This story was corrected on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012. An explanation follows the story.
Art students in Baltimore recently rose before dawn to crowd around a computer to talk via Skype with fellow contemporary art students nine time zones away in Kabul, Afghanistan.
The two groups are working together on a joint project curated by artists Susan Main of Rockville and Rahraw Omarzad of the Center for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan in Kabul.
The collaboration, which includes some non-student artists, will result in the exhibit “Crossing the Distance,” at the VisArts center in Rockville from March 1 through March 31, with an opening reception on March 8, International Women’s Day.
“Being involved with a project like this makes waking up early to attempt a connection the most exciting thing imaginable,” says Alexander D’Agostino, a participant and graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore where Main teaches.
Main, who shares an art studio in the Gateway Arts District in Mount Rainer, is also the curator at VisArts.
“This is an amazing opportunity to share resources and extend a network of creativity that will sustain a culture and ongoing of practice for artists both in Baltimore and Kabul,” D’Agostino says via email.
The students, which include both men and women, may use a mix of media, including paint, video and cameras to develop their projects. The American and Afghan students will each work as teams, but the students can also partner as individuals with a student from the other country, Main says.
“I think it’ll be quite large,” Mains says about the pending exhibit. “I think there’ll be a lot of work.”
Omarzad, a lecturer at Kabul University, plans to discuss the cross-cultural art project and contemporary art in Afghanistan during a free talk on Friday, Nov. 16, at VisArts.
Both curators say they believe the collaboration is the first for both art schools.
“It’s an absolute first for MICA,” Main says. “Having a conversation with Afghan artists has never happened.”
Omarzad and his wife, artist Manezha Hewad, were among the founders — most of them women and with support from Germany — of the CCAA in Kabul in 2004.
The nonprofit organization, with Omarzad as director, is working to develop a contemporary art scene in the war-torn country that is focused on modern techniques and freedom of expression.
Norway has helped in the effort along with Germany. Both MICA and CEC ArtsLink based in New York, which fosters cross-cultural visual arts exchanges, contributed grants for the current student project.
“There are no galleries, no collectors, no curators,” Main says about the present situation, which is the result of a historically stifled artistic community, decades of political and military conflict and social limits on women.
In 2006, CCAA also started the affiliated Women’s Artistic Center in Kabul, which has exhibited work by young female artists who have shown their work in Kabul as well as India, Italy and Germany.
Their work is featured in a catalog called “The Beginning of the Third Artistic Changes in Afghanistan” that Omarzad expects to bring to the VisArts talk.
Now in his late 40s, Omarzad studied painting as a teenager at Kabul University where he learned techniques and how to use them to paint from photographs or implement standardized themes, including naturalistic landscapes and portraits of common people such as bread sellers, water carriers and other laborers.
After the Soviet Union moved troops into the country in 1979, artists were encouraged to also use the Soviet’s social realism style of art.
Omarzad taught art at the Faculty of Fine Arts at the university but moved to Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1993 after mujahedeen groups defeated the Soviets and were succeeded by the Taliban.
In 2000 Omarzad started an arts magazine, “Gahnam-e-Hunar,” not currently being published, about painting, music, cinema, theater, photography and calligraphy in Afghanistan.
Returning to Kabul in 2002, he found that realism, the artistic style practiced in Afghanistan for more than 60 years, was still in place.
In 2002, he and others founded the CCAA, with current Afghan president Hamid Karzai taking office in the same year.
Omarzad says media images of Afghanistan today reveal only some of what’s going on in the country.
“[They show] poverty, strife and nothing else, but there’s another side of life in Afghanistan — it’s not all negative,” Omarzad says about his country.
The art being created by the students at CCAA is a positive force, he says.
“Through contemporary art we can build a culture and environment of peace,” he says. “[There is a] need to pay attention to art … to make the society open to these values [of free expression].”
D’Agostino sees the coming exhibit as just the beginning of a continuing relationship.
“I see [“Crossing the Disance”] not as a singular exhibition but instead as a way to use this incredible tool called contemporary art to develop an ongoing dialogue with friends across the world,” he emails.
“Art no longer is, or ever really was, about decoration and vanity,” he emails. “When you really get into the project, you get to see something living and breathing.
“Art becomes a means of establishing culture and bringing progress if given the chance. It is truly a project of cyber magic.”
The story misidentified the name of the pending joint exhibit; the correct name is “Crossing the Distance.”
The story misidentified the name of a participating artist from Baltimore; his name is Alexander D’Agostino.