Balloon diplomacy

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Artist challenges perceptions of Afghanistan by creating a living sculpture with balloons.

Story by Brett A. Halbleib
Photos by Lorenzo Tugnoli

It was 5 a.m. on a Saturday in Afghanistan, and Yazmany Arboleda found himself in a room that was filling up quickly.

A steady stream of students and activists were arriving. They’d volunteered to help Arboleda carry out a “living sculpture” on an unlikely canvas: the streets of Kabul. Until they walked through the door, though, Arboleda wasn’t certain how many would show up. Eventually, they all did.

The room also was filling up with pink helium balloons—10,000 of them, to be exact—all tied together in large clusters and each one containing a note of warm wishes from a stranger.

But as the room grew crowded with noise, balloons and volunteers, Arboleda was struck by the presence of something else filling the space: hope. It was the very thing he wanted his balloons to spread on the streets of a city weary from war.

Kabul is the latest chapter in Arboleda’s balloon project called Monday Morning, so named for the time and day it typically occurs. The idea is to disrupt the daily grind by handing out balloons, thus creating wonderment and hope through a living sculpture. Arboleda, a 32-year-old artist based in New York, is a past Key Club International trustee and now a member of the Key Club International Alumni. He has orchestrated Monday Morning in four cities so far, with three more planned.

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“Everywhere in the world, balloons mean the same thing,” he says. “They represent celebration. They’re with us for birthdays, anniversaries, weddings. They punctuate life in a specific way.”

Balloons, however, do not typically punctuate the start of the workweek. In fact, research has shown Monday mornings often raise blood pressure and increase stress. The British Medical Journal reports a 20 percent increase in heart attacks on Mondays.

To Arboleda, whose artistic interests gravitate toward work-life connections and movement in public space, this was a blank canvas. “Wouldn’t it be interesting,” he thought, “to insert a visual celebration into the monotonous patterns of work?”

By introducing that celebratory “language” of the balloon to people getting on a bus or heading into the office, he might “shift the way people think about Monday morning.” Or perhaps shift the way people think about Kabul.

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Another image of Kabul
“People never hear anything good about Afghanistan,” says Nargis Azaryun, a 19-year-old law student and volunteer. “War, explosions, the Taliban—every time I hear news on Afghanistan, this is the only thing I see. That doesn’t represent my nation. We want to give people another image of Kabul. If we can distribute 10,000 balloons, it’s possible 10,000 other things are happening here you don’t hear about.”

The balloons help people see—or at least imagine—something bigger.

“We’re not used to seeing a grown-up holding a balloon on the way to work,” Arboleda says. But by holding the balloon and recognizing others holding the balloon, “you identify with them.”

Plus, balloons allow for anyone to engage with the project. On a deep level, “it represents belief. If you hold on to it, you’re holding on to something beyond yourself—and that is, how you see yourself in the context of a community, as a part of something bigger.”

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Even if recipients saw no deep meaning, Arboleda says they can appreciate a balloon at face value. “And they can say, ‘Once in Kabul, 10,000 pink balloons were given away, and I was there to see it.’  It’s simple yet grand, the feeling it provides for people who are a part of it.”

Arboleda injected a symbolic element into the Kabul project by seeking donors for each balloon at US$1 apiece. Each donor could write a note, which was inserted into a balloon. For example, a donor named Ryan wrote:

We all love balloons
A common bond
Connecting us
In joy.
Let us enjoy
The balloon
Together.

Arboleda limited each supporter to US$1 apiece in an effort to create equal ownership. The donations symbolized the world reaching out to Afghans. “Every balloon stood for a person who believed in the idea of art and culture in Afghanistan, not war,” Arboleda says. “Every person who held up a balloon that day was holding the hand of another human being around the world who believed in them and believed in their community.”

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Why pink?
Passing out 10,000 balloons in an organized fashion requires work. Arboleda spent six months planning the Kabul event and recruiting volunteers. He even drew storyboards of his vision.

On the morning of the event, the Afghan volunteers took turns. Starting at 6 a.m., about 50 volunteers went out each hour, passing out 1,667 balloons per shift. The rules were simple: adults only, and volunteers had to engage in conversation with balloon recipients.

Azaryun spent several days helping to train and organize volunteers. She notes that they deliberately distributed the balloons in a working-class area of town, “not the fancy area.”

When people asked about the balloons, Azaryun told them they were for “a peaceful Afghanistan” or “a better life in Afghanistan.” Or she would discuss gender equality.

“We walked out, and we challenged the image that women belong at home,” she says.

Each Monday Morning project has had its own symbolic color. Arboleda chose pink balloons for Afghanistan.

“To me it’s important to talk about gender issues and female equality in Afghanistan,” he says. He also notes the bright pink color contrasts beautifully with the dusty brown and yellow color palette of the city.

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Connecting humanity
Arboleda plans at least three more Monday Morning installments: spring 2014 in Brussels, Belgium; fall 2014 in Medellin, Colombia, where he lived for several years as a child; and 2015 in New York City, where he now resides.

He’s already orchestrated Monday Morning projects in Nairobi, Kenya; Yamaguchi, Japan; and Bangalore, India. Though the locations sound exotic, Arboleda hopes his ideas transcend geography.

“A huge part of the work I do is to connect the dots of our shared humanity and bring people together,” he says. “I love the idea that we are all bound to one another. A lot of the same things that drive other people drive us.”

People everywhere have different opinions, different religions, different skin colors, different languages, but “at the end of the day, I want to make everyone conscious of the fact we are one people.”

One people who all love balloons.


Artist credits Key Club with success

TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY PAOLA MESSANA Pe

Yazmany Arboleda credits membership in Key Club as being “a huge part of the artist I am today.”

The experiences taught him about building enthusiasm for ideas as well as how to “empower individuals not only in the U.S. but around the world. I wouldn’t be doing this if I hadn’t been involved and engaged in the Key Club experience,” he says.

Arboleda is a member of the Key Club International Alumni and holds a master’s degree in architecture from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. He’s also studied in London and Milan. He occasionally writes about art and culture for the Huffington Post, and he is the founder of the Glassless Glasses Studio in New York (www.glasslessglasses.com).

This story originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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