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Change-maker interview: Amanullah Mojadidi

Tuesday, October 12, 2010 by Marianne Elliott

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Jihadi Gangster - Morning Prayers by Amanullah Mojadidi

The change-maker interview series is a chance for me to introduce you to people making change, in their own unique and often unexpected way.

When I was in Afghanistan I had the good fortune to meet and befriend artist and development worker Amanullah Mojadidi (Aman). Born in America to Afghan parents, Aman now lives and works in Kabul, Afghanistan. In a recent interview he was asked whether he saw himself more as an American or an Afghan.

“Afghan-American became the ‘nom du jour’ and so I was that for a while.” He said. “But in the U.S., most Americans identify me on sight as a foreigner, and here in Afghanistan most Afghans identify me as a foreigner on sight as well. I was born in the U.S., my parents are Afghan, and I’m fluent in both English and Dari; it could end there. But I’ve started to think more about how one’s identity has become almost taken out of one’s own control, and is more and more defined by others. So I think about post-identity possibilities. In answer to your question using the options you’ve given me, I guess that would mean ‘neither.’ But beyond that I’m not sure.”

Last year, for a short film called ‘Payback’, Aman dressed as an Afghan policeman and set up a fake checkpoint where he offered drivers $2, and an apology for any bribes they had been forced to pay to policemen in the past.

Aman’s latest creation, the Jihadi Gangster, just ran a campaign for election to the Afghan parliament. I’ve been fascinated by the Jihadi Gangster character for some time, so I was thrilled when Aman agreed to answer my five questions, plus a few extras about his art work.

1.  What breaks your heart? and what are you doing about it?

Everything really. But mostly I’m pretty good at breaking it myself. I don’t think there’s really much to do about it. It breaks, repairs, breaks, repairs. It’s part of being human and feeling something about the world you live in, and the people who inhabit it. But unfortunately the result of hearts that are regularly broken can be seen in the scars left behind once healed again.

2. What gives you hope or joy?

I’m not a particularly hopeful person in general. But I get a lot of joy from spending time with close friends and family (well, some family), making art, when one of my cooking experiments works, warm naan fresh out of the tandoor.

3. How did you end up in Afghanistan and what are you doing there?

My parents are Afghan, so even though I was born in the US, I grew up with Afghanistan always present from my father listening to BBC on the shortwave radio for news during the 80s, to the food my parents cooked, to only being allowed to speak Farsi in the house. As I got older I wanted to do work that might help Afghanistan both because I wanted to understand better my cultural and familial heritage and I loved to travel.

I’ve worked in different capacities within development sectors such as education, health, research, and arts and culture. For the last several years my focus has been on the contemporary arts, working with young Afghan artists to help develop contemporary art in Afghanistan, both conceptually, theoretically, and practically.  I now work independently in the arts and culture sector, while spending more time on my own art projects and exhibitions.

4. How do you take care or yourself?

Hmm, well, that’s a good question, and a tough one to answer because I’ve never been very good at taking care of myself. I do yoga occasionally, but it’s more like yoga-style stretching without the actual yogic practice. I self exercise, but very seldom, with push-ups, sit-ups, a boxing bag. I eat fairly well, though I’m not much of a cook. I’m more a scavenger, snacking intermittently throughout the day, and am a glutton for street-food in Kabul. I also eat a lot of dried fruits and nuts.

Jihadi Gangster - Dressing for Work by Amanullah Mojadidi

5. I’m really interested by the fact that you put yourself in the Jihadi Gangster images. Why did you choose to do that?

In some ways, it seemed fitting in that I tend to occupy that space between East and West, traditional and contemporary, Afghan and non-Afghan. The contradiction between the tattoos and the turban, the prayer rug on the arm of the couch and the alcohol scattered across the table, etc. Having been raised in the US, but coming from a family that has a very strong political and religious background in Afghanistan, I wanted to exploit that “duality of heritage” a bit through these images.

Conflict Bling by Amanullah Mojadidi

6. How does the gangster iconography relate to the jihadi iconography?  What brought those two cultures together, in your mind?

The photo series is borne out of an installation I did last year titled “Conflict Bling” which was inspired by the idea I had that Jihadis in Afghanistan often seem to “wear” their jihad, the fact that they’ve done jihad, similar to the way “gangsters” in the “West” wear their bling jewelry – as symbols and markers of wealth, be it political, economic, material, or personal; or in other words, the jihad is their bling. So I took several conflict items such as the used tail of an RPG and barbed wire and transformed them into large, blingy, gold necklaces. There is also a bling prosthetic leg. So from this emerged the character in these images, the Jihadi Gangster, as I continue to explore the idea of globalized gangster styles and iconography.

Jihadi Gangster - After a Long Day's Work by Amanullah Mojadidi

7. Some of the images, (like ‘After a Long Day’s Work’, above) are likely to be controversial. Have these images been exhibited at all in Afghanistan? What does your family make of them?

I haven’t exhibited them in Afghanistan. However, some of the images have been posted online through news blogs and through Facebook by the activists network Cultures of Resistance, so some family has seen them through these mediums. I have had mixed reactions from them, some thinking they’re really well done and others finding them to be insulting and blasphemous.

8. How does your art relate, if at all, to your development work? In what ways is what you do with your art similar to or different from development work?

I think the art relates very much to my time in Afghanistan as a whole, which includes my personal as well as professional experiences here. One particular way in which I could maybe relate it my development work however is that, in compliment to my own ideas about what themes could be addressed, I often try and respond to what people around me are saying.

For example, in the recent parliamentary campaign in conversations I had with barbers, shopkeepers, and taxi drivers they would often point to a campaign poster or billboard and tell me about how that candidate, usually a former commander, was responsible for X crimes during Y period. I then thought of taking the Jihadi Gangster to his logical conclusion, which was a mock parliamentary campaign with posters embedded among other candidates on the walls of Kabul.

Jihadi Gangster - Vote for Me (campaign poster for Afghan elections)

The slogan is “Vote for me! I did jihad and I’m rich” while the face says “Your favorite jihadi face” allowing people to mentally insert whoever they wanted into the space. It is signed “Hallunama ididajom”, my name backwards.

For more on the Jihadi Gangster for parliament campaign, see this article from McClatchy news.

9. Where and when can people see these works?

The Jihadi Gangster photo series, along with a mixed-media installation of the Parliamentary Poster Campaign, will be exhibited in Paris in October at the Slick Art Fair as part of the exhibition ‘Slick-Orient” from 21-24 October. Also in Paris in October, the above works as well as a couple others will be exhibited at Galerie NDM from 23-31 October. And one photo (“After a long day’s work”) will be on display in Singapore in November as part of the Sovereign Asian Art Prize. Other potential exhibitions are pending.

For more from Aman, see this interview with the artist in Revolve magazine.


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7 Responses to "Change-maker interview: Amanullah Mojadidi"

  1. Sopihie says:

    What a fascinating interview Marianne.
    Thank you for it

  2. Lubna says:

    Interesting perspective. As Sophie said, thanks for sharing.

  3. Lanham True says:

    Thank you, both Marianne & Aman. Developing, portraying &, especially, exposing the Jihadi Gangster character must take incredible courage.

  4. Angela says:

    Wow! Thanks so much for posting this interview and images. What an amazing artist!
    Also thanks for bringing attention to the intersection of art work and development work.

  5. Natasha says:

    Ah! He is famous in Kabul!! 🙂

  6. edriss says:

    Amazing article.. Aman your are the best..Love the checkpoint…edriss

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