When was the last time you found yourself in a phone booth? The little, closet-like structures once dotted the urban landscape, connecting us with faraway people and locations. The internet and cell phones have changed all that. Now the phone booth exists as a seldom-seen relic of the analog era.
But the Afghan-American conceptual artist Aman Mojadidi wants you to pick up the phone right now, and connect with the outside world with his installation, Once Upon A Place.
Born in 1971 to a prominent Afghani family, Mojadidi is the nephew of a former president of Afghanistan. Growing up in Jacksonville, FL, he learned to navigate the psychological contradictions and similarities between his family’s traditional Afghani culture and the values of the American South: He calls himself “Afghan by birth, redneck by the grace of God.” From his unique cultural vantage point, Mojadidi drew satirical comparisons between the macho culture of the Afghan mujahideen fighters and American “gangsta” culture, demonstrated in staged photos such as “A Day in the Life of a Jihadi Gangster After a Long Day’s Work” (2010), or through made humorous artworks like his fashionable suicide vest, “Conflict Chic 1.”
The World is Calling
The phone booths Mojadidi recently designed for Once Upon a Place move away from satire toward a more journalistic approach to the subject of immigration. As part of his Times Square Arts residency in New York, he was drawn to the phone booth as a perfect vehicle from which to tell the immigrant story.
“I learned that phone booths were being removed from the streets… the idea immediately hit me. The fact that so many people have used these booths in the past… made them a natural way to present new stories,” he said in an ArtForum interview.
In the end, though, he collected over 70 stories from immigrants of 26 countries.
Unique Stories of
Mojadidi’s skill in putting together a moving collection of stories was apparent. While the language may be difficult to understand, listening to the interviews in the phone booth provides a sense of how large and interconnected the world is, amplifying the emotional impact.
Whether the speaker is a young man carried over the Mexican border by his mom when he was 3, or a man from Yemen whose attitude about politics was completely changed by 9/11, or a Puerto Rican woman who came to New York to make a change in her life, each story is deeply personal and unique.
“Picking up that phone and listening to someone’s voice is an intimate experience; it’s different from hearing someone’s story on the news or through some other medium,” Mojadidi said. “In a way, the project just cuts out the politics; the person just tells their story.”
After their “residency” in Toledo, Mojadidi’s phone booths are headed for Miami, before returning home to New York. He’s working on plans for a European variation for Paris and beyond. He also plans to begin “working on a commissioned project related to notions of home within the context of conflict at the Imperial War Museum in London early in 2018.”
Reflecting on his experience as a visiting artist in Toledo, Mojadidi said, “I was very touched by the warmth and enthusiasm of folks… both those who helped bring Once Upon a Place there, and … the engagement of students during talks I gave at different universities.”