Sylvielin's Blog

Art and Politics Revisited. Interview with Robert Kluijver (III)

Posted in about Art, Interviews with Curators/Museum Directors by sylvielin on October 4, 2010

I would talk to my boss, head of the UN in Afghanistan, saying that we’re going the wrong way. But he said it’s me who was wrong because I’m Western and I only related to the Westernised Afghans that I like, but they’re only a small minority and that most Afghans are these conservative people. But historically the group that represents the future and that can pull the whole nation forward is always a small minority. So I thought this cultural elite should do a better job at representing themselves.” —- Robert Kluijver, extract from the interview

III. Experiences in Afghanistan

Q Why did you leave your job of the UN Political Affairs and turn to set up an Afghan cultural foundation – Afghan Foundation for Culture and Civil Society (FCCS), established in 2003) – a more culturally focused enterprise? Please also talk about the context and the process of creating the Foundation.

A My work in the UN in Afghanistan was political. I noticed that the whole political process designed by the UN and the international community was focused on a stereotype of the Afghans which I shared less and less. It is an orientalist projection by the Westerners: deeply conservative men with beards, a Kalashnikov and a Koran, drinking a cup of tea in their mountains, with their wives behind them covered by a burka…This is the Mujahideen image of the Afghans that we the Westerners immensely romanticised in the eighties when they were fighting against the Soviets. The same image remains in Western people’s heads, although the freedom fighters of before have now become dangerous fundamentalists. So when they discuss for example how to reform the sector of justice in Afghanistan, these are the guiding concepts.

In 2008, Afghan artist Mariam Ghani showed her interactive installation 'Kabul Constitutions' in the Gemak art center in the Hague. Photo and Courtesy : RobertK

On the contrary, my experience about Afghanistan is very different. I studied Dari (the main local language) during my first six months there. At the end I stayed there for six years. So from the very beginning I could talk to local people in their language. And I saw that everybody hates the Mujahideen. The people I dealt with were more the urban middle-class, activists, students, educated people who liked culture…But they did not fit the Western stereotype, so they were completely shut out of the political settlement of Afghanistan. It’s the same in Iraq, there is a very strong middle class, well-educated, who didn’t care at all about religious or ethnic issues. They’re also completely kept out of the political settlement. When the West went there, it said now we’ll have to create a new political settlement, we’ll take the tribal leaders, the religious leaders and the ethnic leaders. Where was the middle-class ? They ended up leaving the country because there was nothing for them in the new Iraq.

How to fight against this ? I would talk to my boss, head of the UN in Afghanistan, saying that we’re going the wrong way. But he said it’s me who was wrong because I’m Western and I only related to the Westernised Afghans that I like, but they’re only a small minority and that most Afghans are these conservative people. But historically the group that represents the future and that can pull the whole nation forward is always a small minority. So I thought this cultural elite should do a better job at representing themselves.

This question of self-representation was the motivation for me to establish the foundation. It was an attempt to produce new images of the contemporary Afghan. Actually the role of the new private TVs or even advertising companies may be more important. Like there’s this new mobile phone company which became very popular in the country ; their advertisement shows images of modern Afghans always on the phone, a kind of image of success that other Afghans can follow. But of course that was commercial, whereas we were more interested in intellectual and cultural self-representation, at a deeper and more lasting level. We would organize debates for TV, big public events such as a music festival, travelling theatre shows, movie festivals etc. We also did exhibitions but not many people would see them.

Q Because the local community wasn’t used to such artistic events, that this was beyond their experience and knowledge ?

A Exactly. Even if you open the door and announce ‘free entrance to exhibition’, they would not come inside. They’d think, I don’t know these people so I don’t feel comfortable going inside. That’s how the Afghans are. So we didn’t get a lot of people coming but they were influential, the cultural elite of Afghanistan including actors, directors of the cinema and TV, musicians from Kabul.

Q Did the events get any exposure in the Western world ?

A No. The primal target was the Afghan local scene itself. Of course I’m Western but I was the only Westerner in the whole project. We did some things in English, but basically all the communication was in Dari and Pashto, the local languages. Again, the idea was to generate new images of self-representation, rather than marketing that image abroad. First things first.

Q I believe this kind of foundation didn’t exist before ?

A No. And it was extremely necessary. Lots of Western people around would say, oh, you know, the Afghans, they don’t have houses or food, there’s war… So it’s ridiculous to think of spending money on culture. And again you would get the typical Western criticism : we Westerners care about culture whereas the Afghans just need to survive. For example it’s all about Afghan children going to school, not the quality of their education and whether they can pursue their education to M.A. levels. This Western perception of Afghan needs is really wrong. Afghans actually have a very strong interest in elevating themselves through culture, and are proud of their very active cultural scene.


The Afghan Pavillion existed in the Venice Biennale only once, in 2005. The artist representing the country is Lida Abdul. The image is from her video 'What we saw upon awakening'(2006) filmed in Kabul. Courtesy : RobertK

Q In your interview with Nat Muller(7), she described you as having ‘secured the first pavilion for Afghanistan at the Venice Biennial (2005)’. The whole operation and the organization of the Venice Biennial has been indeed based on political concerns and conditions, under the cover of a cultural enterprise. What’s your experience in ‘securing’ the first Afghanistan pavilion there ?

A I indeed ‘secured’ it but didn’t curate it. I was just facilitating the project by an Afghan curator and an Afghan artist. This curator living in Germany has his own gallery. He visited our foundation in Kabul and proposed to make a pavilion of Afghanistan in the Venice Biennial. He knew people of the Biennial, and what we organised for him was first the coordination between him and the Afghan government. Because the first step is that Afghanistan’s Ministry of Culture designate him to represent the country. Then I got the money together, mostly from the Canadian Embassy and helped him with artists. He chose the artist Lida Abdul. We helped the artist make her video Painting the Ruins (2004) in Afghanistan to be shown in Venice.

It was the first and also the last time that Afghanistan had its pavilion in the Venice Biennial. In the Biennial last year(2009), there was only an Afghanistan presentation as a side event. They don’t have their own physical pavilion. Just like many small countries which have to rent spaces to show in the Biennial.

Q In the case of Taiwan, when we participated in the Sao Paulo Biennial in 2002, the title of our pavillion was reduced to that of the organizer, which was the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, without the term ‘Taiwan’. Besides, the organizer of the Biennial didn’t inform us of such modification at all. The same mis-recognition of Taiwan as a country can be seen in the French language where the preposition placed before Taiwan is ‘à’ rather than ‘en’. We say ‘à Taïwan’ instead of ‘en’ or ‘au’ Taïwan’. The preposition ‘à’ is generally used to precede the name of a place or a city. For the marginal countries, their inferior status is reflected in the contexts of biennials which are very much policized, with the Venice Biennial being one of the best examples. So, was the creation of the Afghanistan Pavilion in 2005 inside the structure of the Venice Biennial problematic ? Did you also confront that political underside of the Venice Biennial ?

A You’re right and I completely share in your criticism of ‘the political underside’ of the Biennial. In fact what we did with the Afghan Pavilion was usurp the role of the State, which decides which representation it will give of itself in the Biennial. We took advantage of the fact that the Afghan Minister of Information and Culture didn’t know or care about the Venice Biennial. But we didn’t attempt to further criticize the model of national representation of the Venice Biennial. Afghanistan hasn’t reached that level yet. For us it was sufficient to make the statement that the country is not only about war, corruption, Islam etc; that it can also take part in the game, to sit at the same table with the more powerful countries, as a kind of young upstart. Our intention was to challenge the discourse of cultural superiority of the West, that uses its immense power in the service of charity – to help poor Afghans survive – with the fact that the country was there with its own pavilion and a very good contemporary artist, who since then has had a booming international career.

Q  What do you think about other curators’ practices, such as that of Catherine David who works a lot about the Middle-East, and Okwui Enwezor who’s African and who’s among the most distinguished international curators ?
A  Catherine David uses a very Western approach. She’s doing precisely the opposite to my conception and practice. She attempts to redefine the Orient, as can be seen in her project entitled ‘Contemporary Arab Representations’. But who’s redefining it? Although she claims it’s the artists doing it, actually it’s she herself who selects and redefines. Once she’s made a few shows like this, she’s in danger of repeating herself. 
Enwezor is very interesting since he represents the fine quality of African intellectual production today. His statements challenge many of the art world’s biases, as do, in other but related fields, African thinkers such as the Congolese political philosopher Achille Mbembe. For some reasons, Congo has many high-level intellectuals to whom Enwezor himself is also connected. It’s sure that  people like him can think through post-colonial issues in a clearer way than the French philosophers and connect it in meaningful ways to art, such as in Enwezor’s recent book ‘Contemporary African Art’. Even if now he’s very much integrated into the Western art world, he still keeps very clear and critical thought and develops new ideas. Certainly he’s also a channel for many (mainly) Africans trying to find their ways into the Western art world.
Q For you, which are the more interesting curatorial practices ?
A  In curatorial terms I am completely self-taught. I’ve only recently begun investigating art theory and I am impressed, so far, only by Boris Groys and a Dutch author named Jonas Staal. As to curators, I appreciated Hou Hanru’s take on the 9th Istanbul Biennial. I also find the practices of Vasif Kortun, Jack Persekian, Charles Esche and the Raqs Media Collective interesting, but I find some kind of self-limitation in their work which is a pity, as if they were afraid to address a larger audience, to break out of the art world.


【Interview made by Sylvie Lin in February 2010 in Paris. An edited version of the interview, translated into Chinese, was published on ‘Artco’ monthly in Taiwan, in August 2010.】

To Part IV of the interview :

For more info about Robertk’s education and working experiences, see Part I of the interview

Tagged with:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: