If Hollywood ever makes a movie about Cédric Houin – and based on his exploits so far, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t – it’s certain to have one of those child-is-father-to-the-man epiphany scenes. The kind that announces to the viewer, “Destiny alert! Portent ahead!”
In Houin’s case, the scene would occur in 1983 when he’s five, an only child living in Paris. His father, Jean-François, a peripatetic hotelier, described by Houin today as “handsome, sportif, my own Crocodile Dundee,” has just returned from some foreign adventure, this time in Zambia. As Jean-François walks toward his son, the viewer notices one of his arms is crooked behind his back. Something is hidden in his fist! When Jean-François swings his arm around to open his palm to his expectant son, that something is revealed to be a large leopard tooth. At that, young Cédric’s eyes would glisten; string-laden music would swell and the leopard’s tooth would give off an almost diamond-like gleam. “Merci, Papa!” Cédric would cry. “Merci! Trés magnifique!” Shortly after, there’d be a scene of the tyke proudly wearing the tooth as the pendant of a necklace, romping with his playmates as they call out to him: “Rahouin! Rahouin!” – a riff on the name of the popular French comic-book character Rahan, a bearclaw-necklace-wearing prehistoric fighter, created in 1969, with a golden mane worthy of the Mighty Thor.
Cut to the present. Houin’s 35, movie-star handsome, with Wakhan: Another Afghanistan, “a multiplatform art-documentary project” opening today at Toronto’s Arsenal Contemporary Art. But instead of being called Rahouin, he goes by the “artist’s name” Varial, after the kick-flip he used to perform as a skateboarder. The necklace is still around but he never wears it.
Nor is he entirely sure, it seems, of the tooth’s precise location. It’s just “somewhere in a box” in his home in Montreal, a memento of “another consciousness.” If he couldn’t find it, the lapse would be understandable. Especially in the last four years, Varial has been very much the nomad, making infrequent, often rushed stops in Montreal, where he pitched up in 2001 as a finance and marketing intern, only “to improvise myself into a visual artist.”
Varial has wandered far from the realms of finance and marketing into what in the 19th century would have been called “the exotic” – those far-flung, off-the-beaten-pathway places where smartphones, iPads, even mirrors are non-existent. While he still takes the occasional advertising assignment, whatever’s earned is ploughed into personal projects and travel. Today, says Varial, “I’m putting my artistic chops at the service of the planet.” Wakhan: Another Afghanistan – an installation of photographs, videos and a luminous 76-minute film/”cinematic poem,” narration-free, that recently took best documentary honours at the Rendez-vous du cinéma québècois – is the distillation of a 24-day trek, by foot, horse and donkey, through the 300-km-long Wakhan Corridor of north-eastern Afghanistan that Varian and fellow adventurer/”cultural entrpreneur” Fabrice Nadjani made in the summer of 2011.
Sparsely populated, windy, hemmed in by mountains, road-free and nearly inaccessible, the corridor is so isolated that neither the Taliban nor the government in Kabul nor NATO forces has paid it any mind. Its 12,000 inhabitants are divided mostly between two major tribes, the Wakhis, Ismaili Muslim farmers, and the Kyrgyz, Sunni Muslim herders, each living in calm and harmony with the other, bartering goods to sustain themselves.
Varial and Nadjari were inspired to visit the Wakhan after reading an article about it in The New York Times in the fall of 2010. Giving motivated their adventure as much as taking: rather than just take photographs and footage of the scenery and the inhabitants, they hit upon the idea of bringing two Polaroid cameras and about 150 packages of compatible film with them. Whenever they encountered a willing tribesperson, they’d take his or her instant colour photograph, then, before giving the image to the subject to keep, pose him or her for another portrait, this one in black-and-white, holding the Polaroid. Varial found this “ceremony of the snapshot . . . touching and humbling. Most of the people we met had never seen an image of themselves, had not even seen mirrors in the Wakhan Corridor.”
It was, unsurprisingly, a hard trip. Living mostly on bread and tea, trundling along difficult paths 10 hours a day and longer, Varial dropped 15 kilograms. Once he and Nadjari agreed to kill a sheep “because we felt we were starving and in need for protein.” The next day, however, “we were all sick. Our bodies were not able to process the meat. So I killed an animal to take its energy – for nothing!” That realization, he says, made him a vegetarian.
Since returning, Varial has thrown himself into a variety of projects “at the service of the planet” even as he’s “personally in huge debt.” There’s been a visit to India “documenting humanitarian actions with the Dalits,” 170-million strong and the lowest-ranking members of Indian society, “the poorest of the poorest.” He’s been taking photographs and footage of the Waorani tribe in Ecuador’s Amazon rainforest, its traditional ways and land endangered by deforestation and aggressive resource development. Late last year, on assignment for Smithsonian magazine, he travelled with Vanity Fair contributor Alex Shoumatoff to Borneo to document the struggle of 500 Penan nomads against the exploitation of wood and palm-oil companies. “I’m not a war photographer,” he observes. “The only conflict I’m interested in are cultural conflicts.”
Coming up – or so Varial hopes – is a project that will see him travel down the spine of the Andes where he’ll collect stories from indigenous peoples about Pachamama, the Incan goddess/”world mother” worshipped before the Spanish conquests in the 16th century.
“Borneo, Ecuador, Afghanistan – all these trips have been extremely enlightening for me in terms of connecting to nature, of course, and living better on this planet,” Varial attests. “I’ve been through different expeirences, not only physical journeys but spiritual journeys. I’ve been through psychedelic experiences like peyote, ayahuasca, San Pedro [cactus] . . . ancient medicines that re-connect you to the cosmology, to the essence of life.” He adds: “I am far from being perfect . . . my carbon print is awful with all the planes I take every year . . . but I am trying.”
Wakhan: Another Afghanistan is at Arsenal Contemporary Art, Toronto through Aug. 15.