GSF postdoc Paniz Musawi Natanzi hosts a webinar on visual arts in and on Afghanistan

Woman speaking at podium with six webinar speakers on Zoom screen

On Friday, February 10th, the department of Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies hosted the hybrid event “Visual arts in and on Afghanistan: political violence, war and the question of futurity” led by Dr Paniz Musawi Natanzi. The panel of speakers was comprised of scholars and artists from across four different time zones, meeting to discuss manifestations of imperialism and visual archives in the past and present of Afghanistan. The panelists included scholars Dr Anila Daulatzai (Department of Anthropology, University of California Berkeley) and Professor Shah Mahmoud Hanifi (Department of History, James Madison University). The artists within the panel were Saadia Batool who specializes in painting, sculpture and collage among other mediums, Shamayel Shalizi, multimedia artist and founder and owner of the jewelry and apparel brand “Blingistan” and Mohsin Taasha, a miniature artist, who is currently a resident at the Villa Arson National School of Fine Arts Nice, France. Shafaq Rahimi joined as a translator (Dari Farsi to English) for Taasha.

Musawi Natanzi began the event, which took place online and was accompanied by guests in the Pink Parlor by posing a number of questions regarding the value of Afghan life, the work of visual artists, and the undoing of colonial and imperialist archives. To Hanifi, Musawi Natanzi asked “in what ways have colonial and liberal archives delineated the epistemological foundations of understanding and documenting life, labor and death in Afghanistan since the eighteenth-century?” Hanifi responded by referencing maps both inside and outside of archives as a tool of power that has been exercised against the people of Afghanistan by foreign powers. Hanifi criticized the forces of empire, capitalism and colonialism that have shaped the construction of the majority of archival knowledge about Afghanistan, as well as the fact that much of this knowledge is inaccessible to Afghans themselves. The production and study of this information, according to Hanifi, has been repeatedly used against the very people and country from which the knowledge is derived.

 Next, to Dr Daulatzai, Musawi Natanzi asked, “how does liberal ideology begin to circulate in the 20th and 21st century in Afghanistan and how has liberal ideology during the US led NATO war in Afghanistan shaped ways of knowing in the country?” To this question Daulatzai answered with a critique of the Left towards Afghanistan, both in the actual practices of military occupation and withdrawal as well as within the dialogues around and about Afghanistan. The “progressive” views held by the Left are employed in many conflicts and regions, but this liberal benevolence does not extend to Afghanistan. Finally, to both researchers, Musawi Natanzi asked “what possibilities do colonial and liberal archives inhabit? Can they be rethought and repurposed? How do we as students of Afghanistan use our sense as well as listen to the silence of the archives as we work towards envisioning futurity?” Both scholars provided answers that referenced an active participation of Afghans in the creation and dissemination of historical narratives and present political dialogue.

The conversation then turned over to the visual artists, beginning with Saadia Batool. In her work Batool explores the “dislocation and dispersion” of informal archives of Hazaras in “migrant landscapes” and questions what an archive itself is and the forms it can take. Batool explained that creative mode, style and materials are elements of the archive: in her paintings she studies photographic archives of Hazara families and reimagines their past and present. Batool’s artwork includes themes of displacement, nature and feelings of “foreignness” in what “should” be one’s home. Shamayel Shalizi then detailed the motivations and themes of her jewelry designs and artworks, which is rooted in the study of homecoming, homelessness, migration and unsettledness. Shalizi intentionally attempts to give dignity to Afghans through her art, because this empowering and uplifting perspective is lacking in the scholarship and overall conversation surrounding the people and history of the country. Shalizi’s work interrogates the process of archiving itself and questions who has the privilege to archive, who decides what is included in archive and what is not and insists that the history of Afghanistan is ongoing and must be studied as such. Finally, Mohsin Taasha discussed his personal experiences with displacement as well as the experiences of those close to him. He explained that studying the history of Afghanistan as an artist provides a unique perspective that distinguishes itself from other modes of study. While he initially approached his work in what he calls a “quest for beauty”, Taasha explained that his work became an exploration of the challenges of coexistence in Afghanistan, racism, and the embodied experience of political violence.

The event ended with a conversation between the panelists and the addressing of questions from the virtual audience. What was emphasized by all speakers was the appreciation for the space to discuss these issues and to develop this scholarship and conversation. It was evident from each participant that engaging in this discussion was incredibly meaningful and powerful and that the event itself represented a force of hope in the decolonization of archives and the building of a new vision of Afghan futurity.