KABUL: Shocking, intimate and often bemusing to outsiders, the modern art produced by a small group of young Afghans would come as a surprise to connoisseurs who stalk the galleries of New York, London and Tokyo.
At work in small studios and spare rooms in Kabul, they make pieces that seem far away from the harsh, practical world outside where many Afghans focus on surviving the bloody 12-year insurgency.
Picasso, Damien Hirst and Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei are among their influences, but they also admit that Afghanistan's long war has had an inescapable effect on their work.
Arif Bahaduri, 22, uses medical plasters to make three-dimensional images at his $100-a-month rented studio in south Kabul, and he is now preparing a 30-minute piece of performance art.
“It will be one of the first-ever such events in Afghanistan,” he told AFP, wearing a chic black linen jacket and black T-shirt.
“I can't say exactly how it will go or what will happen, but it is an expression of my deepest inner feelings and identity.”
Bahaduri will present his live show later this month at the Afghan Contemporary Art Prize, an annual competition to encourage local artists to move beyond sketches of marketplaces and landscapes.
“My complete wish is to live as a professional artist, but my family are not happy because I took a year out of my psychology course at university to do this,” he said. “They do not understand.” ”I work with plasters to represent pain and unhealed wounds, and now I hope my performance piece will lead me in a new direction.”
From 106 applicants, 10 artists were chosen to compete in the final round of this year's prize, which is funded by the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, an Afghan arts organisation.
The contestants received an intensive two-weeks of workshops and lectures to immerse them in modern art, and then had one month to produce a competition piece for an exhibition opening on November 16.
“A lot of what we saw in the workshops was new to me and it had a big effect, and I looked in many books and on the Internet,” said Bahaduri, naming Serbian-born performance artist Marina Abramovic as his current inspiration.
Also among the finalists is Orna, who is casting her naked back for her prize entry — an idea that could provoke outrage in conservative Islamic Afghanistan.
“The cast is part of a body that I have made that has no arms and no legs,”said Orna, 22.
“I was born in exile in Iran and this is my reaction to coming to Afghanistan and seeing so many people missing one foot due to bombs and mines.”
Orna, who only uses one name, admits that her family do not know anything about her art and that it would perplex many Afghans, but she says there is a strong and supportive community of fellow artists in Kabul.
“Some friends worry that it will be a problem for me to have used my own body, but this is what I am determined to do,” she said, citing existentialist author Franz Kafka as a source of ideas.
“Only a few people understand. Many people here are more concerned about how to feed themselves. They don't think about galleries and they shouldn't be blamed for that.”
The artists are being mentored by Francesca Recchia, a Kabul-based Italian academic who says the experience has been one of the most rewarding of her decades of working in the arts.
“It has not been easy organising a competition like this in Kabul, but it has been great to see the artists engage with new ideas and question their own artistic language,” she said.
“I have always been critical but helpful, trying to push them forward without telling then where to go. It is not a matter of this being good enough considering they are Afghans — I really think that the work in the exhibition could match international standards."
“Several past entrants in the prize have gone on to study abroad.”
One of competition's more striking entries is a piece by Baqir Ahmadi that consists of a dried cow's head stuffed with clay and surrounded by piles of human hair.
He had never heard of Damien Hirst's famous work with cow carcasses when he started the project, and has since been researching Hirst avidly.
“The butcher threw me out of his shop when I told him what I was going to do with the head,” Ahmadi said, surrounded by Picasso-inspired self-portraits and wooden sculptures in his family home.
“My brothers and sisters do complain about the smell sometimes, but actually my mother helped me preserve the cow's head and is very supportive of my work.”
The art prize, which was established in 2008, will be judged by a jury of experts before the exhibition opens, with the winner receiving $1,500 and second place $800.