I have all the regard in the world for the professional curators in the Art in Embassies (AIE) office. They make a serious contribution to public diplomacy by, among other things, placing permanent exhibits at each of our new Fortress Embassies - of which there are 111 and counting as of this month - and, God knows, those places can use some cultural uplift.
Frankly, though, I don't think a sculpture of an albino camel gazing at a gigantic needle is the artwork we need at U.S. Embassy Islamabad. I mean, a camel? Why put out that bait for cheap jokes?
Well, it turns out that AIE didn't want the camel at first, either.
Virginia Shore, Chief Curator of AIE, was interviewed about her job by LA Contemporary and she had this to say about the Islamabad embassy project:
[Question] In war torn or "hostile" countries, have there been instances where artists need to reflect on their right to create, to see, to think, to absorb, to interpret, and to translate?
[Answer] I believe the visual arts programming is relevant in every country but can be more critical in hot-bed countries where there is unrest, instability, or conflict exists between us. The art humanizes these buildings and becomes a common denominator. Sometimes these buildings look like bunkers. The objective of the art program is to highlight the similarities as well the differences between our countries. While the art may not ultimately change the outcome, it helps on a humanitarian and emotional level. Yes, at times it can be tricky for artists from the host countries at times to work with AIE.
Recently, I have been working with Shahzia Sikander, an internationally acclaimed artist from Pakistan who is a miniaturist and video artist. Sikander lives in the US. The initial concept was for her and a classmate of hers from the National College of Arts in Lahore to collaborate on a site-specific commission for the new Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. However, the local politics in Pakistan came into play. Heated debates on her role in the history of contemporary art emerged, and a critic questioned her contributions as a leader of Pakistani art, as well as her allegiance. Ultimately, we decided that any type of collaboration would be fraught with issues and might be interpreted as having messages of propaganda. So, we are working on site-specific commissions for both artists versus a collaboration.
Well, well, well. So the politics of Pakistan made it impossible for the State Department to commission a noted Pakistani-American artist to produce a representational artwork for our embassy there. Her "allegiance" - meaning, presumably, her allegiance to Pakistan - was questioned by Pakistani critics, and her collaboration with a local artist might have been seen as propagandistic. And so, we went with the camel instead.
Too bad. If the objective of the Art in Embassies program is to "highlight the similarities as well the differences between our countries," what better way to do that than with a Pakistani-American collaboration? The camel has nothing to contribute to that objective.