Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

An 'Afghan redneck' creates art in a war zone

By Aman Mojadidi, Special to CNN
January 27, 2013 -- Updated 2221 GMT (0621 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aman Mojadidi, an American of Afghan descent, is an artist who has worked in Kabul
  • He has chosen provocative themes, using humor to examine life in Afghanistan
  • His work intentionally blurs fact and fiction, reality and imagination
  • He imitated a "jihadi gangster" and did a reverse impersonation of a corrupt police officer

Editor's note: Aman Mojadidi is an American artist of Afghan descent who has staged public art projects in Afghanistan for the past nine years. He spoke at the TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh in June. TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading" which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- I grew up in Florida in wartime -- where the bombs were 7,691 miles away.

My childhood was an Afghan-American suburban dream punctuated by weekend sleepovers, Saturday soccer games, fistfights with racist children of the Confederate South and religio-nationalist-driven demonstrations chanting "Down with Brezhnev!"; "Long live Islam!"; "Down with Communism!"; and "Long Live Afghanistan!" before I even knew what that meant.

'Afghan by blood, redneck by God's grace'

It is what I was fed growing up, in between Southern-fried chicken and garlic mashed potatoes, cumin-scented meat and basmati rice. That's why I've referred to myself as "Afghan by blood, redneck by the grace of God."

Watch Aman Mojadidi's TED Talk

Now as an artist in a world that is simultaneously in the process of globalizing and fracturing, the work I do explores what I have come to call the "geography of self," a concept that revolves around a positioning of oneself in the world -- not just physically, but emotionally, mentally and, perhaps even for those who believe, spiritually.

This position is ambiguous, temporary and very often debated. It is constructed by multiple voices and rendered through a prism of different, sometimes even contradictory, perspectives.

The body of work I create combines traditional storylines and postmodern narrative strategies to approach themes such as belonging, identity politics and conflict, as well as the push towards -- and resistance against -- modernization.

My work travels through mental and physical landscapes. It intentionally blurs and merges the lines between them, as well as those between fact and fiction, documentation and imagination.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



I looked into corruption in Afghanistan through a work called "Payback" and impersonated a police officer, set up a fake checkpoint on the street in Kabul and stopped cars, but instead of asking them for a bribe, offered them money and apologized on behalf of the Kabul Police Department.

I spent a day in the life of a jihadi gangster who wears his jihad against the communists like pop-star bling and uses armed religious intimidation and political corruption to make himself rich. And where else can the jihadi gangster go, but run for parliament and do a public installation campaign with the slogan: "Vote for me! I've done jihad, and I'm rich."

TED.com: What I saw in the war

What I engage in through my art is, in fact, storytelling. But through these stories, there is a clear attempt to disrupt and reinterpret historical narratives, both real and imagined, in order to create an entirely new narrative that challenges the dominating histories' stories that shape our experience and understanding of the world we live in.

It's not about activism, but about being engaged with our world and humanity in a way that goes beyond the superficial, instead looking deeper into historical constructions of our present state and the basic principles of human responsibility.

Art has often been and continues to be considered transcendent. I see this as misguided and, in fact, a way of subverting the powerful voice art can be in global discussions about politics, economics, society, culture, religion and international relations.

TED.com: My photographs bear witness

This is not to say that I think my art provides answers. In fact, it may simply produce more questions. But in asking those questions, history and our role in how it constructs the present can be better understood.

By using historical facts, documentation, oral history and imagination, I create forms of resistance against the imposition of certain historical interpretations upon us. It provides a way for us to rethink history, disturb identity, challenge authority, dissect politics, shake up society and understand ourselves. In the end, I hope we learn to question what we know of the past, what we understand of the present and what we can imagine for the future.

Perhaps this is too ambitious a project; perhaps art should simply be aesthetically appealing and keep itself out of the realm of politics, history and self-awareness. Perhaps this is too arrogant a philosophy, to think that what I have to say about the world and our role in it has any bearing at all on how others should think about their environment and themselves.

TED.com: Dreams from endangered cultures

Perhaps this is too futile a goal and art is not enough of an action to be an actual catalyst for change. But this is the burden of creating this kind of work, a burden that perhaps comes from the dualistic life I have lived as an American citizen growing up in the comfort of suburbia while family members in Afghanistan fought, died and, yes, killed in their battle against an invading army.

Knowing these opposing experiences could be simultaneously shared within the collective subconscious of my family drove me towards trying to better understand history, politics, perspectives and the human condition.

This IS my burden and so I must ask: "What's yours?"

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aman Mojadidi.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0242 GMT (1042 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT