who: Skip Rohde
what: Faces of Afghanistan exhibit
where: S. Tucker Cooke Gallery
when: Through Nov. 27.
Gallery talk on Thursday, Nov. 15.
“I start with the eyes, and get the eyes down first, and then I build out from that,” says Skip Rohde, describing the technique he used to create the 47 portraits in his current exhibit, Faces of Afghanistan. The stark drawings humanize the abstract terms of war — army, insurgency, civilian, survivor, casualty — with the human face.
The show is on display through Nov. 27 at UNC-Asheville's S. Tucker Cooke Gallery. (Rohde earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art from UNCA in 2003.)
The drawings are selected from work Rohde completed during a yearlong assignment with the U.S. State Department in the Kandahar province of southern Afghanistan. “I was there to work on governance issues, to help them learn how to manage their district, run their own affairs, try to help them cut down on corruption,” says Rohde, who previously completed a similar assignment in Iraq.
Rohde encountered most of his subjects at large meetings called shuras, which were attended by a variety of public figures, from elected officials to bazaar owners.
“We see all kinds of people in these meetings,” Rohde says. “They were usually in a large conference room with a long table down the middle of it, and the Afghans would be sitting at the table.
“If somebody caught my eye, and the light was such that I had a pretty good view of the guy, and he wasn’t likely to move much over the next 10 minutes or so, the pen would start moving,” he says.
The result is a sprawling catalog of faces and figures that Rohde likens to photographs. “These are sketches,” he points out, “so they’re kind of like snapshots in graphite, ballpoint, pen and ink and whatever else I had handy.”
“I didn’t want to take my painting stuff over there,” he continues, noting that painting is still his primary medium. “I wanted to be able to keep it low-key. I like drawing these guys when they don’t know I’m drawing them. You can’t do that when you set up a French easel and turpentine.”
An artist since childhood, Rohde earned a master’s in business administration during his 22-year service in the Navy. Now 59, he says the new body of work is an extension of a theme he has studied for years: the consequences of war.
“Not the actual combat,” he says. “I have not actually been shot at. I’ve never been in a convoy that hit an IED. Because of that, you will not see in any of my works any actual shooting. But I do draw and paint the effects.”
Rohde’s artistic perspective is influenced by both his military service and his fine-arts education at UNCA, and his work in war zones has informed his imagery. “You can’t draw or paint something you don’t know anything about,” he says. At the same time, he often disagrees with some aspects of the military’s fundamental perspective.
“The military is looking for people who can solve problems,” Rohde says. “What UNCA helped me do was see holistically, not just problems to be solved.”
“My time in the Navy taught me to be very clear, concise and to the fact,” Rohde remembers. “Which is not what an artist does. Artists look for ambiguity.”
“Afghanistan,” he adds, “is one big ambiguity.”
So who are the people in Rohde's clear, concise drawings? He likens many of his subjects to TV mob boss Tony Soprano. The difference, he says, is that the Afghans in his pictures are motivated not by power and dominance, but by survival.
“These guys have lived through 30 years of this stuff,” he says. “They had been Mujahideen, they’d been Afghan Army, they’d been victims, a lot of them had killed people. And so I tried to get some of that experience in their faces.”
Rohde says we won’t know for another five to 10 years if the U.S. presence in Afghanistan will help the fractured nation.
“I can tell you that the surge has worked,” he adds, referring to the sharp rise in troop levels that began three years ago and is now winding down. “The surge was our final attempt to get things right. Is it too late? Maybe. Quite probably. But we now have given them a better shot of fixing their own affairs. They have to take it.”
In the ambiguity of Rohde’s experience, the visceral loss of war is certain.
“I’ve seen the personal side of the cost,” he says. “We had what they call 'ramp ceremonies' several times a week, where you take your fallen soldiers and load them on the plane to send them home. That’s a very heartrending thing to do. And it reminds you of the cost. It’s not just money.”
Max Cooper can be reached at email@example.com.