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Peer-to-Peer Artmaking With Afghan Students

Students in Baltimore and Kabul, Afghanistan, Create Art Across Time Zones and Cultures

Posted 03.01.13 by MICA communications

Kata Frederick and Ali Akhlaqi, Screen shot_2013-01-31 at 10:51:09 AM.

This school year, students from MICA and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), collaborated with students in Kabul, Afghanistan, through a series of workshops utilizing video chats and conferencing, as well as other online resources, to foster a creative exchange that transcends geographic and cultural bounds.

The two groups have teamed up for Translocal Art-Making: Holding a Faraway Camera, a project with the goal of investigating the nature of artmaking through virtual communication and the roles language, culture, technology and location play in the development of artistic styles and dialogues. The project is guided by MICA faculty member Susan Main and Rahraw Omarzad, director of the Center for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan (CCAA) in Kabul.

Working solely through virtual communication, participants have developed joint art projects using a mixture of digital media-photographs, video and sound--as well as more traditional mediums, including paintings, drawings and performances.

"Learning what digital media feels like as a material, understanding the limits and powers of virtual artistic collaboration, and learning to extend socializing into artmaking via technology are what these students are grappling with conceptually, poetically and politically," Main explained.

Although it seems language barriers could pose a problem, class mentor Alex D'Agostino '09 (painting) said it is a non-issue. "Art seems to be able to reach beyond spoken language. Having to avoid fancy ‘art talk' makes sharing ideas more genuine and pure. It's beautiful," D'Agostino said.

Image caption: Jalil Barati, Shopping Center, Kabul, photograph, 2012.

Besides the art being created, Main sees how Afghanistan has become a less abstract place for those involved in the project.

"The perception they have from the media is shifting away from negative or generalized images to positive, specific ones," she said. "What unites them is artmaking and the ordinary, everyday of being human."

"The underlying desire was to get beyond superficial acquaintance and into rich, deep content," continued Main. "How they did that was up to them. It really forced them to be patient and try to communicate against all odds. Art was the common denominator."

D'Agostino agrees. "With all the social conflicts and cultural associations with countries like Afghanistan, it's beautiful to move beyond and dive into art," he said. "People are people all over the world, moving through life. It's easy to get caught up in the politics of difference and forget the human aspect."

D'Agostino worked with CCAA artist and teacher Mohmad Mahdi Hassanzada to create drawings and performances inspired by each other's individual creative work. D'Agostino expanded the ideas guiding Translocal Art-Making with an interactive project called The Lexicon of Everyday Movement. For the project, people from around the world shared simple gestures of everyday life, such as brushing their teeth or patting a dog. Videos of these activities underscore a vocabulary of common human physical movements that transcend boundaries.

Foundation student Ka Yeoun (May) Kim '16 (painting) said everyone working on the project--both Americans and Afghans--is dedicated, driven and hardworking. "We've been through a lot, including forcing ourselves to wake up at 5 or 6 a.m. so we can talk to the students in Afghanistan," she said. "I feel like this collaboration helped me in so many ways to become open-minded as an artist."

Image caption: Arzoo Waseeq, Hylic Changes, digital photo with drawing, 2013.

For the project, Kim and CCAA student Arzoo Waseeq attempted to mirror their similarities and differences by sharing photographs of their everyday lives. Waseeq's photographs combine documentation with digital manipulation, offering straightforward observations haunted by invisible forces and tensions.

"I knew it would be hard," said Kata Frederick '09 (fiber), who is currently earning her graduate degree at UMBC. Frederick and Afghan student Ali Akhlaqi focused on creating videos from their daily lives. Using a computer program, the students meshed the videos together both visually and aurally so that Akhlaqi's video triggers a response from Frederick's and vice versa. The end result is a video that demonstrates how one action in one part of the world creates an action in another party of the world.

Image caption: Kata Frederick and Ali Akhlaqi, Screen shot_2013-01-31 at 10:51:09 AM.

After a series of conversations on the topic of religion, Bailey Sheehan '16 worked with CCAA student Jalil Barati to develop an installation that investigates their personal religious backgrounds. Cloth wraps layered over flickering lights are suspended from the ceiling, with Sheehan and Barati's voices intertwining as they recite prayers. Viewers can kneel to look up at a painting of Sheehan's childhood memory of heaven. By combining aspects of their Catholic and Muslim upbringings, this collaboration fuses ritual with questions about belief.

Barati also worked with DeAndre Britton '13 (general fine arts) to develop work in response to mass media images and stories about people and events affecting both Afghanistan and the United States. Britton's digital collages and paintings reference the images that re-circulate through the media and become iconic signifiers of places and people. Barati's photographs offer scenes from Kabul, including a shiny shopping mall and self-portraits of himself as a practicing artist. These images emit a sense of possibility and new beginnings.

Image caption: DeAndre Britton '13 (general fine arts), Posture 2, digital collage, 2013.

For Renato Flores '16, piecing together a picture of reality in Afghanistan meant confronting the tragedy of war and silence. Flores' father served as a nurse in a United States military hospital in Kabul. CCAA artist Mumtaz Kahn was eager to experiment with Flores, using photography, digital painting and video. Both artists searched for ways to express the complicated relationships between history, culture, media and identity.

Although Setareh Salehiarashloo, a post-baccalaureate student at MICA from Iran, found it difficult to make contact with her collaborative partner in Afghanistan, Mariam Nabil Kamal, she wasn't deterred from proceeding with the project. She began compiling a series of drawings, watercolors and letters that reflect her life as an international student in Baltimore and shared them with Nabil Kamal. ""I feel very close to Mariam. I understand what it is to be a woman in a similar culture. Just making the gesture toward one another is a very important statement," Salehiarashloo said.

Image caption: Setareh Salehiarashloo, Knitted Camps, ink on paper, 2012-13.

Thanks in part to funding by CEC ArtsLink, artwork created during the project is on display through Sunday, March 31, at VisArts at Rockville in Maryland. The exhibition, titled Crossing the Distance, will then travel to the Gardens of Babur, a historic park in Kabul, where it will be on display at the Queen's Palace.


Image caption (top): Kata Frederick and Ali Akhlaqi, Screen shot_2013-01-31 at 10:51:09 AM. Frederick and Akhlaqi created videos of their daily environments. The videos mesh together visually and aurally in unexpected ways using a computer program. Akhlaqi's video triggers a response from Frederick's and vice versa; one action in one part of the world creates an action in another part of the world.