Art and Afghanistan: Recalibrating Cultural Buffer Zones


It’s no secret that the post 9/11 war in Afghanistan is being fought on many fronts, with geo-politics, religion, human rights and culture, all standing as key factors. Yet, unsurprisingly, there are many secrets within the murky depths of this complex war, a theatre highlighted for instance by the 2010 wiki-leaks imbroglio.

 That the online world has collapsed a major buffer zone –between private and public realms— clearly marks a cultural shift in the way we translate conflict.

 But beyond this newer virtual war, how might a more deliberate cultural episode –the notion of art as a buffer zone— offer interpretations for current military action in Afghanistan?   

Contemporary war art, whether made by official war artists, soldiers, or other cultural workers, has generated levels of activity that arguably have not been seen since the Vietnam War. Within this framework Al Henderson, a former Canadian soldier turned professional artist, has created a compelling series of sculptures and drawings that provide a unique take on the war in Afghanistan.

 Entitled, Light Horse Tales, this new body of work incorporates not only his own vision on the relationship between conflict and creativity, but also a variety of narratives drawn from the accounts of colleagues that are still serving in his former unit: The South Alberta Light Horse Regiment.

In this sense, Henderson is able to integrate his own first-hand knowledge with the more recent experiences of soldiers; individuals that might otherwise not be able to visually translate their own stories.

 In terms of art history this conflates the role of the soldier artist –often a person deployed to create drawings of battle formations or sketches of occupied territory — with The Great War phenomenon of trench art. This latter aspect comprises works of craft and folk art produced by soldiers during their down time in the trenches.

 Such works were a means of easing the burden of tension and importantly, formed a legacy of creative, personalized representations of conflict quite different from the accounts that one might otherwise have to rely on i.e. official despatches or news reports.

It is important to correlate how Henderson’s art, despite the slippage of time and process, might now be argued as contemporary trench art. A key factor applying to original trench art (artefacts made during The Great War) is that soldiers would often gift their works to family, friends or regimental collections. These gestures, and objects, evolved beyond being metaphorical slow motion snap shots of extended moments in time and space, instead becoming souvenirs of travel and, implicitly, conquest and adventure. The extent of this transition is evidenced via the mass-production of replica trench art on the home front for widespread sale and collection. In other words, not only were the ensuing artefacts not all made on the front lines by serving soldiers, but so too was the buffer zone of militarized action and production of meaning circumnavigated in a number of ways. Hence, Henderson’s assertion that he sees his work as “souvenirs of the war in Afghanistan” takes on both legibility and credibility.

By working on the one hand with carved marble and cast metal, and on the other hand with computer generated drawings, Henderson has adopted both classical and contemporary methods of production. The first aspect of sculpture continues his focus from the last ten years of utilizing traditional media, albeit now more conceptually, while the newer drawings are derived from military communiqués. 

Notably, Henderson’s oeuvre to-date has predominantly involved representational public artworks, depicting aspects of local or regional history, invariably in the form of monuments. But in this new work, we find both a shift toward abstraction, and content of a much more global resonance. Taliban Head comprises a larger-than-life bronze relief, the form for which appears as a three-dimensional gesture drawing; morphing what resembles an unraveling scarf with contorted flesh. Meanwhile, Turret Girl presents a young Afghan girl –an endemic but iconic figure and placeholder for national identity— holding aloft a tank turret by the barrel; a new standard bearer presenting an open-ended “rallying point for our times.”

 Importantly, both these works stand not as monuments, but rather counter monuments to the war in Afghanistan.

Henderson’s drawings are, in style, an appropriation of a military language translation guide, with the content recalibrating stories from his Light Horse colleagues, personally recounted by individuals such as “Rob” and “Shawn.” Specifically, we find another key buffer zone that is at once deconstructed and reconstructed, via the Kwikpoint Afghanistan Visual Translator for IED Detection: a survival tool and buffer between coalition forces and their fight against insurgents’ improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Such translation guides help coalition personnel “point to pictures to communicate” with locals as an aid to the detection of IEDs. Henderson has adopted this modus operandi and implanted his own images depicting explosive real world military events in Afghanistan, as originally witnessed by Rob or Shawn.

 This recalibration evidences the idea of the souvenir, in that the events he depicts are representations of ventures from the front, mapped in a style that mirrors vernacular translation guides. But so too is it contemporary trench art, perhaps vicarious or by proxy: now identified simply as Rob’s Story or Shawn’s Story.

    Appropriately, the artist has maintained the format of the original translation guide by presenting the images from right to left thereby replicating the manner in which indigenous Afghanis would read the page. But the final artworks, instead of being sized as a fold-up pocket guide (as is the referent), are instead much larger appearing almost as digital history paintings now set in a gallery. Henderson’s means of dissemination may not share the sensational manifestation attached to the military cables leaked to Wiki-leaks, allegedly by a young American soldier; but the content and attendant gravitas is equally open for interpretation. 

Contemporary war art can take many forms that may or may not confront, overtly or covertly, the aspects outlined at the outset of this essay: geo-politics, religion, human rights and culture. But the stripping away of cultural buffer zones that stands at the heart of Henderson’s work, most certainly highlights these broader concerns for new audiences. His foray into contemporary trench art and the role of the souvenir is not only novel, but so too does it provide a prescient and emotive insight to the reality of art and Afghanistan that might otherwise remain behind the lines. 


Dick Averns is a writer and interdisciplinary artist and whose exhibitions, performances and research have been presented internationally. He was a member of the 2008-9 Canadian Forces Artists Program, deployed to the Middle East to undertake a program of photography and non-fiction writing. Recent writings appear in Diabolique (catalogue), Crossing Cultures: Conflict, Migration, Convergence (scholarly anthology) and periodicals including Canadian Art, Front, and On Site Review. Averns teaches Liberal Studies, Sculpture, Performance & Installation, and Drawing, at the Alberta College of Art + Design. 


1 Wiki-leaks is only one source of classified information –others being anonymous sources allied to conventional investigative journalism, deliberate political leaks, documentaries, and espionage— but is relevant here as a historical marker. If Canada withdraws frontline troops from Afghanistan in 2011, the soldiers’ accounts that are central to the content in Henderson’s show will be subsumed by other forms.

2 In military terms, a buffer zone is a pocket or strip of land separating parties involved in armed conflict. Such zones exist to reduce the risk of renewed military exchange. In broader cultural terms, buffer zones may take less physical forms, but serve to cleave parties and moderate exchanges of information.

3 In the 1990s Henderson saw active service in buffer zones in both Cyprus and the Balkans. 

4 Whilst in Cyprus, Henderson, who had spent time at the Alberta College of Art & Design, and other soldiers with no artistic training would make sketches of fortifications for official use. Henderson and colleagues would also make drawings and sketches for their own purposes in log books and Battalion newsletters. Light Horse Tales continues this process, albeit more vicariously and with different media.

5 Nicholas J Saunders, author of Trench Art (published by Berg, 2003), considers trench art as “any item made by soldiers, prisoners of war and civilians, from war matériel directly, or any other material, as long as it and they are associated temporarily and/or spatially with armed conflict or its consequences.” (p.11).

6 Quote from Henderson, in conversation following foundry visit, December 10, 2010.

7 Quote from Henderson, phone interview, Jan 8, 2011.

8 Historically, a monument is understood to characterize an event, place or figure of significance from the past, for the purposes of future commemoration and remembrance. The counter monument is instead placing greater stock in shifting a past position of importance into the importance of future change. For further reading see Causey, Andrew. “The Counter Monument.” Sculpture Since 1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press. P. 218-22.

9 The Afghanistan Visual Translator for IED Detection published by Kwikpoint is but one example of many such language translation guides created as aide memoires for military use in the era of insurgent warfare.

10 These accounts both relate to frontline action in Afghanistan. Rob’s story relates to events in 2006 and Shawn’s story dates from 2009.