Aziz Hazara, It’s Only Sound That Remains examines sound as a powerful repository for memory, recognition, and a source of critical reflection in contemporary Afghanistan. Curated by Muheb Esmat, the exhibition brings together two large-scale video installations by Hazara that highlight the sonic performativity of power and politics in the everyday. Through two distinct acoustic experiences: a mourning ritual, and Kabul’s soundscape during the most recent regime change, the works in this exhibition portray sounds as a formidable agent and medium for personal and social transformation.
In Takbir (2021), a young man slowly beats his chest while maintaining unflinching eye contact with the camera. The actor’s rhythmically repeated action resembles a mourning ritual performed in crowds during Ashura, an annual event that theatrically symbolizes the struggle against injustice. Here Hazara expands on how sound conditions and contours subjectivity. Whereas the sounds of a collective act of mourning validate certain politics, the singular act performed by an individual outside of the polis holds the possibility of presenting a counter-history. Reflected in the embodied sound of flesh beating flesh is a rumination on the body as a site of mortality, vulnerability, and agency. Besides attesting to the physical toll continuous injustice inflicts on the mourning body, Takbir also ponders how to situate the sound of mourning when there is no communal language and consensus for a loss.
Also on view, Takbir (2022) presents a nocturnal panorama of a city on the verge of tectonic change, catalyzed by the ending of the American occupation of Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban, pushing the local subjects into an interminably spectral state. The barking sounds of stray dogs roaming Kabul’s streets at night are sporadically interrupted by the sounds of military aircraft and citizens shouting “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”) from their rooftops in a proverbial call often deployed at times of distress, joy, and resistance. In this case, it was an outcry against the Taliban’s return, which was quickly co-opted into a campaign for last-minute legitimacy by the outgoing Afghan government. A grainy shot of an American surveillance balloon slowly fades into the horizon, giving way to the Taliban’s distinct sonic regime reverberating through the city. Drawing on these moments as remnants of a longer history, Hazara underscores how power and agency are alternately exercised and stripped through sound and its ability to disintegrate and reconfigure spaces.
The exhibition takes its title from the eponymous book by Asadullah Safi, تنها صداست که می ماند (It’s Only Sound That Remains), memorializing the music produced by Ahmad Zahir (1946-79), one of Afghanistan’s most celebrated pop stars. Zahir’s posthumous fame and undeniable place in public memory are linked to the weight of a social history intertwined with the sounds of his music, bestowing upon his work a cultural significance that lives beyond the span of human life. Hazara’s works expand on this expression to include the possibility of eternality in all sonic constructions, exploring sounds as more than a visceral marker of a given moment and highlighting the urgency for understanding the role of sound within the politics of power.
Aziz Hazara, It’s Only Sound That Remains is part of the newly launched Close Readings series, and is guest-curated by Muheb Esmat in conjunction with the group exhibition Always In My Heart. Close Readings presents a new commission by one under-recognized, early, or mid-career artist in Gallery One, along with an accompanying exhibition in Gallery Two that uses the central commission as a curatorial framework. This program extends our support for interdisciplinary artists by building conversations around their practices in addition to facilitating the realization of ambitious, site-specific projects. This pairing of exhibitions, guest curated by Muheb Esmat, centers the artists’ investigations of the complex and manifold matters of everyday life as experienced in their home countries. It’s Only Sound That Remains and Always In My Heart both explore the root sources and common language available for understanding the contemporary moment in its immeasurable diversity and ever-changing status.
Aziz Hazara (b.1992), lives and works between Berlin and Kabul.
Muheb Esmat is an independent curator and writer currently based in New York.