One of the people featured Tuesday at the Creative Time Summit in Venice, Italy, during the Venice Biennale was the acclaimed artist Mariam Ghani, daughter of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
In part two of our interview with Mariam Ghani, she describes her work in St. Louis, Missouri, during “Ferguson October” protests that erupted after Michael Brown was killed. The result was her short film, “The City & The City,” which looks at how the city is so divided it becomes two separate countries. She also discusses her work on the issue of borders, the experience of Afghan women, and her upcoming documentary about Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Watch part one of this interview, in which Ghani describes her decade of work on a number of art projects looking at how the United States responded to the Sept. 11 attacks. Along with the artist Chitra Ganesh, she created an “Index of the Disappeared” — a physical archive documenting post-9/11 detentions, deportations and renditions. Ghani and Ganesh also created “The Guantanamo Effect” — an interactive digital archive defining, illustrating and linking key terms and events in the so-called global war on terror.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re on the road in Venice, Italy. We’re here at the Venice Biennale, which is the biennial art exhibition, the foremost and oldest art exhibition in the world. It’s 120 years old.
This year, Creative Time, a New York-based arts and activism organization, has held a summit here at the Arsenale in Venice, and many people have spoken, among them Mariam Ghani. She is an artist based in Brooklyn, New York. She had a fascinating discussion with her father. He wasn’t actually here in person; she spoke to him by Skype on the stage. The concern was it would change the whole nature of the Creative Time Summit because of the security precautions that would be involved. Why? Well, Mariam Ghani’s father is the Afghan president. He’s the president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani. They took part in a public dialogue, and have done that for interesting art installations in the past.
We spoke about Mariam Ghani’s work chronicling brutality in U.S. prisons, whether in the United States or at Guantánamo or Abu Ghraib or in Bagram. We also talked about the “Index of the Disappeared” of what’s happened to people since 9/11. Now we’re going to look closer to home, to Ferguson, Missouri.
Mariam Ghani, talk about your work in St. Louis and the surrounding area.
MARIAM GHANI: Right. So, it all came about through a kind of coincidence. I had been planning to make a project in St. Louis for a number of years. I had a commission from the Saint Louis Art Museum, and I was teaching at Washington University for this past year. And I happened to arrive a month after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, which, as you know, is a suburb of St. Louis. And I was there in St. Louis shooting this film for my show at the Saint Louis Art Museum in the month that came to be known as Ferguson October, during which activists were performing actions every single day of the month.
So it was this really extraordinary time in the city, full of incredible moments and really incredible performance, you know, by this activist movement, to the point where I actually felt a bit intimidated about making art in the middle of all of this, that I thought was so extraordinary in producing really such incredible and indelible images, among them the mirrored coffin that was being carried through the city for much of this month by actually a group of artists who had made it.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain the concept of a mirrored coffin.
MARIAM GHANI: Yeah, I spoke to some of them about it, and they said the idea of the mirrored coffin was to reflect back at the society that had produced the death of Michael Brown and all the young black men like him, their complicity in the structures that had produced and enabled that death to happen.
AMY GOODMAN: Also, you could see it as everyone who looks at the coffin, they see themselves.
MARIAM GHANI: They see themselves, yeah. That is the other thing that happens.
AMY GOODMAN: They see themselves, perhaps, in the coffin.
MARIAM GHANI: Yeah, yeah. So, I had come in with the idea to make a film about the way that spacial politics and racial politics overlap in St. Louis. I had been there before, you see. I knew a little something about it. And I also grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, which, as we’ve learned from the death of Freddie Gray, among others, is not very different from St. Louis in many of its most essential details, right? And essential structures. So, St. Louis presented many familiar problems to me, and especially its spacial politics were very familiar to me.
And then I came in in the middle of this moment of emergency, right? And I thought, “How can I make something in the middle of this emergency that will be of the moment but also able to exist beyond it?” And the answer I arrived at was to make this film, The City & The City, which is actually a loose adaptation of the 2009 novel by China Miéville, the British sci-fi author. He’s an anarchist sci-fi author whose politics are very radical, and then he kind of slips them into these mass-market books in a really remarkable way. So, the premise of the book and also of my loose adaptation of it is that there’s a city that becomes so divided, it actually becomes two separate countries. Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Two separate countries.
MARIAM GHANI: Two separate countries.
AMY GOODMAN: One city.
MARIAM GHANI: Yeah, one city. So economically, politically and spiritually divided, it becomes two separate countries. And they have an official border, which is policed by this rather spooky force called Breach. But the way the separation is really carried out on a day-to-day basis is that the citizens of these two city-states learn from birth to unsee everything and everyone that belongs to the other city. So they look away from it so reflexively, it’s like it’s not even there, actually disappears from view. And this is this kind of marvelously flexible metaphor for the way that so many cities actually function.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a clip of The City & The City.
MARIAM GHANI: Mm-hmm, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Again, filmed in St. Louis. It begins with a murder. It’s narrated by the dead man.
MARIAM GHANI: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: This is a clip.
DEAD MAN: [narrated by Derek Laney] Do you know anything about my city? Like most cities, it believes itself to be its own country, with its own laws and borders and customs. But unlike perhaps your city, it has made that belief into reality. Like many cities that appear to be one city or one country, it’s actually two. Some cities are divided by a river or a train track. Some cities are zoned green and red, with concrete barricades marking the difference. Some cities have borders that constantly shift, following the whims of capital. Some cities, like my city, are crosshatched—some places totally ours, and others belonging wholly to them; places where spurs of one city jut unexpectedly into the other; places where the cities are so densely interwoven that you can step from one to the other by crossing a single square of pavement; and the dissensi, the spaces claimed by both—or neither—cities, which exist in a kind of limbo between them.
AMY GOODMAN: The limbo between them. That’s a clip from The City & The City, that’s directed by Mariam Ghani, our guest today, filmed in St. Louis. And it’s finished.
MARIAM GHANI: It is finished, yes. It was premiered at the Saint Louis Art Museum in April, and the show just came down in the middle of July. And I collaborated, actually, with a number of people from the movement in St. Louis to make the film. The narrator of the film, who is that dead man, as you mentioned, who is murdered at the very beginning of the film and is only ever seen as a series of shattered mirrors in the film itself—the narrator is Derek Laney, who’s one of the people who made the mirrored coffin for the protests and was also one of the people who did the action at the St. Louis Symphony, where they interrupted the symphony and sang a requiem for Michael Brown. Yeah, so when I asked around the activist community for someone with a good voice, everyone said, “Go to Derek. He’s got a great voice.” And they were right. He does.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Mariam Ghani. You talk about this border between the two cities—
MARIAM GHANI: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: The City & The City. I’d like to go to your border project.
MARIAM GHANI: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what that is.
MARIAM GHANI: Borders have been a kind of obsession of mine for a long time. I think that’s because I grew up in between a number of different cultures. My mother is actually Lebanese, and my father of course is Afghan. And I grew up largely in the United States, although not entirely. And so, part of my experience of the diaspora was actually this process of constantly traveling in between different places and also different states of being, different states of belonging, right? This process of always being partly one thing, partly another, belonging a bit to one place, a bit to another. And, in fact, it’s actually this zone that is the border, the borderlands.
AMY GOODMAN: How is it to be the first daughter and, your mother, the first lady of Afghanistan?
MARIAM GHANI: Yeah. I mean, I think my mother has taken on the role of first lady with unbelievable grace and really made an astonishingly good fist of it, as they say. She’s really become kind of an icon for Afghan women. And I think—
AMY GOODMAN: She was exiled from Afghanistan?
MARIAM GHANI: Yes. So, along with my father, in the late '70s, they had come to the United States for graduate school, and then the communist coup d'état happened, and they couldn’t return. And so, they were—they were in exile in the United States for that reason. But, of course, she was also exiled from her own country for a number of years because of the Lebanese civil war, so she had a kind of dual exile in that way.
I think, for me, being the first daughter has been a very complicated role to take on and try to understand how I can use it to be somehow an example of one kind of Afghan womanhood. There are many different kinds, right? And I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other, but I do think it’s possible for young Afghan women to see in me or in my mother, who has taken a very different path through life, new examples of ways to be Afghan women. And that, I think, is the best way that I can possibly use this role right now.
AMY GOODMAN: You also did a collaboration with your father—
MARIAM GHANI: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —called Afghanistan: A Lexicon.
MARIAM GHANI: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what that was.
MARIAM GHANI: Mm-hmm. Afghanistan: A Lexicon is a book that we did for dOCUMENTA (13) in 2011.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain dOCUMENTA.
MARIAM GHANI: dOCUMENTA (13) is the large, periodic exhibition that happens every five years in Kassel, Germany. And the last dOCUMENTA, which was the 13th edition, actually happened with a satellite exhibition in Kabul, Afghanistan, as well. So it had different stages. One was in Banff, Canada, one in Kabul and one in Alexandria, in Egypt, in addition to the main exhibition in Kassel, in Germany.
And dOCUMENTA is a bit unique among the big periodic exhibitions, like the Biennale di Venezia, because it actually came out of the immediate postwar moment in Germany. And the first seven editions of dOCUMENTA were all held in a building called the Fridericianum, which had actually been bombed during World War II, and it was held in this ruined building. The building wasn’t actually reconstructed until dOCUMENTA (7). So, it really insisted for a long time, this exhibition, on its roots in the postwar moment, and it was in many ways conceived as a reaction to the Nazi program against what they called degenerate art, which included much contemporary art being produced in the ’30s and ’40s. So it was a kind of recuperation of contemporary art as a political statement, dOCUMENTA, so it holds a very special place in the program of periodic exhibitions as a more political statement and also as a statement of what is the position of contemporary art today.
So, the book we did was part of a series of a hundred notebooks that were done in the lead-up to dOCUMENTA (13), and it’s a nonlinear history of 20th century Afghanistan through definitions of 77 terms. It is a history of 20th century Afghanistan, but it doesn’t present it through saying, “This happened, then this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened.” Instead, we give definitions of 77 terms, some of which are really specific Afghan terms, like jirga, which is the specific Afghan form of tribal council, or bi-tarafi, which is a specific Afghan form of nonalignment, which really means playing both sides against the middle, and is exemplified by Daoud’s famous saying: “I like to light my American cigarettes with a Russian match.” Yeah. And others are more general terms, like “loss” or “exile,” and they’re defined for the Afghan context, and sometimes very specifically for a particular historical moment in the Afghan context. And they’re defined in pairing with images, many of which are archival images I found through Afghan films, the National Film Archive and their library of stills, which were used in the government almanacs, these annual government yearbooks that were issued from the ’20s until the early ’90s.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of films, talk about your latest project that you’re involved with now.
MARIAM GHANI: Right, yeah, I am in the planning stages right now, the research and development stages, of a feature film project that’s about five unfinished feature films from the communist period in Afghanistan. So they stretch from 1978 to 1992 and really cover the entire arc of that period. The film is really about the gap between the stories that were being told on screen during this period, which, you know, are probably the only place where you can find this ideal Afghan communist republic that never existed anywhere except in these films, and the history that was happening just outside the frame, which is much more messy, much more complicated and, in many cases, much more bloody.
And, you know, the films really run the gamut from a re-enactment of the communist coup d’état, with the actual army and all of the party leaders performing what they did on the day of the coup, which is a film that’s become so important as the only semi-document of the coup—there’s no actual document—that even its own director refers to it as a documentary now, to a film from the middle of the period which is a cops-and-robbers story, that is actually a coded story about the massive surveillance state that had developed in Afghanistan by the mid-'80s, at which point KHAD, the state security agency, actually employed 20,000 people, which is astonishing in a nation that small. They were mentored by the Stasi, so you can imagine what that was like. And then the last one is actually a—there's a story about reconciliation from '91, and then, from ’92, there's a film that was financed by Massoud, one of the most famous mujahideen leaders, which I haven’t been able to see yet, but if it follows the pattern of the other film that Massoud financed, it will feature real mujahideen, real tanks and real weapons, because often the line between document and fiction in Afghan film is very blurry indeed.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think you’ll be moving back to Afghanistan anytime soon?
MARIAM GHANI: I spend quite a lot of time there already. I go every four months or so. I spend a chunk of time each time. And, you know, as the film project progresses, I’ll be spending more time, certainly. I don’t have plans to move there permanently, because I think the life of an artist these days is too peripatetic to ever promise to live anywhere permanently. You can have a home base, and New York is mine. But I don’t think you can ever say, “I live here,” and have it be true.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ve been speaking with Mariam Ghani, a Brooklyn-based artist. She is Afghan and American. She is based in New York but travels frequently to Afghanistan, where her family is, her father the president of Afghanistan, who she collaborates with in some of her art projects, Ashraf Ghani. That does it for our show. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.