The idyllic art of Bagram airbase: Edmund Clark’s Mountains of Majeed
Source:Art and design Author:Sean O'Hagan Date: 2015-02-11 Size:
Among the machinery of war at the world’s busiest airbase, Clark found a beautiful series of paintings by an Afghan artist that inspired his latest photobook...

Among the machinery of war at the world’s busiest airbase, Clark found a beautiful series of paintings by an Afghan artist that inspired his latest photobook

a meeting room at Bagram with a mural by an unknown artist from The Mountains of Majeed by Edmund Clark. Photograph: Edmund Clark/Flowers Gallery

In October 2013, Edmund Clark spent nine days at Bagram airfield – the biggest US army outpost in Afghanistan, and the busiest military airbase in the world – while Operation Enduring Freedom was drawing to a close. Some 40,000 personnel worked there, though Clark soon realised that few of them (apart from an estimated 7,000 security-cleared locals) had ever ventured beyond the perimeter walls of the 6 sq km site near Kabul. Their view of Afghanistan consisted entirely of the mountains of the Hindu Kush visible beyond the high walls, and portrayed in the murals and paintings that decorated the mess halls and meeting rooms inside the base.

The view at Bagram, from The Mountains of Majeed by Edmund Clark

 The view at Bagram, from The Mountains of Majeed by Edmund Clark. Photograph: Flowers Gallery

On his return to London, it took Clark several months of perusing his photographs to realise that mountains, both as a real, looming presence and as a romantic idyll portrayed by local artists, were, as he puts it, “the metaphor I was looking for”. The result is The Mountains of Majeed, a photobook that looks at first glance like a calendar, albeit a beautifully designed one. Ring-bound and encased in brown cardboard, its cover opens out to reveal, not a photograph, but a painting of the Hindu Kush by a local artist called Majeed. In it, all is calm: a lake in a valley gives way to fertile meadows and a snow-capped mountain that rises to a sunlit sky.

Overleaf, a Taliban poem entitled Afghanistan is the Home of Afghans summons wars and warriors past to assert the moral and physical strength of local fighters over the invading Americans: “These mountains are ours and we belong to these mounts; this is the home of the eagles. Jackals can’t hold out here ...”

Paghman, Kabul by Majeed from The Mountains of Majeed by Edmund Clark  Paghman, Kabul by Majeed from The Mountains of Majeed by Edmund Clark. Photograph: Flowers Gallery

Like that mountain-scene painting and others at the base by Majeed, the poems evoke in overtly romanticised imagery an almost mystical, prelapsarianAfghanistan before the arrival of the Americans. “We don’t see the war from the other side,” says Clark. “The fact that there is no visual representation is one of the reasons I included the poems. For me, though, it is Majeed the landscape painter who is the Afghan everyman. I know nothing about him, nor do I want to. He is a faceless man for a faceless people. That is why his paintings resonate so strongly with me, over and above their aesthetic merits. They are ideas of home and belonging, however idealised.”

Salang by Majeed, from The Mountains of Majeed by Edmund Clark.

   Salang by Majeed, from The Mountains of Majeed by Edmund Clark. Photograph: Flowers Gallery

Clark’s work of late has homed in on the landscapes of post 9/11 power. In his celebrated series Guantanamo: If the Lights Go Out, he cast a cool, detached eye on the eerily functional landscape of the American prison camp, showing clean cells, faceless yards and, in one instance, what looked like an orthopaedic chair with straps – used for force-feeding detainees. In Control Order House, published in 2013, he photographed the drab surroundings of a suburban house in England where a terrorist suspect was held without trial under the 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Act.

The Mountains of Majeed is a more metaphorical series than those, and the formal detachment of Clark’s images of Bagram – each exterior gives a glimpse of the mountains beyond – are more painterly. In one, the constructed hills of sand and rubble in the base echo the outline and muted colours of the mountain range that stretches across the frame. In another, the pale blue perimeter wall looks like a reinforced concrete version of a monolithic Richard Serra sculpture. Occasionally, one is reminded of the strict formalism of Donovan Wylie’s pictures of the Maze prison camp in Northern Ireland, but here, the eye is drawn to the exceptionally dramatic nature of this world-within-a-world. A huge American flag billows above the ceiling of the entrance to Warrior Way, where ambulances bring in the wounded. Wheeled out on a stretcher, the stars and stripes resplendent could be the last thing a critical soldier sees. Metaphors abound in this place.

At Bagram airbase from The Mountains of Majeed by Edmund Clark.

    At Bagram airbase from The Mountains of Majeed by Edmund Clark. Photograph: Flowers Gallery

Throughout, the presence of the Taliban poems and Majeed’s naive paintings – as well as the glimpses of the mountains beyond – disrupt the narrative of military dominance.

“In every war of occupation and resistance, you tend to have this huge gulf of division and ignorance between the two sides,” says Clark. “But here it is singularly extreme. If you sit in a dining hall, the murals seem almost surreal. Here you are in this huge base full of the technology and machinery of modern warfare – not just drones and missiles, but the entire infrastructure of food, water, sewage, electricity and the vast secondary army of operatives that maintain it – and outside is this vastness where villagers maintain a simple, almost unchanged way of life that will continue when the Americans are long gone. The paintings seem to be some kind of reminder of that way of life and its power to endure. But it is the mountains themselves that symbolise it more than anything else.” After all, as Clark says in his conclusion to the book, the mountains, both real and imagined, “belong to Majeed”.

Edmund Clark: The Mountains of Majeed is at Flowers Gallery, London E2 from 27 February to 4 April. The book is published by Here Press

From The Mountains of Majeed by Edmund Clark.

  From The Mountains of Majeed by Edmund Clark. Photograph: Flowers Gallery

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