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Rock Star 'Trashes' The Afghan Art Scene

  • Frud Bezhan

"I was trying to show that with a little creativity you can give meaning to things that you would normally throw away," Masoud Hasan Zada says of his art, which incorporates ordinary objects such as these dolls.

"I was trying to show that with a little creativity you can give meaning to things that you would normally throw away," Masoud Hasan Zada says of his art, which incorporates ordinary objects such as these dolls.

Disfigured dolls. Toilet-paper rolls. Old toy guns.

Most people would look at such items and see trash. Not Masoud Hasan Zada. He sees art.

The 31-year-old's unusual artworks are applauded by some and scorned by others in one of the world's most conservative and deeply religious countries.

Zada's "Memory Box" exhibition, on view this month at the French Cultural Center in Kabul, marks his debut on the country's art scene.

Best known in Afghanistan for his rock music and poetry, Zada says he hopes his show will elevate the low standing of art in the country and introduce an art form that can be appreciated by everyone.

Based in Kabul, Zada takes his trash seriously, calling his works a blunt criticism of the slow pace of progress in Afghanistan since the ouster of the extremist Taliban regime in late 2001.

'Very Worrying'

Zada says the culture of guns, violence, and intolerance that dominated Taliban rule continues to shape Afghan society today. As evidence, he points to the number of women still wearing burqas, the widespread obsession with weapons, and the ignorance and intolerance that pervades society.

Masoud Hasan Zada

Masoud Hasan Zada

"I'm critical of the current situation," he says. "I think that despite all the progress we have made and the positives compared to the Taliban period, we have inherited many problems. The current politics in Afghanistan is very worrying."

For Zada, using discarded objects like broken dolls, old newspapers, and toy guns has become key to conveying his message. He says trash art employs tools that are simple and recognizable to people from all walks of life, something that other art forms lack.

"I was using things close to my hands. Two things are prominent in my work and they're newspaper propaganda and guns. They have been things that have, unfortunately, been integral to Afghan life," Zada says. "I was trying to show that with a little creativity you can give meaning to things that you would normally throw away. These tools express something that other forms of art perhaps can't."

Talking About Art

Zada, who is self-taught, says he has received mixed responses from his audiences, with some left in shock and others applauding his innovation. The most important thing, he says, is that he has Afghans talking about art.

Zada says his most important accomplishment is that he has Afghans talking about art.

Zada says his most important accomplishment is that he has Afghans talking about art.

"Some of the feedback I have received regarding the exhibition is in the form of questions," he says. "For example, people have asked me why I use trash in my art. Others question the meaning of art within the context of the current political situation in Afghanistan. I'm pleased because instead of receiving unnecessary praise, I'm being questioned."

Zada is no stranger to Afghan counterculture. He is the lead singer of the rock band Murcha, or Ants. In an ironic twist, he says his interest in art began as a teenager during the rule of the Taliban, which banned all forms of art, music, and entertainment.

He says art gave him an opportunity to express himself and find a release in a society based on conformity to strict religious values.

Zada says he began writing song lyrics and playing the guitar in secret during his teenage years. Benefiting from his home in western Afghanistan, he crossed the border into neighboring Iran to attend art and music classes.

'Government Has Done Nothing'

After the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, he entered university and majored in music and literature. During that time, Zada also began taking afternoon classes in one of the few art schools in Kabul.
Visitors view Zada's "Memory Box" exhibition at the French Cultural Center in Kabul.

Visitors view Zada's "Memory Box" exhibition at the French Cultural Center in Kabul.


His big breakthrough came last year when the French Cultural Center in Kabul came across his work and asked him to exhibit.

Although Zada is proud of his achievement, he says he and other Afghan artists face many challenges. He lists the lack of government funding as one of the biggest issues facing artists and says the government must do more to develop homegrown culture and art.

"There are a lot of problems. As a person who has worked the art and culture scene, I can confidently say that in the last 10 years the government has done nothing for culture and art," he says. "Any achievements have been due to private individuals."

Zada is now hoping to take his work on tour. He says that through his art, music, and writing he hopes to enlighten and provide inspiration to the people of Afghanistan.
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan covers Afghanistan and the broader South Asia and Middle East region. Send story tips to bezhanf@rferl.org. 

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