‘In/visibilities’ by Ann-Katrine S. Nielsen
Renegotiating public space, gender, and subject positions through art
Critical art, according to Chantal Mouffe, “is art that forments dissensus” in public spaces and aims “at giving voice to all those who are silenced within the framework of the existing hegemony” (Mouffe, 2007). Following this, art plays a decisive role in challenging consensual views on society and in opening for “the construction of new subjectivities” (Mouffe, 2007). However, the act of giving voice also implies a passivity on part of those very same silenced or marginalized groups.
The problems of voice, critique, and agency are especially pertinent when working with Afghan female artists and their artistic practices. As several scholars have observed, the women of Afghanistan have, for the past two decades, been functioning as mute symbols legitimizing Western military involvement in many warring national publics (Mackie, 2012; Butler, 2004; Fernandes, 2017): Our troops were in Afghanistan, the political and media narrative goes, to secure human rights for the women and education for the girls. The widespread preoccupation with and representation of “the Afghan woman”, however, most often “postion the first-world viewer as active and articuate spectator and the third-world woman as passive and silent sufferer” (Mackie, 2012: 126). In this post, I will introduce the works of two artists who reject this positioning and not merely give a voice to minoritized women, but actively insist on and claim a central place for these women in physical and digital, real and imagined public spaces. The two artists are exiled female Afghan artists Kubra Khademi (b. 1989) and Shamsia Hassani (b. 1988), and, in their works, they challenge both Afghan and Western regimes of female (in)visibility through critical-aesthetic interventions in public space.
Before turning to the art works, however, a word on the circulation and reading of the works is necessary. In their state of exile, Khademi and Hassani both make active use of their social media profiles where they document and distribute art works, artistic performances and processes as well as activist statements and interventions – these are overlapping to such a degree that we may use the term artivism to characterize their work. My understanding of their work is, of course, conditioned by my position as a Western citizen and a member of the heterogenous global audience following Khademi and Hassani’s work online. I am, thus, not claiming to have an intimate knowledge of the art works in their local context but, instead, examine how they also reflect upon and challenge dominant Western logics of war, gender, and geopolitics.
Today’s heroines – disrupting male space through artistic intervention
In the 2022-performance Les Heroines d’Aujourd’hui (find on Instagram under #AlléeDeFrozanSaafi) Kubra Khademi replaced the name of Afghan military commander Ahmad Shah Massoud with the names of four living and deceased Afghan women’s rights activists on four Parisian street signs. In this way, she temporarily transformed Allée du Commandant Massoud to Allée de Fowzia Wahdat, Allée de Hoda Khamoosh, Allée de Rokhshana Rezaie, and Allée de Frozan Safi. In doing so, Khademi makes a poignant comment on the current gendered and militarized regulation of public space not only in Afghanistan but also in Europe where public buildings, streets, and city squares are still predominantly named after men and often bedecked with national monuments commemorating masculinized military victors. Taking matters into own hands, Khademi, literally, climbed a ladder and temporarily changed the existing discordant reality to one where masculine singularity is replaced by feminist multiplicity and collaboration.
With the performance she also disrupts Western media narratives of “the Afghan woman” as a silent and victimized being to be saved (Ghani & Fiske, 2020). Khademi’s performance points to the hypocrisy of Western humanitarian narratives of war, and the thousands of women still fighting for political change and living in immediate danger in Afghanistan today, as well as reinstates Afghan women as active agents in Western public space – both through the honouring of the four activists and through her own very concrete actions and alterations. As she states in an interview following the continuation of the performance at an arts festival in Roubaix: “Art must interfere” (Salazar-Winspear, 2022).
Poetic lines of flight – disrupting histories of hurt through dreaming tactics
Hassani’s series Dreaming Graffiti was produced at a time – prior to the Taliban takeover – when conducting actual street art was not possible and safe. Instead, Hassani painted immense graffiti paintings on printed photographs of Afghan land- and cityscapes. Hassani, a street artist and former arts lecturer at the University of Kabul, has worked with urban surfaces as her canvas for several years. However, in Dreaming Graffiti she can transgress the limitations of physical space and scale. The pseudo site-specific art depicts enormous female figures on urban walls and rural mountainsides, for example at the landmark site of the former Buddhas of Bamiyan. The female figures are colourfully dressed and often hold a musical instrument or a flower alluding to the realm of poetry and music. In this way, they not only, very tangibly, challenge the subordination of female Afghans, but also produce poetic lines of flight from a context of gendered and geopolitical violence.
The fictive murals can be seen as pockets of dreaming resistance, and their online circulation works to reclaim and reframe (Merrill, Keightley & Daphi, 2020) female Afghan subject positions – especially in the light of the thousands of Afghans fleeing the Taliban in August 2021. Sociologist Arjun Appadurai comments that digital texts and archives often become valuable spaces for migrants to reclaim dignity and protect vulnerabilities in the face of “the presence of one or more narratives of public memory in the new home of the migrant, where the migrant is often seen as a person with only one story to tell – the story of abject loss and need” (Appadurai, 2019: 562). As such, insisting on the tactics of dreaming, poetry, aspiration, and imagination, the continued sharing and circulation of Hassani’s series works as a counter-archive where other narratives of Afghan lives than those solely of want and hurt can be heard.
Dr Ann-Katrine S. Nielsen is postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Linguistic and Nordic Studies at the University of Oslo. Her research examines the practices of female Afghan artists in exile and their unfolding pasts and futures.
My current project deals with the works and artistic practices of female Afghan exile artists. In the project, I investigate how Afghan artists aesthetically explore and unfold different forms of past and future. This is done through a combination of work analysis, netnography and interviews. The project draws on affect and war and cultural studies as well as hauntology. The project is financed by the Carlsberg Foundation.
Appadurai, A. (2019) ”Traumatic Exit, Identity Narratives, and the Ethics of Hospitality”. Television & New Media 20(6), 558-565.
Butler, J. (2006) Frames of War, London: Verso
Ghani, B. & Fiske, L. (2020) “’Art is my language’: Afghan cultural production challenging Islamophobic stereotypes”. Journal of Sociology 56(1), pp. 115-129
Mackie, V. (2012) “The ‘Afghan Girls’: Media representations and frames of war”. Continuum 26(1), 115-131.
Merrill, S., Keightley, E. & Daphi, P. (2020) Social Movements, Cultural Memory and Digital Media. Mobilizing mediated remembrance, Cham: Palgrave Macmillan
Mouffe, C. (2007) ”Art and Democracy. Art as an agonistic intervention in public space”. Open! No.14, 1-7, https://www.onlineopen.org/art-and-democracy, 01-06-22
Salazar-Winspear, O. (2022) “Avignon’s 76th Theatre Festival: Kubra Khademi on Afghanistan’s heroines”, https://www.france24.com/en/tv-shows/encore/20220714-avignon-s-76th-theatre-festival-kubra-khademi-on-afghanistan-s-heroines, 14-07-22