from UNC Asheville News Services
Skip Rohde, just returned from Afghanistan, will open an exhibition of portraits, “Faces of Afghanistan,” at the S. Tucker Cooke Gallery in UNC Asheville’s Owen Hall.
In early October, Rohde completed a year in Kandahar Province in Afghanistan, where he served as a U.S. Department of State representative in a key southern district. He often sat in on meetings between villagers and Afghan government officials, sometimes discreetly sketching the participants. Those striking portraits will be on exhibit, beginning with an opening reception from 6-8 p.m. Friday, October 26, in the gallery.
“What I was trying to get from each of these drawings,” said Rohde, “was something of the personality. Here, people tend to see the Afghans, not as individuals, but generically, as Taliban, as ignorant farmers, uneducated. But they are individuals like Americans, but with very different experiences and references. And they have these fabulous faces. So I tried to capture their individuality – what I saw in them at that moment – their emotions, feelings and thoughts.”
Rohde was able to draw in the meetings because they were held within safe, secure areas, and because he was a back-of-the room observer receiving little attention. During his last meeting, he was observed drawing by a man he calls a Taliban “facilitator” – someone who would arrange supplies or transportation for the Taliban when asked. The “facilitator” showed the drawing to another meeting participant who was the subject of the portrait, and both men laughed, enjoying the likeness.
“In the meetings, we had Taliban sympathizers, but probably not actual Taliban – everything was so murky there,” said Rohde. “But they lived in areas where the Taliban held sway. We did not control most of the district I was in. The fact that they came to the regular meetings with Afghan district government officials meant that they had the tacit approval of the Taliban. They were elders who were highly respected across the district and they could work back and forth.”
Rohde earned a degree in engineering, served many years in the Navy, and earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from UNC Asheville in 2003. He says his military and engineering background gave him the clarity of approach needed to work well with the military in Afghanistan; his fine art and humanities background gave him a sensitivity to the cultural and political complexities and ambiguities there.
Rohde says he is happy to be back in Asheville and has no plans to deploy again. He is seeking opportunities to use his professional skills and experience “to make a positive difference here.” He is also planning to set up a studio for his passionate avocation, his art. His exhibit opening, bringing together his professional experience and his artistic life, marks his reentry to stateside life.
A video interview with Skip Rohde posted by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul is online.
“Faces of Afghanistan,” and the opening reception are free and open to the public. The exhibit will be on display at Cooke Gallery 9 a.m.-6 p.m. weekdays, through November 27. For more information, visit art.unca.edu or call 828/251-6559.