Al-Ahram Weekly Online
20 - 26 December 2001
Issue No.565
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Suffer the people

By Nigel Ryan

Nigel Ryan August in Yerevan: it may not have quite the same recognition value as April in Paris, but in the 21st century that is, perhaps, no bad thing. Familiarity, if it doesn't quite breed contempt -- all too often people really are fondest of the things they think they know -- certainly renders any accrued cachet a bit threadbare: Paris, after all, is just Paris, and any number of your acquaintances will have stories to tell about the place. But Yerevan? Unless you move in Armenian circles, chances are you won't know where it is.

Yerevan is the capital of what used to be the Soviet Republic of... and is now Armenia. It is not unique among capital cities in lacking 24 hour running water. It also lacked a regular supply of electricity until the government reopened a ramshackle nuclear power station the safety of which raises a few too many eyebrows for comfort. But neither a regular supply water, nor of electricity, is an essential adornment for a capital city. More important are lots of large, expensive foreign cars sweeping down the streets with windows tinted so dark as to be opaque, and at least one luxury hotel possessed of its own generator and with rooms costing the equivalent of two months average salary per night. But more important still, perhaps, is the presence of a complex of national museums, not least the national gallery of art.

In Yerevan, the National Gallery of Art occupies the main square, a vast, ceremonial space that used to be dominated by a statue of Lenin and is now dominated by a huge, neon cross. It is a remarkably well-maintained piece of civic architecture in a city experiencing problems providing its citizens with an adequate supply of water, and is diagonally opposite the vast Armenia hotel, which is currently being upgraded -- a project financed, in part, by the World Bank -- no doubt so it can charge two month's salary for a night's stay. Having found myself in Yerevan, during August, it -- the gallery, not the hotel -- provided a perfect escape from the midday heat of the city's streets.

There are several floors of galleries, and an eclectic selection of paintings: in good old Soviet style the best known names of early modernism, of late 19th and early 20th century European art, are juxtaposed with vast canvases by artists whose names are not only unfamiliar but often unpronounceable. The strangest thing about the collection, though, was the presence of room after room of enormous seascapes.

Gallery after gallery consists of little else. And they are vast: several square metres of turbulent seas, with brave wooden ships, three masted vessels with acres of billowing sails, tossed between gigantic waves. Always they are stormy, often they are night scenes, the waves described in dramatic chiaroscuro as lightening streaks across the skies. Who commissioned, who bought such enormous, forbiddingly framed canvases, is a mystery, though hopefully, at some point in the not too distant future, a catalogue will be produced furnishing the provenance of at least some of the collection. Strolling through the galleries, though, one might easily imagine that the raft of the Medusa has spent an eternity being dashed against the Armenian coast, and torn to pieces against the rocks. Only, of course, Armenia has no coast. Even during the period of its greatest extent, Armenia was a landlocked country. All these crashing waves, these acres of seascape: it is wish-fulfilment as shipwreck.

Kabul, of course, has rather fewer adornments than Yerevan: fewer now, probably, after weeks and weeks of American bombing, after decades of civil war, than at any time in the previous century. Yet still it has the Kabul National Gallery of Art. I know this because, in the rush to fill the War on Terrorism pages that have become such a feature of the international press, journalists have begun to concentrate on the footnotes of the military campaign. The battles, as far as Afghanistan is concerned, may now be over, though given the Northern Alliance's record of violent factionalism, that is unlikely to be the case for any length of time. Enough time, though, to allow a breathing space, and for journalists to focus on the historical footnotes: those real people who seldom get a look in as the war is raging, though they are always its victims.

One such person, Mohamed Yussef Asefi, had taken it upon himself to save the contents of the Afghanistan's National Gallery of Art, discovering, along the way, that he had a remarkable talent for faking parts of paintings. On the pretext that he was restoring canvasses, he would take them to his workshop and spend hours painting out anything that the Taliban might object to, which in practice meant camouflaging people and animals -- the depiction of living things being, the Taliban had decreed, unIslamic. By October last year, and the issuing of a decree by the Taliban's spiritual leader that all representations of living things should be destroyed, the situation had become critical. Fortunately, by then, the National Gallery's collection, thanks to the endeavours of Yusef Asefi, consisted of little other than bucolic, unpeopled landscapes. Cows had been turned into foliage, human figures into trees. In one painting women selling flowers were converted into giant flower pots. Asefi's technique was to paint over the oils in watercolour, which he is currently in the process of wiping away, to reveal the subjects beneath.

It is a striking image, this wiping away. Of course the vast painted pastorals that seem to have filled the gallery could not be further removed from the photographs of blasted landscapes with which we have become familiar over the past months: these pastorals are as much wish-fulfilment as the seascapes of Yerevan, and may well serve a similar purpose: there are elements of the pre-lapsarian to which we still hold, despite ourselves, and the things we know. Poussin spent an entire career attempting to convey the immediacy of human suffering within the conventions of 17th century classicism: not for him the Romantic pantheism that apparently made up the bulk of Kabul's collection. And he knew, this exemplary landscapist, more than most that any painting, even of, especially of, Arcadia, is worthless unless peopled: no one, I imagine, would have more heartily approved Mohamed Yussef Asefi's simple gestures.

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