Amid Kabul’s frantic evacuation, U.S. Embassy art is quietly shipped home
During the last two weeks of August, as the Taliban recaptured Afghanistan and moved closer to the capital, Kabul, the U.S. military rushed to evacuate troops, U.S. citizens and Afghans who had served as ‘interpreters for battalions and civilian contractors. US Embassy staff were quickly moved to makeshift but secure facilities at Hamid Karzai International Airport, and more than 125,000 people were airlifted at the end of the month. However, many have been left behind, raising ongoing concerns for the US State Department and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who has been toasted by House and Senate committees over the chaotic evacuation.
One issue that was sorted out in advance, however, was the removal of a large art collection from the U.S. Embassy. According to a State Department spokesperson: “We have confirmed that works of art were packed and shipped before the embassy’s operations moved to Kabul airport. These items have arrived in the United States and are under review and inventory. The exact number of works has not been revealed, but the paintings, photographs, sculptures and drawings in the collection were all purchased by the US State Department as part of the agency’s Art in Embassies program.
Works by more than a dozen artists have been installed at the Kabul embassy, and many have expressed concern The arts journal on the fate of their art if the building was taken over by the Taliban, although all placed the need to protect human lives above their works. State Department personnel had been asked to destroy all documents and materials left behind that could be used in propaganda by the extremist organization, such as flags or pictures of American leaders.
New York artist Pat Lipsky, whose oil and acrylic paintings Builder (1999) was purchased by the State Department in 2015, says she was concerned “that the Taliban would walk into this room and see this abstract painting, then destroy it.” Lipsky and Camille Benton, the curator of the Art in Embassies program, had exchanged emails in previous weeks, with Benton noting the government was more worried about getting people out of Afghanistan, and she told the artist that she would be in touch when she had more information to share. “Of course, evacuating people is hugely more important,” Lipsky says.
“Human life is the top priority,” said Toronto artist Erica Gajewski, whose three animal drawings were acquired by the State Department for the site in 2017. “I hope to see them again one day. “
Los Angeles-based textile artist Lisa Anne Auerbach had a carpet installed in the embassy she produced during a group visit to Afghanistan in 2014, while New York artist Judy Pfaff New morning (2009), had been purchased by the State Department through its Ameringer McEnery Yohe gallery (now Miles McEnergy Gallery) in 2014. But Pfaff “was not even aware that the work was in Kabul,” according to its administrator. by studio Edward Stapley- Brun. And Berkeley, Calif. Based artist Peter Wegner had three works of bright alkyd enamel on panels on display, Color wheel 3, Color wheel 4 and Color wheel 6 (all in 2015). “I’m not worried that the Taliban will destroy my paintings, I am afraid that they will destroy Afghanistan,” Wegner says.
These structures were all specifically acquired for the Kabul Embassy, built in 2013, to replace a less well-fortified embassy that had been repeatedly attacked by the Taliban and other insurgent groups. The new building, which occupies a 15-acre site two miles from downtown, cost more than $ 800 million and includes a dozen different structures (including offices, a residential complex, security guard quarters marine, warehouse and water and sewerage treatment plants). The typical arts budget for such large-scale investment projects, such as building a new embassy, is 0.5 percent of construction costs, although the State Department has not confirmed how many money was spent on art acquisitions for the embassy in Kabul.
For most of the 50-year history of the Art in Embassies program, works have been borrowed directly from artists or through their galleries for exhibitions that last for several years at most. Artists are encouraged to submit images for possible loan through the State Department’s website, and the program even rents a booth at the College Art Association’s annual conference to spread the word. But in 2005, the program also started purchasing coins for its collection. Approximately 10,000 works are in the custody of the program at any one time.
The Art in Embassies agency is relatively small, with a budget of $ 1.8 million and a staff of a director, three full-time clerks, a few administrative staff and six full-time curators, whose work is to provide work and organize exhibitions in some 200 US embassies around the world.
To assemble an Embassy collection, curators present an array of examples from a variety of artists on a particular theme – for example, women or Latino artists or those whose work has been influenced by a certain culture, or artists from the Ambassador’s home state – and the Ambassador makes a final selection. Cultural sensitivity is important, because art that fits perfectly in an American art gallery can break cultural taboos in other countries. Nudes are not permitted in the Middle East, for example, and a painting with a depiction of the head of Buddha was not permitted in India, as the Buddha must always be depicted with a full body.
The Kabul Embassy also included a work by an Afghan artist, a large-scale, wind-powered object that can find and detonate unexploded landmines, by Massoud Hassani. The work was also acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York for its design collection.