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
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2153 GMT (0553 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2305 GMT (0705 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT