Library of Congress: 'Voices from Afghanistan'
The Washington Post
Thursday, March 11, 2010
It's no surprise that scrapbooking is enjoying a resurgence in the age of digital cameras, MP3 players and the e-Book. As the stuff of memory and culture becomes more ephemeral, small acts of rebellion proliferate. People cling to the tangible object, material matter that can be held in the hand, labored over and preserved.
The origins of the form predate contemporary resistance to the world of uploaded, socially networked, infinitely replicated memories, and its appeal is far deeper than mere resistance to the immateriality of modern communication. As two exhibitions now open at the Library of Congress and the Folger Shakespeare Library demonstrate, people have been dressing up the word, decorating the text and inserting indelible reminders of their corporeal existence into documents for centuries.
At the Library of Congress's "Voices From Afghanistan" exhibit, we see this history in letters written by Afghans to Radio Azadi, the Afghan outpost of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. They come from ordinary listeners for whom radio is often the only window on the larger world. They are filled with requests, for songs by beloved artists, for assistance with local problems, and sometimes, they are filled simply with gratitude and enthusiasm for Radio Azadi.
They are remarkably elaborate -- filled with drawings, decorations, floral motifs, stickers, anything that can gussy up a piece of paper -- for letters directed to something as remote and bureaucratic as a radio station, but they give a powerful sense of the immediacy of radio's role in Afghan daily life. They also borrow and elaborate on older traditional Afghan illuminated texts.
The appeal of the Library of Congress exhibition is its pairing of letters written yesterday with historic scrolls, "accordion" books that fold out into sumptuously decorated panels, as well as elaborate calligraphy and iconography from the library's Afghan holdings.
"We are seeing the continuity of tradition," says Mary-Jane Deeb, chief of the library's African and Middle Eastern Division.