Disavowals or Cancelled Confessions (from The Bacha Posh Project)
Silver gelatin prints on baryta paper, five frames, each 60x40 cm, 2016.
In “The Bacha Posh Project” I’m trying to organize, categorize and arrange the work of Aziza Mehran Ahmad, who grow up as a bacha posh and documented a community of genderqueer people in Afghanistan. Ahmad’s work sheds light on a main figure of early modern drag and by that forces us to think about drag and war through one dimension that was overlooked until today – that of the historical avant-garde.
Where does Ahmad’s archive come from? It is almost impossible to travel to Afghanistan. While writing this article I am facing news about a bomb attack in Kabul, which caused more than 60 deaths. Activist are warning that Afghanistan is not a safe country, but still deportations are taking place, many of those deported being queer people. Instead of reasearching in the country itself I have to rely on bits and pieces of information, some of them come through friends and colleagues who made their way to Europe, some of them reach me through social media. It is thus difficult to say anything relyable about the work of Ahmad, his photographs appeared only as negatives, carried from one country to another for many years.
Ahmad had an interest in an artist who was active during the war. Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, the artist duo, were active in the resistence against the Nazis in the second world war. At this time there was no war in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was not taking part neither in the first world war nor in the second. So what was the reason for Ahmad to reinterpret Claude Cahun before anyone else did? And why this connection? Is this something that has to do with the history of British influence in the region? Cahun was french but lived for a long time in London. And the work itself was adopted and interpreted within British art production. Should we also rethink this relation as a Jewish and Muslim connection, although both artist would never claim any belonging to religion?
For Ahmad, what Cahun does is not just drag. He relates it rather to the practice of bacha posh, Afghan girls who grow up as boys. Actually it would be fitting to rethink the present day status of Queerness from this perspective and maybe to understand that queerness is much more an instrument to write history than a particular way of renaming or revaluating. Because what has become known as drag is in fact also bacha posh, which literally means "dressed as a boy", only in a different time and space.
The history of queer names and authorship is very complex. Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, who were artists and partners all their life, are in fact together responsible for the creation of surrealist self portraits - not just Claude Cahun (or better to say Lucy Schwob) alone! And indeed we can find a double figure in Ahmad's practice, as if two bodies were carrying the same name. But Aziza Mehran Ahmad could also be a collective name, hiding behind one identity. It seems that it was important for Ahmad to point at a community of bacha posh. In his diaries we can find this short text, where he doesn't mention Claude Cahun but he gives account of his own research practice regarding Afghan society. So he says:
„In the beginning my only information about the cultural practice of dressing girls as boys was my own experience. Trying to find others turned out to be an unimaginably difficult project, as many Afghans thought that was importing a European practice. Accidentally, I heard about a woman who lived as a man. He had refused to give up his boyhood, like I did. And he was willing to meet me. A whole community of bacha posh appeared around him. My later work was based on all those bacha posh whom I decided to embody by myself for the creation of the archive.“