When was the last time you found yourself in a phone booth? I don’t remember, and I bet you don’t either. These little, closet-like structures used to dot the urban landscape, providing points of tinny contact with far away people and places. The internet and cell phones have changed all that, and now the lowly phone booth is a seldom-seen and even more seldom operated relic of the analog era. But global citizen and Afghan American artist Aman Mojadidi wants you to pick up the phone right now, and reconnect with the outside world via 3 re-furbished and re-purposed phone booths installed in downtown Toledo until October 22.
Born in 1971 to a prominent Afghani family (his uncle is a former president of Afghanistan), Mojadidi grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, where he learned to navigate the psychological contradictions and similarities between his family’s traditional Afghani culture and the values of the American south. From his unique cultural vantage point, Mojadidi drew satirical comparisons between the macho culture of the Afghan mujahedeen fighters and American “gangsta” culture in staged photos such as “A Day in the Life of a Jihadi Gangster After a Long Day’s Work (2010) and made pointedly humorous artworks like his fashionable suicide vest, Conflict Chic.
The phone booths Mojadidi recently designed for Once Upon a Place move away from satire and toward a more journalistic approach to the subject of immigration. As part of his Times Square Arts residency, Mojadidi 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 researched the full variety of immigrant experience by studying census records, articles and reports on immigration and then went out into the community to contact immigrants directly in community centers, mosques and temples. There, he admits, his interest was suspect, “… there was a lot of suspicion from them, which added an extra barrier to reaching people. They wanted to know why I was collecting information on immigrants. Many people who spoke with me were illegal and stayed anonymous.” Rather than a scripted interview, Mojadidi’s methods were open-ended. He asked his subjects to tell him anything they wanted to share, such as, “why they left home… [or] why they came to NYC. Was there something unique that happened on the journey?” In the end, he collected over 70 stories of immigrants from 26 countries.
When I visited Once Upon a Place in Promenade Park recently, Mojadidi’s skill in putting together a moving collection of stories was apparent. As I listened to the interviews in the phone booth, I often couldn’t understand the language that was being spoken (I’ll admit here that my Urdu is weak). It gave me a sense, though, of how large and interconnected the world is, and amplified the emotional impact of the interviews. Whether the speaker was a young man carried over the Mexican border by his mom when he was three years old, 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 was deeply personal and unique. Or as Mojadidi said in an interview, “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. In a way, the project just cuts out the politics; the person just tells their story.”
Local arts organizartions sponsoring Once Upon a Place’s Toledo residency include Contemporary Art Toledo, River House Arts, the Arts Commission and the Toledo Museum of Art. Next, Mojadidi’s phone booths are headed for Miami, before returning home to New York. The artist told me that he is working on plans for a European variation of Once Upon a Place 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.”
When asked about his experience as a visiting artist in Toledo, Mojadidi replied, “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.”
This post is reprinted from The Toledo City Paper.