Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

An 'Afghan redneck' creates art in a war zone

By Aman Mojadidi, Special to CNN
updated 5:21 PM EST, Sun January 27, 2013
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
updated 8:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
updated 5:32 PM EDT, Sun September 21, 2014
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 3:17 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
updated 9:59 AM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Mon September 22, 2014
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT