Talking Politics Through Art

Sep 2015

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Tanqeed speaks to Amanullah Mojadidi, a contemporary artist who was born in Jacksonville, Florida to Afghan parents.

Amanullah Mojadidi’s practice is premised on his own personal experiences and academic research within cultural studies, in a world that he calls “simultaneously globalized and fractured.” In an art statement on his personal website, he says that his work:

“utilizes a critical, experimental ethnographic approach, combining qualitative research, traditional storylines, and postmodern narrative strategies to approach themes such as belonging, identity politics, conflict, and the push to and resistance against modernization; intentionally blurring and merging the lines between fact and fiction, documentation and imagination.”

Over the past few years, Mojadidi has exhibited his work in New York City, Los Angeles, Paris, Singapore, Hong Kong, Cairo, Mumbai, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Dubai, London, Kassel for dOCUMENTA (13), Fort Kochi for the 1st Kochi/Muziris Biennale 2012, and Kabul. In this issue of Tanqeed, we feature his work, and sit down to talk about how he understands his own art.



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Tanqeed (TQ): How did you get involved with art?

AM: I first started as an artist because I felt it was a way to visually express certain political ideas that I had. I had already begun expressing these ideas through writing but I felt that text was visually limited. So, I started working on creating assemblages and installations and mix media junk art as a way to explore political ideas that I had started developing. These ideas were born out of growing up in these somewhat politically charged backgrounds—my family being from Afghanistan and taking part in the war against the Soviet Union, and me being born and growing up in a part of the US Confederate South that was known for its historical and ongoing racism towards Black Americans and people like myself — anyone from the Middle East. A place that had its own kind of preconceptions about who we were. And so, I started creating work that was initially meant to get some of these feelings out. Eventually, I brought that into different kinds of work/mediums including audio, video and, now, installations.


TQ: Could you talk about some of the early work that you did?

AM: Some of the early work that I made in the beginning were dealing with a lot of political issues that I was seeing in terms of the US’ political involvement around the world. This was really what I started to express. Not only their involvement around the world, but also in the US. I remember I did an installation that dealt with the kind of conditions that Americans [lived in] in reservations. I did works about US invasions in Iraq and pieces about US economic interests in terms of oil wealth and oil reserves. So a lot of it was really looking at a kind of ‘US imperialism’ if you will, or different manifestations of that. I wasn’t necessarily focusing on Afghanistan as a subject, largely because a lot of the work I did from the beginning was influenced by the environment that I was in. So, it wasn’t really until I was actually in Afghanistan and began living there, that I started to create work that very specifically addressed issues within Afghanistan. Issues I was experiencing or hearing about while speaking with people. So, the earlier shows were broader statements about US incursions in various places and ‘US imperialism’, if you will.


TQ: Could you speak a little bit about the work that we are featuring on Tanqeed?

AM:One of the initial works that I produced is a photo series called “a day in the life of a jihadi gangster. » It was born out of conversations I was having with a lot of Afghans who… you hear this statement a lot by people here who say random things like “I did Jihad had for 14 years and so I deserves x, y and z.”

The more and more I heard this and the kind of attitude and posture that people had when they spoke of such stuff–-usually it was their way of referring to the war against the Soviet Union–-I started to imagine that Jihad was a sort of internal “bling »: a symbol of status, of position, of what they felt like they deserved to have within society.


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So, I started to equate it with the notion of a “western bling,” or a gangster attitude. So this photo series was trying to take these two worlds of western gangster bling and the attitude of people in Afghanistan and bring it into this character of a gangster. So this series of photographs culminated in a full run for parliament because conversations were had with people pointing out billboards and campaign posters of different candidates for parliamentary elections, saying this person was affiliated with so and so world order and is responsible for killing x number of people near my village. So I started to see that a high percentage of these candidates were all themselves kind of gangsters. So then I did this public installation work of this parliamentary campaign poster that were put up on the walls in Kabul that said ‘vote for me and I am rich etc’.

Artist: Aman Mojadidi "Jihadi Gangster Parliamentary Campaign Poster" 2010

Artist: Aman Mojadidi “Jihadi Gangster Parliamentary Campaign Poster” 2010

 I blacked out the face that I put in and said “insert your favourite Jihadi here.” This character of the poster came to represent what different people had in mind. This was something that I started to bring into a bicultural understanding that I had.

I also tried to capture different moments throughout a particular day. No992mDszQzDO03rL5_5aaiXLS97fNDjWnewoedH2ko,iftSjQilqbgtKlY6lYVVKi9rmbEb_uiXK2WlHxK83Lg So the first photo shows the backside of a head and shoulders and is called morning prayer. Here, I imagine what this man does in the morning. The second one [shows a Jihadi] dressing for work and has a frontal shot of a person with tattoos. Then it moves into the third and the fourth shot. In these shots there is a   phone negotiation. It is very local in its presentation because if you cut out the left side of the photo where the image of the foreigner is on his knees with a character pointing a gun at him, you have the gangster figure dressed very properly with a nice shirt, laughing on the phone. This is very much reflective of the local telecommunication advertisements that you see around Afghanistan, where you have people laughing on the phone as an advertisement on the phone for “Roshan telecom”or “Afghan wireless telecom.“ So this particular image also reflects something very familiar to the people in Afghanistan, in terms of the imagery. So that one is called phone negotiations as if negotiations are being made for the release.

The other shot is also one that panned out of it and that one is called ‘documentation’. The fifth photo is one of the most pulp photos, I guess, with the gangster figure with a half clad woman and alcohol on the table and bullets everywhere trying to watch television while she is trying to get attention. It is called ‘After a long day’s work’. The idea was to get into this day in the life of this figure through different photos and then, as I mentioned, its culmination in the parliamentary campaign.


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TQ: Could you tell us a bit more about the other series that we are also featuring: ‘Afghan by Blood, Redneck by the Grace of God”?

AM:Yeah. So, a day in the life of a jihadi gangsterand Afghan by blood, Redneck by Grace of Godare my only two photographic works.

In this series, there is a bit of a personal story, because I was born and grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, which was very much part of the deep confederate south. When my parents went there in the late 60’s, restaurants were still segregated. And so, part of this is looking back at this kind of upbringing that I had in terms of the “Redneck by the Grace of God” and in terms of fate having brought my parents to this place and me to be born and grow up in this place.

But the larger or maybe I should say the more subtle kind of critique is also on the US presence in Afghanistan for more than a decade. You have a lot of these racist, redneck Americans coming to Afghanistan to work either as soldiers or often within different kinds of private sector work. You have a lot of mechanics coming from places like Alabama to work as mechanics on US military bases. You have all these types of people coming that at home would do nothing but be racist and criticize the people in the country they have come to. And so part of this is also a kind of a metaphor for a part of the US presence in the country.

There are several shots around this city of the Afghan redneck character. You see him in different scenes like in a barber shop, sitting down by the river with some kids who are collecting trash, in the bird market dressed in a very classic redneck style.

There are several things that are important, such as the t-shirt that I found in a thrift store in Florida when I was 16 years old. It is a home-made t-shirt that has a map. In some of these images you see it more clearly than others so it’s a bit subtle but it has a map of basically the Middle East moving into South and Central Asia with several ships in the waters that are shooting atomic bombs. You have atom clouds above several countries on the t-shirt like Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq. On the bottom the text says “Nuke ‘Em All.” So this whole series was playing with biculturalism in a personal way and at the same time making a larger political statement on the US invasion in Afghanistan.


TQ: And what are you doing nowadays?

AM: I am going to be doing a project for the Dhaka Art Summitin February. It is essentially going to be an installation, looking at the kind of complications that arise out of a growing interest through the last few years in contemporary art from conflict countries. This sort of art has has become a bit chic to show more internationally or more within western structures.

And then I am continuing these artnographies in a global project funded by the Benetton Foundation in a project called Imagomundi that I did in 2013 in Afghanistan and will now work on until the end of 2016 in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. We will basically develop a kind of ethnography of contemporary art in the country that results in a publication with images of artwork as well as CD’s of artists and ultimately exhibitions as well in Italy during the Venice Biennale. Often times, several countries will be exhibited at once. So, they are kind of like ethnographic landscapes of contemporary artistic practice in different countries.

I was actually in India working on theImagomundi project in 2012 for the first Kochi/Muziris biennale when I got a phone call from Fabrica which is the publishing house affiliated with Benetton. I was contacted to ask if I’d be able to work on this Imagomundi project in Afghanistan. After I looked into what the project was about (because in the beginning I was a bit skeptical, and thought it was another instance of western art being interested in conflict art and so on) I started to see that it was a kind of ethnography of art around the world and it was not just focusing on southern or third world countries or conflict countries or however they get labeled. It seemed like it would be an interesting opportunity to work on a project for Afghanistan. So, I did it in 2013 and then in 2014 we launched the book at an exhibition in Treviso in Italy for Afghanistan and other countries that had also recently been completed such as Cuba, South Korea, Japan.


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This is when we started to discuss that we had done several countries in the region but were still missing several countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. I pointed out to him the interest of Bangladesh and Pakistan in terms of the complications that there are because he has factories there that are creating clothing for him. So, I was telling him that it could be interesting to see what kind of reactions people might have to this project in these countries. And, he was willing to explore that. I told him that the reactions might not necessarily be great, but I think it is worth it to see what people have to say. They might have particular political ideas. So far, there has been less politics in terms of people’s reactions than I had maybe thought. We will work on this until the end of next year and see what we get.

TQ: Does this sort of early interest in art as a medium to express political ideas and opinions still direct your work? Or is there other kind of ethical, political or philosophical direction that run through your work?

AM:I think politics for me is always a part of what I am interested in presenting, although some of my work may not be overtly political. I think some of the shifts that have happened in my work is that I am much more interested in looking at how certain kinds of meta-narratives get imposed upon us. It is important for me to try to shake these narratives, these imposed histories and stories, through alternative stories, telling alternative stories through the works that I create. So, even if I’m often times working on issues that are political in one way or another, the way in which I approach them, I think is changing in terms of being more and more interested in using a visual story rather than maybe a one-off piece that has some sort of shock effect. But, creating works that are much more complicated or subtle in terms of including several different kind of things that have to be looked at, thought about or taken in together to be able to understand what that kind of counter-narrative is being presented.


Note: This interview has been edited for readability. An audio multimedia version is available at

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