The Mountains of Majeed
Photographs by Edmund Clark
Paintings by Majeed
Here Press 2014
There are only twelve images in Edmund Clark’s The Mountains of Majeed. Four are reproductions of paintings on the walls of the dining area at the US airbase at Bagram, in Afghanistan, and eight are photographs made by Clark at the base. The paintings, by an artist named Majeed, are majestic portrayals of the mountains and valleys of the Hindu Kush range that stands between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The mountain range appears in Clark’s photographs as well, hazy in the distance behind the concrete walls and concertina wire surrounding the military base, or painted on a security wall.
In his previous two projects (Guantanamo: If the Lights Go Out and Control Order House), Clark explored the contradictions around the idea of “home” in places that were created as a result of the exercise of political authority and force. With The Mountains of Majeed, Clark extends this study to Afghanistan, a place with a much longer history than the recent conflicts. By juxtaposing the photographs and the paintings, Clark skillfully creates a dissonance between two very different visualizations of Afghanistan.
Clark layers symbols, suggestions, and specific information in his photographs, creating complex dialogues within and between the images. A pile of rocks mimics a larger pile of gravel which echoes the range in the distance. Flags huddle close together in a conference room in front of a mural that sprawls across the wall, an endless procession of pack animals moving across, seemingly ignoring the presence of the international coalition. Clark’s mountains sometimes echo Majeed’s, as in the rosy clouds that hover over the snow-covered mountains in one of Clark’s photographs.
The Mountains of Majeed is an effective critique of the ways in which competing ideas about a place cannot be reconciled, and its tightness speaks to its efficiency. Clark’s book suggests that a foreign occupation of Afghanistan can never be successful, because foreigners will never understand what it is that Afghan insurgents are unwilling to surrender. The images in the book are complemented by three Taliban poems written in 2007 and 2008. “Afghanistan is the home of Afghans” recounts the various failed attempts to occupy Afghanistan, from Persians to British to Soviets: “The invading forces will eventually leave; this is the home of strong heroes.” Even if we know little - nothing, really - of Majeed’s politics or his feelings about the Taliban, the poems complement the Afghanistan that he painted, evoking a similarly idealized image of the place.
Clark has an uncanny talent for designing photography books that reference familiar book forms in order to augment the themes and tensions of his work. His books create sophisticated contexts through which his photographs, artifacts, and found material articulate with one another. The subject of Control Order House was an apparently ordinary suburban house, somewhere in the United Kingdom, where individuals suspected of ties to terrorism were placed under house arrest without trial. The book served as a sort of cross between a legal file and a real estate listing, speaking to the intersection of political force and material sufficiency.
The Mountains of Majeed is presented as an oversized wirebound book, like a wall calendar. Majeed’s paintings look very much like the kind of landscape painting that has long decorated calendars, and the twelve large reproductions, at 11 x 14 inches, are beautifully printed. The binding even has a small wire half-loop that conveniently allows the book to be hung on a wall.
This calendar does not, however, measure time in days, weeks and months, but constructs time as an imagined past and an imagined future book-ending the current US presence. If you do hang this book on your wall, you will only be able to see one of the images at a time, and it’s this mutual exclusivity - the difficulty of seeing Majeed’s romantic view of the mountains at the same time as the airbase occupants’ obstructed one - that Clark explores so deftly. Clark’s photographs argue that the military contractors and non-combat personnel at Bagram, most of whom do not leave the base, not only cannot understand the Afghanistan that their enemies defend, they cannot even really see it, due to the base’s walls. And yet, Majeed’s images stand before them, where they eat, a symbolic representation of an idea of Afghanistan as a homeland.
As for Majeed himself, Clark was unable to find any information about him.
Leo Hsu is a photographer, writer and photography instructor, based in Pittsburgh, PA.
Contact Leo here.
Edmund Clark’s The Mountains of Majeed is on display at Flowers Gallery, 82 Kingsland Road, London E2 8DP, from February 27 – April 4, 2015.
Photographs © Edmund Clark