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Artistic attention to Afghanistan

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It’s noon at White Plaza, and students pass through on bikes, on foot or on the occasional more creative mode of transport, intensely focused on getting to their destination. Some are headed to class, some to lunch, some just lost in their own thoughts, but almost none stop to take notice of the impromptu exhibition on the lawn.

On a flimsy-looking stand hang six canvas posters and a sign proclaiming the title of the exhibition, “Windows and Mirrors.”

One poster features an Albert Camus quote, “We used to wonder where war lived, what it was that made it so vile. And now we realize that we know where it lives, that it is inside ourselves.” Another is a statistic printed against a background painting of Afghan parents and children, “At least three children were killed in war-related incidents every day in Afghanistan in 2009. When does it stop?” The remaining four works depict Afghan women, children and elements of warfare.

The exhibit, part of a traveling mural project organized by Quaker organization American Friends Service Committee, was brought to campus by student organization Stanford Says No to War, in time for this week’s 10th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. The original exhibit consists of 45 murals, uniquely designed by artists, and drawings by Afghan students. The replica version, made to travel around smaller venues, consists of reproductions of some of the murals — six of them are on display at Stanford this week.

“We are trying to get people to pause and think about the fact that the Afghanistan war has been going on for 10 years and it doesn’t make headlines everyday; but there’s still a lot of suffering going on and this reminds us of that,” Stanford Says No to War faculty advisor Todd Davies ’84 M.S., ’85 Ph.D. ’95 told The Daily.

Not many students pause, though — some stand at a distance, but curiosity is immediately replaced with reluctance when the student organizers make overtures.

“We do live in a bubble,” said Joshua Schott ’14, president of Stanford Says No to War. “Stanford students like to keep their heads in the sand on these issues –anything that is challenging the institutional framework. The number one obstacle we face is apathy; students just tune controversy out.”

The organizers believe that the format of the exhibition, displaying art in a public space, will help get students to pay attention.

“There are too many inputs for students to pay attention to anything, and a moving piece of art is a different way of explaining things,” said Eric Sabelman ’68, Ph.D ’76, former Stanford Quaker liaison.

“In a way it’s a forgotten war; there’s very little personal attachment…people tend to think that whatever is happening there is okay and we say, ‘No, it’s not; war is just as terrible for an Afghan child or mother as it is for anyone else,’” he added.

The emotions the paintings are meant to invoke are clear – one striking piece depicts an Afghan woman as a phoenix between guns emerging from behind an Afghan and an American flag. Another entitled “Mother and Son” shows a mother embracing her child.

Yet to most students who pass by, it is simply another day, another class and another paper to get through. Sabelman, however, defines the success of the exhibition simply.

“If the one rare student comes in and take on this cause, then that’s a vast success,” he said.

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Marwa Farag is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily. Previously, she was the managing editor of news, managing editor of the former features section, a features desk editor and a news writer.