Australian-Afghan encounters through the artist’s book
by Gali Weiss, Melbourne-based artist and Unfolding Projects coordinator
Imprint, Autumn 2011, Volume 46, Number 1.
There are times, as artists, when we step out of the privacy of our studio to take action on matters of social justice; sometimes, however, we turn to our practice to take action. In August 2009, 14 Australian women artists (i) agreed to create artwork for a project of dialogue with women in Afghanistan. The proposal came not from an organisation, but directly from artist to artist, between colleagues, calling for social action through art.
The project was a response to the enormous difficulties faced by many women in Afghanistan to be literate; many women cannot read or write because they were, and often still are, forbidden to attend a school, or are restricted or discouraged from doing so. Each artist was asked to create a small number of concertina books of images, which would be sent to Afghanistan and distributed amongst women participating in literacy education. Afghan women would be asked to relate to the images within the books by placing text directly in them, in any character or language they desired.
Our general intent was for the concertinas to be delivered back to Australia, then bound and exhibited to raise public awareness. Our artistic intent, however, was to take part in a process of support and dialogue with Afghan women who wanted to be literate. It was a manoeuvre that said ‘you are not alone.’ We aimed to mobilise a meeting and conversation of sorts through the visuality and materiality of the artist’s book, despite the limitations of cultural, experiential, and physical distance.
This exchange was to be mediated by a small organisation, SAWA – Australia (Support Association for the Women of Afghanistan), which was to direct the books to women attending the Vocational Training Centre it supports in Kabul. (ii) SAWA itself was set up by a small group of women activists from Melbourne and rural Victoria in 2003. Barbara Kameniar, SAWA’s contact in Melbourne, describes the education centre in Kabul:
‘The Centre comprises of two sections: Literacy Education and Handicraft Training Courses. Three female teachers work two shifts each to teach around 300 students who range in age from between 10 and 76. Most of the students are widows or orphans. Besides literacy education the women also take subjects in Dari (Persian), Mathematics, Child Care, Health, Human Rights and Violence against Women. It is this Centre to which the artists’ books were sent.’ (iii)
At the first artists’ meeting, before the concertinas were created, a number of questions were raised: How do we know what kind of content Afghan women will relate to? How will the concertinas be transported? Will this project put people at risk (in Afghanistan)? Is there content we shouldn’t put in, that may be offensive? How do we explain the concept of the text as a dialogue with the imagery without being able to ‘workshop’ it first?
These questions evolved into a discussion and by the end of that meeting a certain understanding of the project had been formed. Rather than finding a common theme, our aim was to present ourselves through what interests us, in keeping with our individual arts practice or expression, and by doing so, to ‘meet’ with the other as we are. In other words, we would present ourselves through our images, in our difference even at the expense of mutual understanding, finding common ground with the women in Afghanistan through the use of the artist’s book as a space in which to meet and to find a voice.
We discussed thinking of each concertina as a gift, a gesture, an offer. Once the gift was given and the offer accepted, the artwork was no longer in our hands nor in our control. While it was possible that the project might place Afghan participants at risk, Barbara Kameniar pointed out that the women would make those judgements and decisions themselves. At the same time, we agreed to be thoughtful about those whom we were intending the work for. In fact, as one of the artists pointed out, we could not help but create with these women in mind. The concertinas were to be small, unobtrusive, 15 x 10 cm when folded – ‘a library of books’. (iv)
By March 2010, each artist had produced a small series of concertinas of imagery consistent with her current studio practice, in mediums and techniques comprising etching, linocut, photography, digital imagery, photocopy transfer, drawing, nature printing, and collage. The ‘library’ now had a name: Unfolding Projects.
One month later, 53 artists’ books were delivered to Afghanistan by an Australian member of SAWA, thereby beginning a process of creative collaboration between women situated in different places and spaces, immersed in different cultures and languages, attempting a productive connection through image and text.
While we accepted that the books might not return to Australia, we remained hopeful of artistic and narrative engagement. After a few months of silence in which it seemed the project may be faltering, email contact was made with Afghanistan, and the principal of the Vocational Training Centre, Latifa, explained the reality of the women’s situation at the time of the 2010 Afghanistan elections:
‘First the government announced no movement and has closed all public and private schools … last night their was an explosion in Heart [Herat] where more than 15 civilian die but the government didn't let the media to reports because people may be afraid and not participate in the election. Today this morning which is Wednesday 15 of September there was a terrible demonstration in our area and all the roads were blocked I have arrived now after 5 hours I move from my house, at the result of this demonstration which is unknown yet a fighting started between police and the public during this fighting the nephew our administrator dirictor with two other members martyred and many other people injured, and it is still continues ...’ (v)
Despite all this, the women were still interested, she wrote, and she would ask them to work on the books in their homes as well as at the school. Two weeks later, the first photographs of the concertinas with writing were emailed.
In November 2010, just over six months from their delivery to Afghanistan, 36 of the 53 books returned by airmail to Australia. Each one was marked with handwritten text, at times on ruled pencil lines, at times overlapping the images, or placed around them. The physical space of the concertina had become the conceptual space, and record of, human interaction. The object that had travelled a distance, that had been touched and related to materially and physically, and that had returned the same but different, can be said to have mediated its encounters, or at the very least, testified to them.
Moreover, that object now delivers testimony of experiences, histories, and opinions through the written word: the emotionally moving, written narratives provide the reader/observer an entry into the world of women in Afghanistan, who just one year ago were unable to read or write. The narratives are currently being translated, but in their reading so far, range from personal stories of struggle to calls for social change: ‘There was a girl whose father was gambling and he didn’t have any money so he gave his daughter to an old man … ’ (Name withheld); ‘School is my mother, The pen is my sword, Knowledge is my power, The book is my friend … ’ (Anita).
The use of the artist’s book and printmaking in this project is not only about the capacity of these art forms to distribute creative expression or information to a wide and distant audience, but about humanising a situation in multiple ways. Unfolding Projects was not predominantly a social collaboration in the sense of a number of parties working directly together on a shared objective, with an emphasis on human relationships and collective meaning. On the contrary, it was a collective project that was intended to encourage individual responsiveness and individual output. We, the artists and the writers, were not producing art together at the same time or place, nor were our contributions open to negotiations between us.
However, the core of the project was an act of social engagement by means of an art form. Jacques Rancière has claimed that ‘relational art (vi) … intends to create not only objects but situations and encounters.’ (vii) In our project, the art object and the human interaction are interdependent; the books as objects are integral for relational practice to take place. At the same time, they have evolved through these interactions to exist autonomously as contemplative works of art.
i The Australian artists: Rosalind Atkins, Tracey Avery, Marian Crawford, Ann Cunningham, Dianne Ellis, Susan Gordon-Brown, Jennifer Kamp, Deborah Klein, Anne Riggs, Annelise Scott, Krystal Seigerman, Tanya Ungeri, Gali Weiss, Christine Willcocks.
iii Barbara Kameniar & Gali Weiss, ‘Unfolding Projects: Afghani and Australian artists books collaborations, forthcoming Impact 7 conference paper, Melbourne, 2011.
iv Rosalind Atkins used this term, suggesting the uniformity of the books evokes the sense of ‘library.’
v Latifa, email to Matthias Tomczak, convenor SAWA – Australia (SA), 10 September 2010.
vi Relational Art is the term used by Nicolas Bourriaud, defined as ‘an art that takes as its theoretical horizon the sphere of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an autonomous and private symbolic space’ (Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, 1998).
vii Jacques Rancière, ‘Problems and Transformations in critical Art, 2004’ in Participation, ed. Claire Bishop, Whitechapel Gallery Ventures Limited, London & Cambridge, 2006, p. 90.