Streets of Afghanistan

Artist: Shannon Galpin
Eight exhibitions in public spaces including: Istalif, Kabul, Panjshir Valley. Barbur Gardens, Kabul Zoo, Kabul, Afghanistan
Year of completion: 2011
Researcher: Gregory Door

Streets of Afghanistan is a project launched by Shannon Galpin, a prominent activist, cyclist, and women’s rights advocate who frequently works in Afghanistan. Working with photographers from the United States and abroad, Galpin, founder of the organization Mountain2Mountain, collected a series of photographs, mounted them on large-format, portable fabric, and arranged for street exhibitions of the works throughout Afghanistan.

Originally conceived as a museum gallery exhibit to raise awareness in the United States for the complex needs on the ground in Afghanistan, Streets of Afghanistan quickly morphed into a street exhibit for Afghanistan instead.

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“It’s easy to do a gallery show in Paris or London,” Galpin explained in an interview with National Geographic, after being named one of the magazine’s ten “Adventurers of the year” in 2013.“The Afghan people don’t have magazines or galleries. They don’t see the myriad of images that are taken of their country by photographers and journalists. I wanted Afghans to see their own culture, their own beauty.”

Streets of Afghanistan consisted of 32, 10-by-17-foot images that “focused on highlighting the beauty and the heartbreak of the country” in a pop-up street exhibition. Among the photographers featured were Tony Di Zinno, Beth Wald, Paula Bronstein, and Najibullah Musafer. The exhibit traveled to a wide variety of locations, both urban and rural, in Afghanistan. The photos, which are currently available in book form (a percentage of sales supports Galpin’s foundation), include portraits, street photography, and landscapes. Reproduced in large-format, the images have the undeniable authenticity and craft of the photographic tradition as a foundation.

In the context of the larger conversation about public art, social practice, placemaking, and social activism, Galpin is an interesting figure. She most commonly identifies herself as a women’s rights activist and mountain-biker; she has no formal art training, or at least none that figures in her publicity materials.

Her organization, which is closely identified with her as a personality and figurehead, focuses on projects that "center around the idea of giving a voice to women, the children, youth through education, training and art," as she told a Colorado newspaper. She has met with remarkable success, and is prominently featured in international media and possesses fundraising clout. She is responsible for an undeniable number of good works, many of them groundbreaking. For example, Galpin is instrumental in helping women in Afghanistan form that country’s first female cycling league. (Religious conservatives sanction women for riding bicycles).

At the same time, Galpin’s work raises important questions about western perspectives in eastern contexts. Her’s is a particularly western narrative of turning bad into good: Recovering from a rape as a young woman, she has devoted herself for the past five years to bettering women in Afghanistan. In many ways, her single-minded focus on Western-style empowerment of women is refreshing. But if she avoids getting bogged down in nuanced discussions of cultural relativity, she also risks missing cultural contexts that might help her better serve the people she seeks to help.

Even though Galpin doesn’t identify herself as an artist, she has served as the catalyst for the Streets of Afghanistan traveling photo exhibit in much the same way that artists with a social practice serve as curator, connector, and enabler in the public art/street interventionist realm. (Photographer Tony Di Zinno is listed as a co-author of the coffee-table book based on the photo exhibit.)

Given the fluidity of the role of artist/social practitioner, Galpin, as a non-practicing-artist, would make an interesting choice to receive a public art award. Her selection would pose further and more complicated questions about the role, definitions, and identities surrounding public art and placemaking.

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency