IWM talk: Covert War and Colliding Cultures by Mahwish Chishty


This is a transcript of the free public talk, Covert War and Cultures Colliding given by Pakistani-born, US-based artist, Mahwish Chishty. Her exhibition of drone paintings is available to view at IWM London until 19th March 2017.

The talk was held at Imperial War Museum London in October 2016 and also featured Lisa Barnard and Clare Carolin. The full video is available to view with Facebook here.

Thank you so much for being here. It’s such a pleasure to show my work here at IWM Contemporary. It’s just a perfect venue for the kind of work that I do. I guess you’ll learn more as I talk about what I’m doing, but if you haven’t seen the exhibition, please do check it out because I think it’ll make a lot of sense after this talk, hopefully.

History of making pictures go as far back as cave paintings and my interest lies in new arts forms, politics of war, artificial intelligence and its implications in modern warfare. Painting is my language of communication, either on paper, wood or plastic.

There are two very distinct, yet contrasting features in my work – colourful and bright symbols that are influenced by Pakistani folk art, truck art, “jingle art” and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) also known as drones. I will discuss both in detail today and how they relate to my research, to me and to each other.

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Video still – Afghan/Pakistani ‘truck art’

Truck art – my first introduction to any form of visual art was through these moving trucks – moving works of art. Growing up in Saudi Arabia, I did not have any access to art museums or art galleries but these vehicles were very intriguing to me. Decorating moving vehicles is a very common practice in Pakistan. In fact, virtually all privately owned trucks are decorated with colourful imagery and visual iconography.

Jamal J. Elias wrote a book about these vehicles in which he provides a unique window into Pakistan’s complex society, addresses complex questions of culture and religion. It is very expensive to decorate each truck. It costs anywhere about $3,000 to $5,000 on the lower end and on the higher end it could be as much as $16,000 per truck – to just decorate them. It is fascinating to me, like many others, that the need for these decorations and the maintenance of these works of art is so important for those people. Even more fascinating to me is that the decoration never consumes the primary function of the truck and yet truck art is pervasive in Pakistan.

The messages on these trucks convey socio-political attitudes as well as views on contemporary issues. For the longest time, this was not considered a form of art. It could still be said that. To me, the history itself of truck art is fascinating. This practice of decorating trucks was prominent in Afghanistan and during the Soviet invasion, in 1979-89, a lot of Afghanis were migrating to Pakistan and brought this tradition with them. Pakistanis took that even further and started making their own version of trucks and now truck designs vary from region to region within Pakistan.

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Video still – example of Afghan ‘war rugs’ – Mahwish Chishty

Effects of politics and war can be seen in everyday life and this is just one example of that. Another example that I would like to share with you is the imagery of warfare that is used in daily lifestyle, even in domestic household items, such as rugs. These are war rugs in Afghanistan. During the Soviet invasion, Afghani women were weaving these rugs that would depict imagery of war. At this time, tanks and different types of grenades were used incessantly, hence we saw use of those times of images, including Kalashnikovs. Nowadays, they incorporate imagery of drones.

I particularly want to point out the rug on the right-hand side. It has these corner images of stealth drones. They’re kind of camouflaged. Once again, functional objects that use decoration for pure aesthetic. They are still functioning rugs.

I currently live in the US and I have been living there since 2005. I did not go back to Pakistan until 2011. So, there was that 6-year time period that I had not been there and not seen the progress of one year to another. So, for me, the contrast was quite high. It felt like a lot of things had changed when I went back. These are the pictures that I took with my cell-phone camera as I was walking down the street to my grandmother’s house. Very surprised and disturbed by the idea of these gunmen holding Kalashnikovs sitting behind sandbags. I wanted to know more about why things had changed so much and, of course, it has a lot to do with the geographical positioning of Pakistan. We’re neighbours with countries like Iran, Afghanistan, China and India.

For the most obvious reasons, US is more that interested than ever in maintaining its alliance with Pakistan. Pakistan favours US involvement so that we can together eradicate Islamic extremists. Pew Research centre in early 2010 did a survey and found out that 6 out of every 10 Pakistani have unfavourable view of US government. Not shocking data – but still quite interesting.

As a Pakistani-born American citizen, I found myself in the middle of this conversation very often – more often than I can even think of. I went back to US and started doing some research on drones. As a visual artist, I was obviously interested in the visual representation of drones themselves – what they look like… But more importantly, what is available in the media that I can find to get that information.

To my surprise, I did not find too many images of drones online. Wikipedia is an open forum for everybody to provide information and to share with everybody else.  In 2011, I received an email from Mark Miller who did Wikipedia renderings for all the drones that we see on Wikipedia right now (shows images of drones from Wikipedia). He told me about his own experience of working on this project.  As an American taxpayer, he was interested in giving information, providing that to everybody. In 2009, we was searching for images of RQ-170 and he could only find 4 very grainy photos online.

He uses a technique that he calls photo-graphicking (?) where he smooths out pixels of those photos and he did his own rendering. To give you an idea of what RQ-170 actually looks like – which is also known as Beast of Kandahar. Not to mention that the names of these drones are quite striking.

What he found later really shocked him. He saw his renderings being used by news media as they did not, also, also have access to photos of RQ-170.

I think it goes quite parallel to my own research into drones, in many ways. The physical presence of drones in the region is contrasting the visual absence of these deadly machines in the media. I find that really interesting. I started to question the photographs that we could see and find online. I started to think about who’s the photographers, where is the camera placement, where is the photograph from and hence questioning the authenticity of the photograph itself. And particularly when that same image is being used in the print media to create a visual narrative, I felt that there were some artistic licences that somebody’s taking advantage of. As a visual artist, I took that even further and made my own version in the form of painting.

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MQ-9/ Predator; Gouache & tea stain on paper; 12″ by 24″; 2011. (Mahwish Chishty)

For this particular piece… obviously, there’s no video documentation of a hellfire missile being dropped – how it goes from being a horizontal hellfire missile to falling down with gravity, going vertical. So, this is my imagination, my own version. My way of creating that.

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Video still – Mahwish Chishty drone painting

This detail shows the different types of imagery I’m using to depict the deadliness of the drone, in a more stylised fashion. I use these decorative elements to lure the audience into the work.  From what I’ve witnessed, people are drawn more to the detail of the work first. More usually people notice the smaller elements, decorative elements, more stylised versions of those first before they see the bigger picture. So, I used that to my advantage to bring people in and get them interested in the work.

I also think that something about this is also something that mimics something that we find in nature. That the deadliest animals in the world are the bright in colours, just like these paintings. The question comes to mind – is that a warning or an invitation?

Some of the visual imagery is directly borne from truck art genre but sometimes I did improvise. Manipulation becomes more prevalent in my work as I started to explore more images online. I used eyes to draw the viewer into the work, which also refers back to the surveillance aspect of the drone itself – looking at a painting as the painting is looking back at you. I find it interesting that the detail of the work is what you notice at first but the overall image is still of the drone – so it’s still there.

What is it like living under the drones? People probably see a dark silhouette when they look up in the sky on a clear blue day. Recognising a flying object by its silhouette, hence, becomes a survival mechanism. And that is the first step in the process of creating these paintings for me. I start off with a silhouette. I take images from the Internet, from online, from which I get the basic outline and then I start to give more intonation to give it a second skin, a patina, so it looks very different from what it originally looks like.

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x-47B, Gouache on paper, 16″ by 16″, 2012

All the other details are added later in the process, as I go along. This painting was a breaking point for me because it lead to exploration of 3D works. It is a flat painting that suggests dimensionality.

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By the Moonlight, Gouache, tea-stain and photo-transfers on birch plywood, 12.5″ x 25″ x 8″, 2013

This is the work that came about later. It is important to me how the audience experiences the work. Works on paper often gets framed and it goes behind glass. I wanted to remove that barrier of glass and allow people to witness the work directly.

Wood was the solution. These are image transfers either of the streets of Lahore or from Pakistani newspapers I brought with me from 2011. This is a good example of that, where I’ve used some print media, from 2011.

My training in traditional miniature painting style is apparent in my work, sometimes more than the others. By starting with a neutral background by tea staining is a very common practice in traditional miniature painting genre. Besides that, I’m also using wash which is the flat quality – the brightness in the colours – achieved by using watercolours. It’s quite interesting – I think it works great with the work that I’m doing.

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I bought model drones to take photographs from different perspectives and to use them in my paintings. Just as a starting point – just to get those dynamic silhouettes of drones. And it was only until later on that I started to see them as objects and I started experimenting by painting on them. My biggest fear when I was doing this was that they might look too much like toys. Which is another interesting conversation to have – that I am working small and on an intimate scale on my 2D work but that question never came up – but once these became 3D objects, it automatically became toys.

Living in US has allowed me to have a very unique perspective on understanding both sides of this arbitrary war. I have personally received emails from drone operators. They can say for sure, despite the physical disconnect, the physical distance from the actual events, drone operators are experiencing PTSD.

The above image (not shown) is from a movie, which came out around 2014. This is a still of a bunker in Nevada, California. The drone operators physically go into these bunkers where they are surrounded by these computer monitors so that they can operate a drone thousands of miles away – I say miles but I should say kilometres! I like that still from that movie – of that little poster – “You are now leaving the USA.” Almost, psychologically preparing the drone operators that they’re going on a mission, they’re taking this flight mentally – it’s not physical but it’s mental.

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Video still – Kill Box by Mahwish Chishty

I’m currently working on a series called Kill Box that depicts aerial view of that region, within a grid-like pattern, as the view of the land seen on a screen of a drone operator. I did a residency last year where I asked to be – I requested if I could get a studio that was good for sculpture and installations because I wanted to work with those model drones and the shadows of them. But I ended up in a ceramic studio, for some reason, which worked out great because I started to explore clay and I was surrounded by ceramicists. So, I had this great opportunity to actually go beyond this barrier of medium and to just explore.

So, I started to work with those frames that I have when I would buy drone models online. They come in these plastic frames, in different shapes, in which the drones are pretty secure in the plastic frame. And I thought that if I take it out of that and if I start to construct something it becomes something very delicate and it might be difficult to ship it back to myself. And, I figured out, just keep it like that and explore what else I can do with it.

So I started taking impressions in clay of those frames which I think looks quite amazingly close to some of the images that I’ve seen of drone operators on their monitors – what they see on the monitor.

Those ones are charcoal rubbings on paper of those plastic frames. It looks very much like the aerial view.

And recently, I was invited to collaborate with a stage design team to construct a Reaper drone for the play ‘Grounded’ in Idaho. It is amazing to see all the works being produced in various different creative platforms and I was so glad to have my voice be heard or seen through my work.

I’m going to jump to a video real quick and then I’m going to end with that. This is a video, actual footage of what a drone operator would see on their monitor – just to give an idea of what the perspective, the angle and also, the pixilation of images. How clear it is or how unclear it is.

Thank you so much.

 

John Singer Sargent’s ‘Gassed’: more allusion than fact?

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‘Gassed’ by John Singer Sargent being installed at Pennsylvania Acadamy of Fine Art (PAFA)

John Singer Sargent’s Gassed is on loan to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) from the Imperial War Museums for PAFA’s exhibition, World War 1 and American Art, running from November 2016 to April 2017. The exhibition coincides with the centenary anniversary of US involvement in WW1.

The Eclectic Light Company

Some remember John Singer Sargent for his portraits of the most affluent in society. For many, though, his most memorable painting is his vast canvas showing the horrors of the First World War, in the Imperial War Museum, London: Gassed (1919). As with the work of all war artists, we tend to assume that this shows a real scene from the front, a hideous truth about that war. This article looks at the probable limits of that truth, and how much might be allusion.

Sargent, as an American who had worked much of his career in London, was commissioned by the War Memorials Committee of the Ministry of Information in Britain to paint a large work showing Anglo-American co-operation in the war. This was originally destined for a Hall of Remembrance, which was never built, but which required a very large if not monumental painting. He set off for the…

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Bashar Alhroub: Insight into Palestine


Part of Visions of War, running until 12 March 2017 at IWM London

IF you look in the right places, the Imperial War Museum London’s art exhibitions provide an opportunity for kids and adults to be introduced to current global conflicts and their historical background in a gentle way through art. IWM London has been recalcitrant in acknowledging the historical role of Britain in Palestine – a section of history that is absolutely vital to understanding the modern Israel-Palestine dispute. However, with Electrical Gaza by Rosalind Nashashibi and, currently, the work of Bashar Alhroub, the IWM art department has recently opened up some space for Palestinian voices.

Tucked away at the back of a temporary art gallery, “Visions from Above and Below” is a video installation by Ramallah-based Palestinian artist, Bashar Alhroub. On initial viewing, “Heavenly,” as it is called, might seem unremarkable. It consists of rather shaky footage of someone pointing their camera to the sky as they travel through a market, with rather an ominous score playing. The film captures wire netting overhead and pieces of rubbish, shoes, wood, bottles trapped on top.

The context of this piece, however, makes it extremely significant. The footage was taken in Hebron in the West Bank and the market is a Palestinian souk whose stores and streets have long been largely emptied. The wire netting has been put up overhead to protect the remaining Palestinians from the rubbish thrown by members of the local right wing Jewish settler population.

Bashar Alhroub writes, “(t)he place is now two conflicting spaces – the Souk and the rooftops – which are separated by netting that the settlers use as a rubbish dump, hanging over the heads of the Palestinian passers-by. And the Souk itself has been emptied of the clamor of the salesmen and of its shoppers. Now, there are only children and cats running around, and old people staring in despair at the shops that no longer carry goods.”

Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank, is divided into areas of control. Legally, area H1, is controlled by the Palestinian authority and the smaller area H2 is controlled by a presence of the Israeli army which enforces the existence of an enclave of 800 settlers amidst a population of 30,000 Palestinians. H2 covers the holy sites in the centre of the city, the former economic centre and is connected in the east to a large Jewish settlement called Kiryat Arba.

Within H2, there are areas exclusively for Jews and areas exclusively for Arabs. Buffer zones are enforced by the Israeli army and police; whole streets and markets have been closed and emptied. This is exemplified by Shuhada Street, once the main thoroughfare in the city, which is now forbidden to Palestinians. Israeli armed soldiers patrol the deserted road. Residents of Shuhada Street are forced to enter via back entrances as their front doors were welded shut by the army in the mid-1990s.

The climate in Hebron has been compared to a “pressure cooker.” In June 2016, the Israeli army reacted to the killing of two Israelis nearby by putting Hebron and surrounding villages into lockdown. It was described as the largest military operation since the mass raids and arrests carried out following the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish hitchhikers in 2014. Those actions were a major part of a chain of events that would result in Israeli attacks on Gaza and the deaths of 1,462 Palestinian and 6 Israeli civilians during the 51 day conflict in 2014.

The June 2016 Israeli army lockdown of Hebron made it more difficult than usual for Palestinians to get to hospital and the state of tension in the city was exacerbated by raids and arrests. Whilst violence is occurring on both sides, Palestinians are suffering in far higher numbers. Human Rights Watch reported that, in 2015, Palestinians killed at least 17 Israeli civilians and injured 87. On the other hand, Israeli security forces killed at least 120 Palestinian civilians and injured at least 11,953 in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel.

Prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, responded to the Palestinian attacks this summer by reducing the funds received by the Palestinian Authority – the ostensible governing body of areas of the West Bank which relies on Israeli funds to pay public service employees, from teachers to doctors.

With Israel continuing a policy of building unlawful settlements, taking inadequate measures to protect Palestinians from Jewish settlers, conducting arbitrary arrests, detaining children, sometimes in the middle of the night and at gunpoint, for alleged stone-throwing, destroying Palestinian homes and preventing construction on the basis of discriminatory practices and thus forcibly displacing Palestinians, the tensions in the West Bank continue to simmer and threaten another boiling point.

In the other part of the Occupied Territories, Gaza remains under blockade – a flotilla of female activists trying to break the blockade were recently detained in international waters by Israeli forces. In 2010, a Turkish-led flotilla was also raided by Israeli forces but they were also fired upon and 10 Turks were killed. On the mainland, Israel continues to hit Gaza with bombs in what is claimed to be responses to rocket attacks into Israel. Such actions, as demonstrated most vividly by the 2014 Gaza attack, are grossly disproportionate and seem do little for long-term peace for Israel.

The coming year, 2017, will feature two significant anniversaries in the history of the Israel-Palestine conflict. June 5, 2017, will mark 50 years since the Six Day War during which Israel conquered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and, also the Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula. What is considered as an act of self-defence by Israel against threats by the Egyptian leadership, turned into a half-century long occupation of 2-3 million Palestinians.

Meanwhile, November 2017, will mark 100 years since the British government issued the Balfour Declaration – a promise to facilitate a Jewish homeland state, despite previous promises of granting Arab independence for Arab support during WW1. In the post-war carve up by the Imperial powers, Britain took control of Palestine under mandate and proceeded to enable the conflict that continues.

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Historical  shrinking of Palestinian territory (PCS)

Today, Britain is still not a neutral observer of the conflict in the Middle East. Within weeks of the 2014 attack on Gaza, which left over 2,000 Palestinians dead and 1,500 orphaned children, Britain approved a fresh arms deal of £4 million to Israel, including components for drones and air-to-surface missiles. This is despite the fact that the UN warned that Israel could be guilty of committing war crimes for its bombing of residential areas in Gaza.

The history of the Israel-Palestine conflict is painful, revealing and vitally important to understand the modern world and, for children and parents, the indirect perspective into Hebron and the West Bank offered by artists like Bashar Alhroub at IWM London may be a useful starting point.

IWM London: Mahwish Chishty’s Drone Paintings

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Reaper Drone; Gouache & gold flakes on paper; 30″ by  20″; 2015 (Mahwish Chishty)

Art is a useful lens through which to introduce children and teenagers – and adults – to painful and difficult issues – to help them make sense of the images they see on screens and to help them understand global conflict. The IWM Contemporary series at IWM London is dedicated to providing a platform for cutting edge art on current conflicts and has previously featured artists such as Omer Fast, Hew Locke, Imogen Stidworthy, Rosalind Nashashibi, Nick Danziger and Edward Barber.

From Wednesday 19th October 2016, IWM London will be showing an exhibition by US-based, Pakistani artist, Mahwish Chishty, who uses the Afghan/Pakistani folk art tradition to depict US/British armed drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).  The exhibit will include sculpted painting on wood, painted drone models and works on paper.

It was after a visit to Pakistan in 2011 that Chishty began her drone art series to examine and raise a discussion on the cultural, psychological and physical impact of the foreign drones that hover over areas of Pakistan. In Chishty’s exhibit, the lethal drones which are used to carry out the US/British extra-judicial assassinations programme in Pakistan – with some Pakistani government collusion – become colourful, intriguing works of art. Her work has been described as “resistance through beauty.”

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MQ-9/ Predator; Gouache & tea stain on paper; 12″ by 24″; 2011. (Mahwish Chishty)

Chishty uses her training in traditional miniature painting, notable in her use of tea staining, to produce  intricate, symbolic artwork inspired by the art used by drivers of haulage trucks to decorate their vehicles in Afghanistan and Pakistan. By reinventing the foreign drones, she is bringing attention to them and the stories we are told about them – but doing so in a symbolic way with “truck art.”

IWM London’s “Visions from Above and Below,”Gallery 2, features another artist’s depictions of drones. On display is a series of ink drawings by Alison Wilding, a British renowned for her sculptures. Whilst Chishty has mythologised drones with traditional Pakistani art, Wilding’s depicts them as sinister, bird-like entities.

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Drone 4; drawing in acrylic inks, 2012 (Alison Wilding)

 

The British government has sanctioned its own drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and, recently, Syria. Moreover, it has been revealed that Britain works closely in the US’ wider assassination programme by providing a base in North Yorkshire, likely intelligence support and lending its own operators, thus linking itself closely to the US drone programme and strikes in Pakistan.

Drone assassinations are carried out without any judicial process. The decision-makers in the US and British government and military act as judge, jury and executioner. A litany of falsehoods have been made to disguise the programme, from initial US claims that no civilians were killed by drone strikes, that only Al-Qaeda operatives and affiliates who posed an imminent threat to the US homeland were targeted, to the US casualty figures themselves, which the US massages with its presumption that all military aged men killed in a strike zone are terrorists, unless posthumous evidence proves otherwise..

The strikes are not surgically precise as has been claimed by our governments and have killed hundreds of innocent people. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that the civilian death toll in Pakistan is between 424-966 since 2004. Sometimes the attacks occur on the basis of suspicious activity in so-called “signature strikes.” The identity of the target may not be known. Other times, “double tap” strikes occur which hit first responders and others going to help the victims of the first hit. The devastating effects has served to psychologically damage, as well as to radicalise populations against the US and Britain, furious at the loss of loved ones.

Unmanned drones are just one part of the arsenal of bombing campaigns. Piloted airstrikes inflict immense damage – as we are currently seeing from the Russian-backed Assad campaign in Syria and the US-backed Saudi Arabian campaign in Yemen. In December 2009, a US Tomahawk cruise missile, fired from a US Navy vessel, struck a village in South Yemen, al Majala, killing 41 civilians. That day, 22 children died and, reportedly, 5 women who were pregnant.

Remotely operated drones, however, are increasingly popular for governments because they do not directly risk the livelihoods of pilots or operators. Last year, David Cameron announced that Britain would double its fleet of armed drones to 20 so-called “Protectors”. As long as the deaths of the targets and people in the vicinity and the mental illness and terror inflicted on the target population living under their shadow remain secondary to our concerns, then drone warfare will be seen as PR friendly. Mahwish Chishty’s exhibit at IWM London is a way to open up the discussion for all of us, young and old.

More

Book a place to hear Mahwish Chishty in discussion with photographic artist, Lisa Barnard and IWM researcher, Clare Carolin at IWM London on Thurs 20th October 2016.

Analysis – “DroneART: a Product of Surveillance Criticism” by Anna C. Natale & Dolores Cristina Gomes Galindo.

“In the painting MQ-9/Predator, the sheet appears to have the same texture as homemade recycled paper, the tonal changes are visible, resembling the color of earth and sand grains, but also nullifies the track of time, there is no way to know the age of this work.”

Interview with Islamic Arts Magazine, 24th May 2013.

“It’s something that I didn’t hear much about here in the US. Pakistani people feel bitter and angry towards the American government because of their use of drones near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border as it is affecting a lot of civilian lives.”

“I grew up in Saudi Arabia and I felt like my knowledge of Islam was so limited. I learned in school that music and dance are haram (forbidden) in Islam but then I came to discover that a branch of the same religion celebrates and connects with God using music and dance. A dervish twirls and swirls with the beat of music to a point where everything around him blurs and takes him to a state of mind where he feel more connected to the One.”

Interview with Mother Jones, 24th June 2013.

“It’s kind of a folk art. It’s a tradition, a culture. People who drive these trucks basically live on those trucks, sleep on those trucks. They kind of make that into their mobile home and they decorate it into something that’s eye pleasing. They’re extremely beautiful paintings. They spend so much time on it and they don’t get any funding. This is something that they do, just a personal interest. It has no reason whatsoever other than just an aesthetic sense. I always thought that it was not given any importance in the art world back home, and I wanted people to think maybe what would happen if these drones were friendlier looking, instead of such hard-edged, metallic war machines.”

Preview  of the exhibit at IWM London by Asian Voice online, 30th August 2016

“Mahwish Chishty is a contemporary artist combining new media and conceptual work with her traditional practice as a painter. Chishty has exhibited her work nationally and internationally at venues including Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MOCADA), Brooklyn NY; University of Technology (UTS Gallery), Sydney, Australia; University of Michigan, Maryland Art Place, Baltimore, MD; and Canvas Gallery, Karachi, Pakistan. Her works are held in both public and private collections. This will be the first time that the artist’s work is shown in the United Kingdom.”

– Mahwish Chishty’s website.

Stolen Childhood in Afghanistan: 15 Years On

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10/11 year-old, Mah Bibi (Nick Danziger, 2001)

As the 15th year anniversary passes of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, officially launched on 7th October 2001, it is worth recalling the circumstances in which it took place. As food aid agencies warned at the time, the US and its partners were attacking a starving, desperate population, in the midst of terrible droughts and ruled by a fanatical Islamist regime. The story of young Afghan girl, Mah Bibi, captured by photographer, Nick Danziger, and videographer, Laura Ashton, and presented early in 2016 at IWM London, provides just one personal insight into many, many thousands.

The Afghanistan invasion took place following the September 11th 2001 attacks in the US that killed nearly 3,000 and injured many thousands more. The majority of the hi-jackers were Saudi nationals and the responsibility was placed on Osama bin Laden, another Saudi national, and his extremist group, al Qaeda.

The US government demanded that the Taliban regime of Afghanistan hand over bin Laden, where he was thought to operate from. The Taliban regime’s response was to demand evidence from the US establishing bin Laden’s connection to the attack. They suggested that should evidence be provided, they would consider turning bin Laden over to a tribunal organised by states in the Middle East.

President George Bush’s response was that there would be “no negotiations.” Bin Laden was thus given a “free pass” to escape into Pakistan as the US began a bombing campaign with no strategy for capturing their supposed target.  Nearly 10 years later, an unarmed bin Laden was captured and assassinated in Pakistan by a team of US Navy SEALs.

It has been suggested that the US did not have sufficient evidence to prove bin Laden’s connection to the attack. In June 2002, the head of the FBI, Robert Mueller, could say only that “investigators believe the idea of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon came from al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan, the actual plotting was done in Germany, and the financing came through the United Arab Emirates from sources in Afghanistan.”

By failing to investigate the Taliban offer, the US and its partners failed to explore, let alone, exhaust, non-violent means to apprehend bin Laden and his accomplices before they launched an attack on Afghanistan. The rush to war in that country and, two years later, in Iraq, was followed by lengthy and bloody occupations that have caused to strengthen the hand of extremist groups like Al Qaeda and now, the even more extremist, so-called Islamic State or ISIS.

Moreover, the US-led rush to attack Afghanistan in 2001 targeted a population already suffering from immense deprivation. A UN estimate suggested that millions of the population relied on food aid for survival. A few days after the 9/11 attacks, the US demanded that neighbouring Pakistan end its food truck envoys into Afghanistan. International aid workers began to evacuate in anticipation of the bombing. “The country was on a lifeline,” one evacuated aid worker reported, “and we just cut the line.” “It’s as if a mass grave has been dug behind millions of people,” an evacuated emergency officer for Christian Aid informed the media: “We can drag them back from it or push them in. We could be looking at millions of deaths.”

Just before bombing commenced at the start of October 2001, the UN warned that military action would likely cause a “humanitarian catastrophe”. Over 7 million Afghanis faced starvation if an attack was not called off, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization warned.

A month into the US-led attack, by the end of October, over a million Afghanis were estimated to have had fled their homes into the countryside where they were exposed to the elements and without meaningful food supplies. Pleas by aid agencies for the US to call off the attacks fell on deaf ears and rejected by Tony Blair.

Mah Bibi

It is in this context that, in 2001, photographer, Nick Danziger, and videographer, Laura Ashton, captured the images and testimony of a 10/11 year old Afghani girl, Mah Bibi and her two brothers that she cared for. Mah Bibi was living in the Ghor Province of western Afghanistan. In 2001, the region was experiencing the effects of a long-term and devastating drought with some people resorting to eating animal fodder to survive.

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Mah Bibi (Nick Danziger, 2001)

“(A) young girl,” Danziger recalled, “simply pushed her way through a massive crowd of men and started telling me her story; it seemed incredible. She grabbed my hand, pushed her way back through the crowd and marched me past all the men to where she was living – a kind of tent cobbled together with disused rags.”

Mah Bibi was trying to claim food as head of the family but was refused as a minor. In her testimony, she explained that she was an orphan, her mother having died in childbirth. Her father had at four years previously gone for food and disappeared. Mah Bibi was caring for her two younger brothers and begging and eating grass to survive.

“We had two cows, ten sheep and land. But since my father went missing we were hungry. So, I sold all of them. For the past four months, I have been begging. This morning, I had no food for breakfast and I ate grass. I don’t have other clothes. These shoes I wear, I have begged for… It is hot during the day and when we are here sitting in the sun, it is unbearable. But at night, we shake from the cold.” Mah Bibi told Danziger and Ashton in a testimony in 2001.

Working with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Nick Danziger went in search of 11 women caught up in conflicts that he had photographed 5 years before to see how their lives had changed and to take new portraits. He found 10 alive – but he found no trace of Mah Bibi. He was told by locals in Ghor Province that she was thought to have got married but died, aged 16.

Photographs and video footage that Nick Danziger and Laura Ashton took of Mah Bibi in 2001 were put on display at the Imperial War Museum in early 2016, in conjunction with the ICRC, in an exhibition called, “11 Women Facing War,” part of the IWM Contemporary series of cutting-edge war art.

A record number of civilians were killed and wounded in Afghanistan in 2015, according to the UN. The over 11,000 killed and wounded was a 4% increase on the previous high, in 2014. One in four of the casualties were children and one in ten was female. Deprivation haunts the population; doctors said in 2014 that over half of Afghani boys and girls were suffering irreparable damage to their brains and bodies due to malnutrition during the first two years of life.

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Mah Bibi and Brothers (Nick Danziger, 2001)

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Mah Bibi (Nick Danzger, 2001)

More:

Video testimony of Mah Bibi for “Eleven Women Facing War” (dubbed in English, video by Laura Ashton, 2001) presented by Canadian War Museum Youtube channel)

– Interview with Nick Danziger about 2016 Imperial War Museum exhibition, 11 Women Facing War – with Pressreader, 2016.

Interview with Nick Danziger about Imperial War Museum exhibition, with Amateur Photographer, 2016