War is hell: Like WWI, Afghan artists need to get the message across

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL November 16, 2013

Paul Nash’s commissioned painting of a battlefield in Flanders

Medical plasters turned into three-dimensional images. A legless, armless body. A dried cow’s head stuffed with clay and surrounded by piles of human hair. Is this art? And is this the newest avataar of Afghan art?

These are some of the 10 entries competing for the Afghan Contemporary Art Prize today. According to AFP, the young Afghans turning out these very personal portrayals of pain admit to inspiration from Picasso, Kafka and Serbian-born performance artist Marina Abramovic.

But mostly, they seem to be deeply influenced by Afghanistan’s protracted conflict and the physical and emotional toll it has taken on an entire generation. Arif Bahaduri, 22, says, he uses medical plasters as artistic raw material in order to “represent pain and unhealed wounds”. Another artist, who goes only by the name of Orna, is making a cast of her back, sans arms and legs, in tribute to the enormous numbers of her countrymen disabled by bombs and mines.

Without having seen the pieces with the inner eye, it is hard to say if they are powerful or merely imitative attempts to capture raw emotion.

War art can be very powerful. English painter John Singer Sargent’s ‘Gassed’ was an epic depiction of walking wounded after a mustard gas attack during the First World War. Or Paul Nash’s shattered tree stumps and shell craters, warning of the harsh new reality that can be created by war. As part of a commission, he painted an area in the Ypres sector, known as ‘Tower Hamlets’. It was one of the most badly affected by battle and he showed two human figures overwhelmed by all they see around them – flooded shell craters, shattered trees, concrete blocks and corrugated iron.

Bleak reminders that war is hell.

Afghanistan needs the power of war art to remember the perils of fighting.