|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
7 - 13 March 2002
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An Afghan palimpsest in ParisAfghanistan: A Timeless History: the title of Paris's first major exhibition devoted to Afghan artifacts may a little misleading but it remains an important event, writes David Tresilian
First seen last year in Barcelona, Afghanistan, une histoire millénaire (Afghanistan: A Timeless History), an exhibition of Afghan art and artifacts from the Bronze Age onwards, is now on display at the Musée Guimet in Paris, having been opened last week by the head of the Afghan Interim Administration, Hamid Karzai, while on an official visit to France.
One of the Bamiyan Buddhas
Co-organised by the Musée Guimet and the La Caixa Foundation in Barcelona, the exhibition brings together some 250 pieces from the various civilisations, Graeco-Buddhist to Islamic, that have been based in the country, lent by institutions in Germany, the Russian Federation and the US. Some of the pieces on display have been lent by the Hirayama Foundation, a private foundation based in Japan set up to take Afghan artworks into protective custody following the looting of the Afghan Museum in Kabul in the early 1990s, while others have been lent by SPACH, the Europe-based Society for the Protection of Afghan Cultural Heritage.
However, by far the largest proportion comes from the Musée Guimet's own holdings of Afghan and South-West Asian art, testifying to the role played by French archaeologists in Afghanistan since the signing, in 1922, of an agreement giving them privileged access to the country's historical sites. But this high proportion is testimony, too, to the important curatorial role played by the Musée Guimet in conserving pre- Islamic Afghan artifacts. Thanks to this exhibition, the museum, founded in 1889 by the industrialist Paul Guimet as a showcase for Asian art and looking resplendent following its re- opening last year after a period of reconstruction, has now become, if temporarily, almost an Afghan Museum in exile.
The exhibition starts with an overview of Afghanistan's Bronze Age (Bactrian) and pre-Greek cultural heritage. Inevitably, however, attention is focused on the "Graeco-Buddhist" sculpture and artifacts for which the country has recently become well known, if only because such objects were targeted by Mullah Omar, head of the previous Taliban government in Afghanistan, as likely to incite idolatry. The largest of them, the two colossal statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan, south- west Afghanistan, dating to the 4th century AD, were destroyed as a result, along with many other smaller pieces in the Kabul Museum.
The present exhibition is an ideal opportunity to learn more about this form of art, with the display of a number of pieces -- representations of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas, the heads of warriors, monks and ascetics -- discovered during excavations of dozens of Buddhist monasteries near the village of Hadda near Jalalabad in south-eastern Afghanistan. Excavations at Hadda started in the 1920s under French direction, finds being shared between the Musée Guimet and the Afghan Museum in Kabul, with further work being carried out in the 1960s by a Japanese team and then in the 1970s under Afghan control.
The Buddhist items once held in Kabul are believed to have been either destroyed or dispersed on the international art market, while those transported back to Paris for display at the Musée Guimet have made it into the present exhibition, forming its core. Among them is the so-called Génie aux fleurs, a Hellenistic statue from Afghanistan first displayed in Paris by André Malraux, later General de Gaulle's minister of culture, in 1930. There is also a selection of works from the contemporaneous Gandhara Buddhist culture in neighbouring Pakistan, as well as copies of the Buddhist frescoes that originally decorated the niches of the colossal statues of the Buddha at Bamiyan and similar paintings from neighbouring Chinese Turkestan, reminding the visitor of the links between Afghan and regional civilisations.
Following the Arab invasions of the 7th and 8th centuries AD, Afghanistan became a part of Khurasan, a large territory administered from local capitals, such as Balkh in northern Afghanistan, and Merv and Bukhara, now in neighbouring Central-Asian republics. The exhibition includes artifacts from both before and after the invasions of the 12th century AD that brought the country under Mongol rule, also destroying the Abbasid capital of Baghdad to the west. Michael Barry of the Institut d'Etudes Iraniennes in Paris contributes a useful chapter to the exhibition catalogue on this period in Afghanistan's history, which is perhaps only sketchily known by non-specialists and then only in terms of the names of the Mongol leaders Tchenkkiz Khan (Genghis Khan) and Timour-e Lang (the Tamberlain the Great of Marlowe's play), dealing also with the establishment of Timourid civilisation at the northern Afghan city of Herat and throughout Central Asia and India in the 14th century.
Timourid rule, Barry says, meant the renewed flowering of Muslim civilisation in the region, evident in the great mosques decorated with characteristic blue tiles that mark the Central- Asian cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, as well as Herat. The Timourids were, he says, notable patrons of the arts, "the Timourid princes of Samarkand and Herat, and then their cousins in Kabul, Lahore, Agra and Delhi, being the Medicis of their cultural region ... with the last Timourid ruler, the Emperor-poet Bahadour-Shah II of Delhi, being deposed by the English in 1857." The exhibition includes a selection of paintings from this period in Afghan history.
As Jean-François Jarrige, Director of the Musée Guimet, explains in his Preface to the exhibition catalogue, the exhibition was conceived as a result of the shock felt following the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban and of news of the destruction and dispersal of counterpart holdings of Afghan art in the Kabul Museum. The exhibition's installation in Barcelona apparently started with a film loop of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, which has now disappeared, and, perhaps inevitably its focus is on pre- Islamic civilisation in Afghanistan.
Thus, despite the efforts made by contributors to the catalogue, and particularly the fascinating essay by Michael Barry, while the visitor learns a lot about the background to Afghan Graeco- Buddhism, emphasised by large pictures of Bamiyan and the use of the Génie aux fleurs in the exhibition's publicity material, coverage of the last millennium or so, in other words of Islamic civilisation in Afghanistan, might be felt to be rather sketchy.
In part this is because of the material available, as well as of the nature of the host institution, which is primarily a museum of East Asian cultures, upstairs from the Afghanistan exhibition there being the opportunity to inspect the Musée Guimet's permanent collection, in the new design by Henri Gaudin, which includes marvellous displays of South-East Asian material, particularly from Angkor in Cambodia. Yet there is still the suspicion that the exhibition might have been given the wrong title, since in fact it is less an overview of the various civilisations that have flourished in Afghanistan, in any case an overly ambitious task, and more a close inspection of one of them, that associated with the Buddhas at Bamiyan.
However, the exhibition is nevertheless a timely reminder of the cultural losses that Afghanistan, and the world, has incurred over the two decades of conflict in the country. A central section of the catalogue, entitled "Heritage Yesterday and Today," shows the extent of this damage, featuring photographs of excavations carried out by the Afghan Archaeological Institute at the Tapa-e-Shotor Buddhist monastery near Hadda between 1965 and 1978, for example, which revealed a wealth of Graeco-Buddhist statuary that has presumably now been lost. It also includes photographs of work carried out at the Hellenistic site of Ai Khanoum by a French team during the same period, together with pictures of the same site today, it having been completely destroyed in the interim.
As Pierre Cambon, Chief Curator at the Musée Guimet, writes in the catalogue that Afghanistan's geographical position has made the country "a veritable palimpsest attesting to the contacts, links, and dialogue that have marked all Eurasian history, from Acheminid expansion to the expansion of Hellenism to the frontiers of India and Central Asia, and from the success of Buddhism to the arrival of the Turks, the Ommeyyad conquest and the Mongol invasions." Thanks to the current exhibition, parts of that palimpsest at least are now clearer to read.
* Afghanistan, une histoire millénaire, 1 March -- 27 May 2001, Musée Guimet, Place d'Iéna, Paris.
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