primary classes. These students are then free to work individually and choose any subject or material and we only give advice. We have two groups of students, one group following the regular program of technique and representation and the second group practicing individual self expression.
AC: You are an artist yourself, can you tell me a bit about the content and concepts of your art?
RO: For a long time I worked as a painter, but then I stopped painting and started video art. My video art contains mostly political issues, and I mostly focus on the memorizing system in Afghanistan.
When there was Russian aggravation in Afghanistan, I was not interested in continuing painting. Because, in painting, you couldn’t see what is going on in real life in Afghanistan, there was fighting, there was bombing, people were being put in jail - there were many bad things happening. But none of these events were being reflected in painting. Artists were painting portraits and landscapes as if everything was very normal. I couldn’t see any connection between the subject of the painting and the reality of life in Afghanistan. From the other side, I didn’t have the experience of how to break free of this circle of repetition. I stopped painting and then I preferred to use graffiti - stencil graffiti. I started painting and drawing cartoons, but I was put in jail. From my experience in jail, I decided to write. Through writing, I could express my ideas. Then, I was an assistant at “Soli Paigham” (Message of Peace) Magazine. Then, when the Taliban said no art, I started the art magazine Gahnama-e-Hunar.
AC: I understand you held courses for Afghan refugees under the Taliban government. Can you discuss these courses and also expand upon the art magazine you started, which was another risky endeavour at the time?
RO: At the same time of doing the art magazine, I started teaching drawing and painting courses at the Institute of Fine Arts in the morning for Pakistanis and in the afternoon I was teaching free courses for Afghan refugees. The refugee students would volunteer for the magazine doing interviews and I would teach them drawing and painting and this worked really well. Those who were writers were writing articles for the magazine. At the time, it was the only art magazine in Kabul.
We continued the art magazine for four years, but couldn’t continue it because of the lack of funding. To this day, the magazine has been the only art magazine in Afghanistan. During the Russian time, there was one art magazine published by the government, but only those who supported the government were involved. There are newspapers that mention artistic activities, but there is not a specific magazine devoted to art. This is why we have been thinking about re-establishing the magazine, but with some changes to how the magazine was originally.
AC: The CCAA is the only center for female artists in Afghanistan right now. Can you tell me what the center offers women and how art and creative freedom has changed these women’s lives?
RO: When we started the Center for Contemporary art for Women, we hosted an exhibition for Afghan women. I found it interesting that women who were forbidden from artistic activities in Afghanistan for a long time became like the messengers and were put in the position as the leaders of the new movement, essentially starting the movement for contemporary art in Afghanistan. The first exhibition was accepted by the people - they were very happy and appreciated it. It was on TV and in the newspapers; everyone was excited about this exhibition. Suddenly, they realized it was an exhibition by Afghan women, and the artists went abroad to places like India and Germany and began winning international prizes. Many are now studying art internationally and some are teaching at our center after being taught here themselves. There are female painters, photographers, and video artists. Women’s social position has changed to a much better position now in Afghanistan. People recognize that there is a group of very good female artists. Of course, there is still the need for more support and more possibilities. The Embassy has been in cooperation too, as they send one woman every year to India to study fine arts, and we will continue to send female artists to India. I think this is a very good start.
AC: Do you predict an increase of support for female artists in Afghanistan?
RO: This is our goal and the most important one of CCAA. We will continue our support for women artists to be very active and well known for art in Afghanistan.
All images courtesy of CCAA.