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Afghanistan’s far-flung ‘first daughter’, artist Mariam Ghani

© Sophie Pilgrim, FRANCE 24 | Mariam Ghani at the Ryan Lee gallery in Chelsea, New York, where she is currently showing 'Like Water From a Stone'.

Text by Sophie PILGRIM

Latest update : 2015-03-15

What links Kabul with Alaska, Norway’s oil capital and St. Louis, Missouri?

Brooklyn-based artist Mariam Ghani.

Ghani, who is the daughter of the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, has a thing for places with shifting identities.

A multi-discipline artist, she grew up in the “not quite suburbs” of Baltimore. Her work, which combines video, photography, archives and choreography, has been shown in London, Paris, Kabul, and Gwanju, Korea.

She describes herself as “fascinated by border zones, nomanslands, translations, transitions, and the slippages where cultures intersect; places where nature and artifice imitate and influence each other; and cities in conflict and post-conflict conditions.”

Her latest show, 'Like Water From a Stone,' which incorporates images from the Norwegian oil capital of Stavanger and extracts from a book she wrote with her father on Afghanistan, is currently showing in New York.

Ghani spent the summer of 2013 in Stavanger and its surroundings, where she produced a sinister and yet reassuring set of images which aim to convey the struggle of extracting a living from this unforgiving outpost of Norway's rocky southwest.

While the city is currently the world’s third-most expensive, residents of pre-oil Stavanger survived as farmers “in a land which basically is a thin layer of dirt over a giant rock; where it’s difficult to extract more than you need to exist,” said Ghani in an interview with FRANCE 24 in New York on Monday. The 20-minute title piece, which opens with a woman dragging herself from a dark rockpool, returns to that time, says Ghani, when Norway was still one of Europe’s poorest countries, and “works its way up to the transformative moment in an oblique way”.

In the 'heart of oil culture'

That transformative moment is 1969, when Norway discovered vast oil deposits beneath the North Sea along its west coast. Since then, the country has grown into one of Europe’s richest and most autonomous nations.

“When you’re right in the heart of this oil culture of Norway you can see very strongly what a transformative effect the discovery of undersea oil had on the whole Norwegian identity and way of life,” Ghani says. “Norway was not only poor but also a Danish colony for hundreds of years, so they didn’t consolidate their national identity until quite late. Their whole folk tradition is synthetic.”

Another country which has undergone (at least one) metamorphosis over the past half century is Ghani’s ethnic homeland, which her father fled shortly before she was born. That same year – 1978 – president Mohammed Daoud was assassinated by communist rebels in a coup that would yank Afghanistan towards enduring tumult.

“There have been certain points in Afghan history when there was a deliberate attempt to reimagine what the country could be,” says Ghani. “In the 1920s the moment of modernism saw Amanullah Khan try to deliberately reimagine the country. The moment of communism was also a deliberate attempt to reimagine the country, although it’s certainly less fondly remembered and perhaps less successful.”

Ghani’s father and mother – Lebanese Christian Rula Ghani, whose role as Afghan first lady has provoked comparisons with Queen Soraya – were exiled from Afghanistan for most of her childhood. She was not able to visit the country until 2002, when she was 24 years old (she has visited Lebanon often). Eventually “going ‘back to the old country” was a peculiar experience, she says. “It felt very familiar and very strange at the same time.”

Today, she travels to Kabul regularly. Alongside Norway, Afghanistan appears in the exhibit in the form of chapters of a historical book she wrote with her father from two sides of the globe (they communicated via Skype and email between New York and Kabul). “Afghanistan: A Lexicon” details the country’s jagged 20th century history in 100 captioned illustrations and features those “deliberate attempts to reimagine the country” that have helped shape its narrative.

“Afghanistan is a place where the nature of the territory has shaped possibilities, like Norway before the oil,” says Ghani. “When the Norwegians discovered oil they were able to overcome the territory. In Afghanistan too many things are determined by the remoteness of certain places, the difficulty of travelling from one place to another, and the centre holding onto the provinces.”

Drawing parallels

Ghani seldom has a chance to return to her Brooklyn home. After leaving Stavanger she travelled alongside her long-time collaborator, choreographer Erin Ellen Kelly (who can be seen in the cold shallows of the North Sea in images from 'Like Water From a Stone' – Ghani describes her as “fearless”), to the Alaskan oil town of Anchorage to work on a separate project (which has yet to be announced). Ghani described the migration from oil town to oil town as “an interesting coincidence". 

She has spent the past six months teaching in St. Louis, Missouri, where she is producing a short film loosely based on the novel “The City & the City,” by China Miéville, the story of a murder detective forced to bridge a binary society. Ghani draws parallels with the city of Ferguson, where the death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in August last year revealed institutionalised inequity in the poor St. Louis suburb and sparked an ongoing national crisis in the US.

“It’s very complicated to make work in St. Louis right now,” says Ghani. “There are a lot of ethical questions involved in trying to represent a city that’s not yours in a moment when everything going on in that city is not only volatile but also so important to an entire national conversation.

“Sometimes as an artist you can come into a city and make something of your vision of that city, not necessarily the city’s vision of itself. But in this case it was necessary to make something that people in St. Louis felt made sense and actually added something to the conversation.”

Ghani sees a political and economic structure in St. Louis so complicated that she believes the societal framework would need to be completely transformed. “If you look at the economic inequities that don’t just underlie, but are intertwined with, racial inequities… I don’t feel like the movement that started is over yet, or that the questions raised by that movement have been answered yet.”

Somewhat surprisingly, she’s more optimistic for her father’s home country. Or at least its capital. “It’s too early to tell exactly what is happening with the current transition in Afghanistan but ultimately it may prove to be a really positive thing. Especially the end of ‘expat Kabul’”. Ghani is referring to the crush of journalists, diplomats, aid workers and security contractors who settled in Kabul during the war but have now fizzled away.

“The end of that era has tended to create a rather strange imbalance in the reporting on Afghanistan in the Western media because the end of expat Kabul is not so fun for expat journalists,” says Ghani. “But for Afghans that’s not necessarily true. It doesn’t seem dreary to them. They’re actually quite hopeful about the future.”

Mariam Ghani’s 'Like Water From a Stone' is being shown at the Ryan Lee Gallery in Chelsea, New York, through April 4.


Date created : 2015-03-13


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