Heterogénesis - Tidskrift för Visuell Konst - Januari 2003
The poisonous gift of ‘First World’ aid after the event of terror:
Stephen Morton
University of Tampere, Finland


After the attacks on the World Trade Center of September 11, 2001, the co-operation of General Musharraf, the leader of Pakistan, in the United States war in Afghanistan led to the removal of Pakistan from the U.S. State department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism, and the resumption of IMF credit and debt relief to Pakistan. In response to this shift in geopolitical relations between Pakistan and the US after September 11 2001, Alia Hasan-Khan produced a series of small, yellow dessert boxes modelled on the food packages that were randomly dropped from US military planes flying at a high altitude over Afghanistan in October 2001. The original US food packages contained instructions in English, French and Spanish: languages which are not widely spoken or understood in Afghanistan. These US food packages also displayed a diagram of how to eat the food ration of 2200 calories contained inside the box, which included items such as peanut butter and jelly, bean salad and shortbread; all of which are unfamiliar to the majority of the Afghan people. What is more, these food packages resembled in shape and colour the small, yellow cluster bombs that were simultaneously dropped by the same US military planes over areas of Afghanistan that were already littered with around ten million unexploded land mines left over from the war with Russia. The perilous consequences of the US government’s cynical aid campaign during the attacks on Afghanistan thus prompted the US military to release a radio broadcast emphasising the difference between the food packages and the cluster bombs-

In Gift Hasan-Khan inverted the geopolitical structure of ‘First world’ aid to ‘Third world’ countries by ‘donating’ fake food packages to an American audience as part of a series of lunch time seminars, about the US response to the terrorist attacks, held in the financial district of Lower Manhattan. On the outside of each yellow dessert box was an untranslated Urdu inscription, and a diagram instructing the target-subject how to eat. Inside each box were more Urdu instructions and a fake explosive device made up of gulab jamun (a piece of dessert made with sweet curdled milk) with wire and hardware inserted inside of it. By concealing such a device within the packaging of a ‘Third world’ gift, Hasan-Khan foregrounds the paradoxical relation of violence that underwrote the gift economy of US Aid to Afghanistan in particular, and of ‘First world’ financial aid in general. Instead of providing the means for economic independence, ‘First world’ development loans to nations in the global South continue to perpetuate a relation of economic dependence on First world banks and industry-rich donor countries in the North. In the case of the US aid program during the war in Afghanistan of 2001, as Hasan-Khan powerfully demonstrates, the US military aid program did not even provide short-term relief for Afghanistan’s civilians; instead it placed their lives in further danger.

Yet Hasan-Khan’s fake devices refuse to simply represent a tragic stereotype of postcolonial subjectivity. By imitating the visual rhetoric of a terrorist attack in public spaces, Hasan-Khan constructs a carnivalesque space which encourages viewers to question the rhetoric of terrorism and its economic and geopolitical agenda. Without denying the violence of state democracies, extremist religious groups and military regimes in Pakistan, the recycled devices also encourage the viewer to think responsibly and critically about the violence which is historically embedded in the western-based discourses of universal human rights and representative democracy: discourses which are increasingly tethered to the extension of economic dependency on global financial organisations such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In doing so, Hasan-Khan refuses to simply perform the role of postcolonial-migrant-artist-as-native-informant in the United States art world.(1) Instead she articulates the global economic conditions which foreclose the perspective of many subaltern women in the global South whose debt and dependency — either directly or indirectly — sustains the resource hungry lifestyle of the North in the fabric and siting of the devices themselves.



1 In this respect, Hasan-Khan’s work might be read as a riposte to Hal Foster’s model of the ‘Artist as Ethnographer’, a model which perhaps forecloses the perspective of the native informant. By refusing to perform the role of postcolonial-migrant-artist-as-native-informant, Hasan-Khan also refuses to simply represent the (im)possible perspective of the contemporary native informant, who Gayatri Spivak identifies as ‘the poorest woman in the global South’. See Hal Foster ‘The Artist as Ethnographer’ in The Return of the Real Cambridge, Mass. MIT, 1996: pp. 171-204 and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Towards a History of the Vanishing Present Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999: 6..





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