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Artist as Geopolitical Barometer?

A series on the relationship between the arts and international affairs

by Alana Chloe Esposito

“Begin with art, because art tries to take us outside ourselves. It is a matter of trying to create an atmosphere and context so conversation can flow back and forth and we can be influenced by each other.” -W.E.B. DuBois, American Civil Rights Activist


Artists are known for their ability to grasp the ideas, frustrations, and desires shared by members of their society. Creatively expressing their understanding of the dominant thoughts and emotions they encounter, artists help the rest of us process what is going on around us and contribute to the public discourse.

So then, might contemporary art be able to provide political stakeholders and decision-makers valuable insights into the societies they seek to manage?

Émeric Lhuisset thinks so. Meeting in the courtyard of his alma mater, l’Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts de Paris, the 28-year old artist mused over the links between art and geopolitics:

I constantly wonder about the extent to which an artist can make an impact on wars and other important events. I like to think they can help solve conflicts, but I am not convinced. Still, art is powerful. I remember how it struck me when the UN covered the tapestry of Picasso’s Guernica at the entrance to the Security Council when Collin Powell addressed the Council seeking authorization for the United States to enter Iraq. (See Slate article).

Émeric compares himself to a journalist who tells a story through images instead of words. Through “a mixture of drawing, photography, and investigation,” he explores themes such as conflict and its representation, the boundary between real and virtual, the media, and the idea of controlling individuals. He plays with the codes of the photojournalism because the “ambiguity makes the audience reflect more deeply on what they see”.

For example, he shot the photographic seres “war pictures” (2010) in formats typically used in reporting, to communicate a sense of urgency vis-à-vis the Afghan war scene. Yet despite depicting “real” soldiers who have fought for the Afghan government in scenes resembling the ones recreated in the series, the photographs do not document an actual war. By carefully staging each scene, Émeric transforms the soldiers into an actors playing a version of themselves. Every detail -- from the lace covering on the toy kalashnikov alluding to an old Afghan tradition of decorating pistols, to the compositions that reference battle-scene paintings of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 by Eduard Detaille -- adds layers of ambiguity between real and fake. Thus, Emeric blurs the lines between reporting and art.

Like a journalist, Émeric researches and analyzes his subject’s historical background and does investigative fieldwork to inform his artwork.

Driven by a desire to “witness places where others dare not go,” such fieldwork has taken him from tribal areas of rural Pakistan, to FARC controlled zones in Colombia, where he eventually earned FARC’s trust enough for them to show him, and even allow him to photograph, their weapons stash. He has also worked in the Brazilian Amazon, Siberia, Cambodia, and Israel/Palestine.

When asked what compels him to return again and again to conflict zones or otherwise troubled areas to pursue his art, Émeric explains that as a child he loved history, geography, sports, and art. “When you mix them all together, you basically get what I do now.” For Émeric, living amidst violent conflict provides an addictive adrenaline rush that unleashes his creativity through its “simultaneous attraction and repulsion.”

Immersing himself in conflict zones also brings Émeric closer to understanding the issues at hand in a given country. Accordingly, he can avoid the common pitfall of “subconsciously looking for images and stories that reinforce preconceived notions about places like Iraq”.

For instance, Émeric spent time in Iraq in 2010 to observe the reconstruction process. There, he was struck by the diffusion of the American lifestyle that began permeating the country in aftermath of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. This observation led him to think about the consequences of American influence and spawned the photographic series “American suburb” (2010), which exploits viewers’ tendency to perceive images in the context of the familiar. A close examination of the photographs reveals that the newly constructed suburban residential enclave is located not in Texas or Arizona, as the architecture and landscaping might suggest, but within a militarily secured zone in Iraq.

Are the photographs a political statement? Émeric denies any sort of activist agenda. “Ultimately, each viewer draws what she wants from my work according to her beliefs, experience, and ‘personal mythology”.

Jean-Baptiste Chantoiseau draw the same conclusion about Émeric’s work in essay entitled Touched by the Image: Traps and Raptures in the Photographs of Émeric Lhuisset:

The works that emerge from these projects attract attention: they are conceived to emanate an immediate plastic beauty. The lights, contrast, and staging, seduce the viewer at first sight and hide the inner workings of creation that are never exhibited as such. It is therefore necessary to search, to unearth the image in order to read the layouts, rhythms, and compositions that give these works their strength and authenticity. Seduction has a price: these images charm in order to better challenge the viewer, leading him to reflect on his own place and role.

Émeric Lhuisset, American Suburb Digital photograph pasted on aluminium. 120 x 90 cm, Iraq.

Yet, even without a political agenda, Émeric perceives links between art and geopolitics. Struggling to define that relationship, he grapples with questions such as: Is it conceivable that analysis of contemporary art could shed light on the major geopolitical trends of the future? Can artists play a role as barometers in our societies? What links exist between two disciplines that are similar in certain respects, but that nevertheless seem to ignore one another?

With these questions in mind, he recently launched a collaborative project with the Afghan-American artist Aman Mojadidi, who served as director of culture and heritage at Turquoise Mountain, a non-profit cultural organization in Kabul, where Émeric completed a residency.

Émeric Lhuisset / Aman Mojadidi, «Furniture for Belligerents / Kandahar» Nomadic furniture line for belligerents (base) mountable on attack rifle AK-47 Fabric, wood, steel and paper instructions. 60 x 100 x 60 installed, 70 x 10 packaged. Kaboul (Afghanistan) / Paris (France), 2010.

The two artists created “Kandahar: Furniture for Belligerents” (2010), which encourages us to reevaluate the meaning of everyday objects. Considering that within certain contexts in Afghanistan, kalashnikovs are banal, carried around with the same indifference that Europeans confer to carrying a mobile phone, the artists thought about how to imbue them with a utility beyond their function as weapons. The result is a line of chairs named after the province of Kandahar (just like Ikea names its seating after Swedish provinces), made with technical assistance from the designer Pierre-François Dubois. “After all, Kalashnikovs are heavy and cumbersome,” explains Émeric, and “combatants in a war zone spend 97% of their time waiting around and only 3% fighting, so they need somewhere to sit”. The beauty of the design, at least in the eyes of a combatant, lies in the ease with which he can slide the kalashnikovs out of the chair to employ them on a dime as weapons.

Exhibited by Galerie Zeitgeist at Slick Art Fair in 2010, “Kandahar: Furniture for Belligerents” proved quite amusing for visitors. Yet, while Parisians might perceive irony in the installation, Émeric points out that an Afghan warlord would likely view the chair as a purely functional object. “The fact of being a combatant doesn’t negate one’s need to sit down.”

To test this hypothesis, Émeric and Aman plan to sell the chairs (weapons not included) at the Mandayi bazaar in Kabul. To Émeric’s delight, they have already piqued the interest of Kurdish-Iranian rebels, whom he encountered sitting on the ground on a recent visit to Iraq. “I’ve got a solution for you,” he told them, presenting the chair. The rebels’ reacted positively as they watched him demonstrate how to assemble it. “Thank you for thinking of us and our comfort,” they told Émeric, who had not previously considered the project from that perspective. The response struck Émeric as very human, an attribute we rarely associate with combatants, whom we often demonize or heroize.

Does Émeric ever worry about aiding and abetting one side of the conflict over the other? No. “I’m not selling weapons, but a chair. I don’t care whether it’s used by pro or anti-government combatants or by civilians.”

“Kandahar: Furniture for Belligerents” may raise more questions than it resolves regarding the connection between art and geopolitics, but it nonetheless furthers the conversation on the topic. Like all art, at best it enables viewers to derive new meaning from familiar subjects and surroundings and thus stimulates new ideas. As Émeric knows, this is precisely what we need to extract ourselves from seemingly intractable conflicts.

We are reminded by the beautiful book Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C. (Metropolitan Museum of Art) that civilizations have long been adept at recognizing and exploiting the confluence of the arts, economics, and politics. Yet, this holistic approach has fallen out of favor. Emeric’s oeuvre and philosophy reminds us that symbiotic multilateral relations exist between the arts and politics, economics, development, conflict resolution etc., and, if strengthened further, these links have great potential to contribute to problem solving on issues across the board. Perhaps in the near future cross-disciplinary exchanges, such as the dialogue Emeric advocates between policy makers, scholars, and artists, will reemerge as the norm. This alone won’t end conflict, but it might generate enough new ideas to put us on a better path.

About the author

Alana Chloe Esposito is a civil society leader with more than 12 years of combined experience in journalism, human rights advocacy, foreign policy, and the arts. She currently directs international policy and engagement for Common Ground, a Greek initiative to accelerate progress on social issues from greening the economy to reducing inequalities to safeguarding refugee rights -- through strategic cooperation.

In her previous capacity as a journalist, she wrote about art and cultural diplomacy for publications including The New York Times and served as UN correspondent for several media outlets, reporting through the lens of gender equality on topics including refugee experiences, sexual violence in conflict, and the UN's global development agenda.

She holds a B.S. in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and a M.A. in International Affairs from Sciences Po Paris and is a Senior Fellow of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute.


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