Afghani women, uncovered

The Museum on the Seam’s exhibition “My Beloved Afghanistan,” (photo credit: ANJA NIEDRINGHAUS)
The Museum on the Seam’s exhibition “My Beloved Afghanistan,”
(photo credit: ANJA NIEDRINGHAUS)
Anja Niedringhaus knew she wouldn’t last long in her line of work. The German photojournalist worked for Associated Press and was a seemingly fearless front-liner who took her cameras to places where others were wary of going.
That often entailed venturing into areas where it was very risky for Westerners and, especially, for women.
Niedringhaus was the only woman on a team of 11 AP photographers that received the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography, for coverage of the Iraq War. The same year, she was awarded the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Courage in Journalism prize.
Both were richly deserved but she eventually paid the heaviest price of all. She spent several years covering life in Afghanistan before she was gunned down by an Afghan policeman while she waited in a car at a checkpoint, as part of an election press convoy.
She was killed in 2014, when she was 48 years old.
Some of her emotive and visually arresting work is currently on display at the Museum on the Seam, in an exhibition called “My Beloved Afghanistan,” curated by Berlin-based Gisela Kayser.
In fact, the exhibition name could have just as easily had the word “Women” at the end. Many of the outsized prints on the Jerusalem museum walls are of female Afghanis, who are almost always covered from head to toe. The vast majority of the vivid images reflect the repressive circumstances in which women lived, but it is not all doom and gloom. Amid the scenes that seem to convey a clear statement that women were treated as second class citizens in Afghanistan, there is the odd lighter, even comic, moment.
One particularly delightful frame features a number of burka- clad women, but one character shows her bare face to the camera, seemingly smiling mischievously at Niedringhaus’s lens. The black-burka-clothed woman covers her mouth with her hand, which is wrapped in the black cloth, as if she is stifling a laugh or, at least, a broad smile. It is as if she knows what the German wants and is happy to provide the entertaining goods.
Besides being adept at catching the action, Niedringhaus was equally good at providing a subtext. She also played the texture and color-code game to perfection. In the aforementioned shot, the women wear burkas of various shades of brown and blue, in addition to the central figure in black. To the left is another row of modestly attired women and, again, the fabrics comprise a variety of hues and patterns and, once again, one of the figures is almost completely barefaced although, judging by her facial expression, the white cloth drawn across her mouth probably did not conceal a smile. Parts of other faces are also visible, which adds to the visual tension and interest.
One of the most striking works is the one that catches your eye as soon as you enter the museum.
Niedringhaus caught a couple striding along a sandy expanse, naturally with the woman a socially-religiously acceptable step or two behind her husband.
The clothing color scheme is fetching in itself, but the photographer has also incorporated a central comic-drama element with a giant chimney in the background belching out thick black smoke between the two laterally moving figures.
When it came to putting the repressed women of Afghanistan front and center, Niedringhaus never missed a trick. She snapped the woman in blue, completely entombed in fabric with only a lace crisscrossed horizontal slit across the eyes allowing the wearer to see how she went, and the keen observer to catch a fleeting glimpse of human expression.
The German roamed around the country while the iron-fisted Taliban regime stilled ruled. In so doing, she transmits a sense of the suffering the women endured, and their constant fear and desire to shake off their shackles.
Following 9/11, an international coalition launched an offensive on the Taliban leaders and, at the end of a bloody war, the dictatorship was finally overthrown and the country started inching its way to providing equal rights for all, regardless of gender.
The aforementioned polychromic lines of burka-clad figures were, in fact, women lining up outside polling stations, to exercise their right to vote for the first time in their lives.
These pictures are starkly contrasted by a couple of pictures which show Afghani women who have now attained full and equal citizenship, and more. One is of an elected member of parliament sans head covering, while the other shows a woman who has also been elected to the Afghani national assembly, standing proudly between two armed guards. The latter are clearly not there to arrest the woman, but to escort her to her rightful place as an elected representative of her country. Of the 269 seats in the parliament, 68 are now reserved for women.
Over the last 17 years, the Museum on the Seam, which was founded by artistic director and curator Raphie Etgar in 1999, has constantly set out its stall, putting on numerous exhibitions that address issues of human rights, and looking to highlight the common bonds that exist between people of different cultures and religions, rather than the differences.
“My Beloved Afghanistan” is a worthy addition to the institution’s roster and it is hoped that it will not be one of the last shows there. The museum is strapped for cash, having lost one of its principal backers from Germany. Politics aside – if that is at all possible in this part of the world – the Museum on the Seam has maintained a commendably high level of exhibition endeavor throughout. As Etgar says: “First and foremost we set out to show quality art, and only after that convey some sort of message.”
In addition to the Niedringhaus prints, there are a couple of evocative video works by Afghani artist Lida Abdul which exude a sense of positivism. As Abdul says of her In the White House video performance in which she slowly covers the rubble of ruins in Kabul with white paint: “I wanted to make a sculpture that was as much an answer to those who see destruction as a solution to more difficult problems. At the same time, I wanted to preserve these ruins for the future. Just as ruins. Not monuments.” 
For more information about the Museum on the Seam: (02) 628-1278 and