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Artist Mariam Ghani Tackles Afghanistan's History and Identity

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Artist Mariam Ghani creates elegant and deeply-felt pieces focusing on nation-building in the Middle East. In her latest exhibition, "Like Water From a Stone," on view at New York's Ryan Lee Gallery (February 26–April 4; 515 W 26th St.; 212-397-0742), seek out one piece in particular for a crash course in the young artist’s oeuvre.

First conceived as a 48-page book and created in collaboration her father—anthropologist Ashraf Ghani, the president of Afghanistan—Afghanistan: A Lexicon showcases the core of her work: The flow of memory, history, and national identity. Family business aside, the work is incredibly timely and resonant. With ISIS raising its caliphate across borders in Syria and Iraq, even extremists are getting into the business of nation building. And for much of the Middle East, especially Afghanistan as it emerges from a long U.S. occupation, the struggle to locate and define a nation amid violence and destruction, and sectarian, ethnic, and political divides has never been more acute. 

Afghanistan: A Lexicon locates the nation in the memories of its people. On individual panels (12 of the total 71 are on display in New York), the nation's foundational figures, places, and events are presented, tracing a cyclical history of the country through a series of destructions and rebirths that are rendered as entries in an encyclopedia, the great arbiter of capital-H History. Ghani herself is the originator, executor, and writer of prose; her father supplies the facts and interpretations, which she renders in her own voice. That transmission, from father to daughter, shows how history is made, in the artist’s view: Not by governments, institutions, or texts, but in the stories and remembrances of individuals. With themes that speak to and foreshadow current events, the panels bring the past into the present, and push us to consider whether Afghanistan's history can be separated from its present identity—whether the history of any plot of land for that matter can be outrun, overcome, or ignored. 

The overarching conclusion of Ghani’s work is deceptively simple: Nations are their history, and history endures. Buildings can be knocked down, borders redrawn, but there are no clean breaks, not really. It’s a lesson anyone trying to build nations in the region (or dismantle them) would do well to consider.

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