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Art, politics and a famous Afghan father


NEW YORK » Mariam Ghani’s apartment is a map to her layered identity.

Books rise from floor to ceiling, black binders of redacted Guantanamo Bay interrogations sharing shelf space with critical theory and dozens of cookbooks. An embroidered pillow made by a collective in Aleppo, Syria, before the bullets flew, sits on a vivid blue couch that matches the rug her father bought for her in Turkmenistan.

In the kitchen of her Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, loft, she curates her collection of refrigerator magnets with such maxims as: "This is your world. Shape it or someone else will," but is embarrassed by the Mason jars of green tomatoes she pickled herself. "I’m a Brooklyn clichi," Ghani said with a pained laugh.

Hardly. In her life and her career, Ghani, 36, lives between the labels. A New York-born visual artist, she is also the daughter of Ashraf Ghani, the president of Afghanistan.

"There’s plenty of people in the art world who don’t know, which is preferable," said Ghani, whose work has appeared in the Museum of Modern Art and in the Tate Modern in London.

"She wants to be defined on her own merits," said Erin Ellen Kelly, a choreographer and Ghani’s longtime film collaborator. "She wants people to look at her work and not her relationship to her family."

Yet that connection is ever-present. Ghani’s mother, Rula, who is Lebanese, and her father, who was an anthropologist in exile from Afghanistan before turning to politics, helped shape her views of global history and memory.

"I grew up very much in between cultures, and that’s the position I work from as an artist," she said with measured inflection in English, one of seven languages she speaks.

"Being in the diaspora, but also going back and forth between countries; being in one country, but identifying emotionally with another; growing up with these wars going on in my parents’ country and never feeling completely detached from that."

She added, "I think the place I identify most with is the border."

With the opening of her new show on Thursday, "Like Water From a Stone," at the Ryan Lee Gallery in Chelsea, people will see Ghani’s overlapping worlds and get a rare glimpse of the family intellectualism.

The title piece is a 20-minute film she shot in Norway that opens with a woman lying on a jagged rock beneath a cerulean sky, the wind rippling through her black dress as it does the pools of water below. The imagery evokes Norse seafaring myths in the age before oil became an industry and the awesome power of nature.

The second piece is a collaboration with her father, "Afghanistan: a Lexicon," which was first shown at the Documenta art festival in Kassel, Germany, in 2012. The Ghanis wanted to show history in Afghanistan as a cycle of reform, revolt, collapse and recovery. Of the original lexicon’s 72 entries – with text and archival photos – 12 panels will be in the current show.

Father and daughter worked via Skype, agreeing that Mariam Ghani would have the final edits. "The tone would be in my wheelhouse: the speculative, poetic realm," she said. Her father’s contribution would be his deep and abiding knowledge of Afghanistan.

Ashraf Ghani, who met his wife at the American University of Beirut, received his doctorate at Columbia. Maram Ghani was born in New York in 1978; her brother, Tarek, three years later. They had a serene suburban Maryland childhood while Ashraf Ghani taught at Johns Hopkins University. Mariam Ghani earned degrees from New York University and the School of Visual Arts. Her father, after working at the World Bank, returned to Afghanistan in 2002, becoming a finance minister for President Hamid Karzai, running unsuccessfully for president in 2009 and then winning a disputed runoff last year.

"He is a remarkable person," Mariam Ghani said, refusing to elaborate, wary of the attention or of saying anything to compromise her father’s position. "And he’s always been a remarkable person."

Mariam Ghani’s friends and colleagues are more forthcoming about her intellect and accomplishments.

"What’s amazing is that she’s really relaxed and generous about it, in the way that she could also be elitist – but she’s not," said Chitra Ganesh, a Brooklyn-born artist and one of Mariam Ghani’s longtime collaborators.

Since 2004, Ganesh and Mariam Ghani have worked on "Index of the Disappeared," a reaction to the detention of immigrants in the United States post-9/11. Ghani defined it as "a Quixotic archive of redacted material" – transcripts of interrogations, scraps of lost identities. Some of the "Index" resides in notebooks in her apartment.

"What distinguishes Mariam’s project is her tenacity," said Ramzi Kassem, an associate professor at the City University of New York, who worked with her while representing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

"Mariam, like most of us, is many different things at once," he said. "This project, by design, is many different things over time: a video installation, archiving dimension, radio component, art installation."

Ghani’s advocacy, too, takes many forms. She writes and lectures as a member of the Gulf Labor Working Group, which protests conditions for workers building art museums in Saadiyat Island of Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. Last fall, she was part of a show of contemporary Arab-American Art in Los Angeles, "Shangri LA: Imagined Cities."

The project manager of the LA/Islam Arts Initiative, Amitis Motevalli, said she was unaware that Ghani was the daughter of the Afghan president until after the exhibition.

"Sometimes if you are part of politics, you can have a sheltered perspective, but that’s not what I see when I see her work," Motevalli said. "It speaks that she’s not necessarily using it as a way as getting forward in her career."

As the daughter of a foreign leader, Ghani insisted that her life in New York has not changed. But in Afghanistan, because of security concerns, she cannot explore as she did when she filmed in the ruins of a Kabul palace for "A Brief History of Collapses" or for "Kabul: a Reconstruction."

"I’m not really allowed to get out of the car on a public street," she said. Just as artists and women sense the promise of freedom there, hers has been restricted.

Her father appointed her mother to direct initiatives for women, children and refugees, even as her mother’s Christianity provoked criticism. Mariam Ghani, declining to identify her own religion, said she supported her mother’s work.

"I think things in Afghanistan have to change for the better for everyone in order for them to change for the better for women," Mariam Ghani said, explaining, "Women’s rights can’t be detached from human rights and economic justice and structural inequities."

Mariam Ghani taught classes in Kabul and hired female artists there to work on her sets and as research assistants. She said she planned to continue that when she returned to Afghanistan to work. She received a grant from Creative Capital to digitize and reimagine the unfinished work of Afghan state filmmakers during the Communist period, from 1978 to 1991.

Ghani is also delving into controversy closer to home. She has a teaching fellowship at Washington University in St. Louis, which happened to coincide with the Ferguson protests in October. She is now producing a short film for the Saint Louis Art Museum based, loosely, on the noir novel "The City & the City," by China Miiville.

The book is a murder mystery, featuring the citizens of neighboring cities who must, by law, "un-see" the other. Ghani said she read it as an allegory both for Serbo-Croatia and for Kabul in the 2000s, where there was one city for expatriates and one for Afghans, with different laws and access zones. St. Louis, with its racial geography, felt eerily similar. The film will open in April.

"I don’t think that works of art produce concrete change," Ghani said. "If anything, they are thin ends of a wedge where they just create a small opening in someone’s mind where something more direct and more concrete can enter in."

If she sounds like a philosopher-poet, well, she is. But Ghani is also a feminist, an archivist and an activist, as well-versed in the politics of extraordinary rendition as she is in the very Brooklyn pursuit of homemade chile-passion-fruit sorbet.

"One of the reasons I wanted to be an artist," she said, "is because I saw that by being an artist I could be so many other things as well."

And if she were not an artist? "I would be something totally different," Ghani said. "Like maybe a cryptologist."

Liz Robbins, New York Times

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