Afghan art in Dubai

Fascinating art exhibition turns spotlight on war-torn Afghanistan

Pia Torelli talks to Peter Feely about her latest show of fascinating photos taken on a visit to the war-torn country.

Unafraid of potential kidnapping, bombs or a lack of security, Pia Torelli does not seem to scare easily. Part Italian, American and French; the seasoned photojournalist’s latest exhibition at Alliance Française is a portrait of real, everyday life in war-ravaged Afghanistan.

Having visited in 2002 to capture images of the nation, she was invited back this year to experience the advancements the country had made since her last trip. However what Pia encountered was far from the utopia she had been promised. The population continues to live in poverty, the country is still in ruins and education and healthcare remains dismal.

Yet interestingly, Torelli doesn’t choose to paint an entirely pessimistic portrait of Afghanistan. There’s a playful charm to some of her images and she manages to capture the moments of colour and joy juxtaposed against the ashen desert environment.

Torelli’s trip was funded by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikha Fatema Bent Mohamed Al Zayed’s initiative, FBMI, which provides employment for Afghan women after her original sponsor, the wife of a prominent Afghan, disappeared.

When we meet, the obvious question for a mature and educated Western woman is why would you repeatedly visit a place as unpredictable and potentially dangerous as Afghanistan? ‘I’m very fond of this country,’ she reasons. ‘The best travel when I was young was a month in Afghanistan in 1977. They [the Russians] came right after – it was different then to when I came back in 2002.’

Torelli’s passion, fatalism and sense of justice are unusual and almost naively unaffected by the conditioned fear and repression of most Western adults. One of her pictures is of an Afghan government soldier looking relaxed next to his automatic weapon in 2002 following the downfall of the Taliban. I ask her if she was ever intimidated or afraid by these encounters and she seems almost blasé. ‘No, we were joking – I took tea with them. And when I did it [visited Afghanistan] in 2002 I went all around the schools and I took pictures.’

View Pia Torelli's photos taken on a visit to the war-torn country

Yet what the exhibition is also trying to confront is the misappropriation of money and the corruption and lack of development the country has endured. As pictures of the same scene illustrate, Torelli’s work is also a testament to the stagnant state of Afghanistan. One picture from this year shows Afghans crowding around a public water supply which she refers to as ‘fountains in the cities’ which are there ‘because they don’t have clean water in their houses. It’s 2013 – it hasn’t changed.’

A favourite image of Torelli’s from the exhibition is a hillside shot of erratic and ramshackle homes. In essence she believes this captures the plight of the population. ‘I tried to open people’s eyes to the fact that all of those houses were there – they don’t have any permit, they don’t have any contract and they don’t have any architecture. There’s no electricity and there’s no way to warm up. They only way they can warm up is with fuel from wherever they can find it. They don’t take care of the people.’ While Pia did encounter new buildings, they were opulent testaments to corruption owned by a small minority.

Some images have a voyeuristic, street-style element to them and Torelli is happy to accept this view, adding that the majority of Afghans are happy to pose for portraits. An advocate of gender equality, another image features teenagers on pedalos at a lake about 20km from the capital Kabul. By visiting during the week, when it isn’t busy, Torelli managed to capture a moment when ‘they [the girls] can be more free’.

The photographer’s hope for Afghanistan lies in next year’s March elections. Sounding optimistic, Torelli says she ‘hopes there will be more women in the government and that they build more schools because that’s the way you move forward for girls and guys. They have been at war for 30 years, they don’t know how to
paint and build’.

I ask Torelli if she has any intention to return to Afghanistan in the future. Her response is affirmative and typically fearless. ‘The next project I want to shoot is the prison in Kabul because a lot of women are there. I know someone in government to gain access, I’ll go after winter because it’s too cold.’

The Lowdown

Exhibition: ‘Eyes Wide Open – An Afghan Journey’, until December 31 at Alliance Française, Oud Metha, (04 335 8712).
Artist: Pia Torelli
Prices: From Dhs800

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