Looking for the Taliban
Looking for the Taliban is one of the most compelling of the paintings Dial completed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. It has a presence that materializes the confusion and danger of the period, the obfuscating smoke of rumors about weapons of mass destruction, and the bombing of people whose skin was not so different in color from Dial’s own. Its curling tendrils of smoky screen are, perhaps, the government blowing smoke so that poor people will die in wars, and the smoke in the W. E. B. Du Bois poem “The Song of the Smoke”:
I am the Smoke King
I am black!
I am swinging in the sky,
I am wringing worlds awry;
I am the thought of the throbbing mills, I am the soul of the soul-toil kills wraith of the ripple of trading rills;
Up I’m curling from the sod, I am whittling home to God;
I am the Smoke King I am black.
The work is transparent like smoke, like the smoke rushing through lower Manhattan, and like the invisible black poor. But it swarms with shades of gray, insertions of red, hidden faces, shrapnel, turmoil, and doubt. Its tempo is chaotic and irregular; its coiled wire so frenetic that some of it tumbles off the edge of the frame. It summons the smoking streets of New York and subverts their familiarity, invoking anxiety and uncertainty.
Looking for the Taliban is organized around a central male figure protruding from an abstract gray scrim of porch screen. The work may have been inspired by a much-reproduced hoax photograph that purportedly showed an image of “Satan” in the clouds as one of the hijacked jets approached the WTC. But there is something more interesting about the figure in the Dial work: it resembles the artist as much as it does any Afghan. By creating this representation, Dial introduces a second narrative of doubt into the piece. Who is looking for whom? Is this figure meant to represent Dial or/and an abettor of terrorism? And have all dark-skinned people become confused with terrorists who are now being searched out? —Amei Wallach