Afghan heritage is back from the brink


Like many exhibitions, “Afghanistan: A Timeless History” tells a story. It’s not the story of Afghan art, though; nor, despite its title, the story of Afghanistan itself — a country whose millennia of strife are expressed in every artifact now on display at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music.

No, the exhibition tells the story of humankind’s love-hate relationship with art: in particular, it sheds light on the impulses to acquire, preserve or destroy artworks.

The appropriation of one country’s cultural heritage by another often accompanies the desire — or the act — of appropriating its territory, too. Throughout history, “conoisseurship” has gone hand-in-hand with colonialism and conquest. Greece disputes to this day the 1801-03 purchase by British collector Lord Elgin of marble sculptures from the Athenian Parthenon. Elgin bought the marbles from Greece’s then-rulers, the Turks. Similarly, Old Master canvases from European collections seized by the Nazis in World War II are still lost, and many are presumed destroyed.

Not all such acquisition is illicit, though “legitimate” procurements have often — in retrospect — been unevenly weighted in favor of the external experts-turned-collectors. One such arrangement was concluded between France and the then king of Afghanistan in 1922. That year, the Delegation Archeologique Francaise en Afghanistan began to excavate a site near Kabul and the digs yielded what is now known as the Treasure of Begram. Around the same time excavations began of Buddhist monasteries near the village of Hadda, close to Jalalabad in southeastern Afghanistan.

Findings from the digs were divided between the Afghan Museum in Kabul and the Musee Guimet in Paris. They include examples of Afghanistan’s distinctive “Graeco-Buddhist” art, born from a synthesis of Buddhist Indian culture and Greek influences ascendant during the 330-327 B.C. reign of Alexander the Great. The hellenic-style Buddhist works produced in Afghanistan from the fourth century B.C. onward are unique among the world’s Buddhist art.

Afghanistan paid a high price for France’s expertise. Yet however we judge the colonial presumption of the French (and other European nations were just as bad) recent events have given us reason to be grateful that so much of Afghanistan’s treasure was removed from the country.

The Afghan Museum in Kabul lies in ruins. Its collection was systematically plundered and destroyed for more than three decades: bombed during the Soviet invasion of 1979, looted and sold to foreign collectors during the conflict that followed, and destroyed on the orders of Afghanistan’s former rulers, the Taliban, on the grounds that pre-Islamic art was idolatrous.

Today, less than 20 percent of the 100,000-odd pieces once housed by the Afghan Museum remain in Kabul. The works held by the Musee Guimet are the survivors of Afghanistan’s ransacked heritage. Among them are pieces from Begram and Hadda, which form the backbone of the current exhibition. Also shown here are many beautiful prehistoric items. Some are figurative pieces, such as rounded stone figurines of goddesses, others are exquisite examples of early decorative metalwork.

Before coming to Tokyo, the exhibition showed in Barcelona from Oct. 22, 2001 and at the Guimet itself to May 27 this year.

It was created in little more than six months — effectively thrown together, given its scope and the value of its exhibits — in response to the declaration of Taliban leader Mullah Omar on Feb. 26, 2001, that the giant cliff carvings of Buddha at Bamiyan would be destroyed, along with smaller pieces remaining in the Kabul museum. By the time the exhibition opened in Spain, the Bamiyan buddhas were already lost — dynamited before TV cameras in explosions broadcast to shocked viewers around the world.

In Barcelona, visitors to the exhibition were greeted by a continuous video loop of the destruction of Bamiyan. A year and a half on, much has changed. A video still plays in this Tokyo installation, but it is much longer, a compilation of upbeat recent news footage from Afghanistan: a classroom of smiling schoolgirls hold up their textbooks (education of females was outlawed under the Taliban), a toothless street vendor displays heaps of steaming flatbread, a man guides his donkey cart through the chaotic traffic of Kabul.

The exhibits, too, give cause for optimism. Those who planned the Barcelona display did not know whether the largely French-owned works it showed might one day be all that remained of Afghanistan’s Graeco-Buddhist heritage.

Here in Tokyo, however, are pieces formerly listed by UNESCO as being at risk that have nonetheless survived and resurfaced. Prime among them is the “Left Foot of Zeus,” part of a monumental third-century B.C. hellenic sculpture, superbly detailed.

The foot of Zeus is shown here thanks to a UNESCO-endorsed Japanese body, the Hirayama Foundation for Cultural Heritage.

The ground-floor room of the current exhibition is devoted to other items collected by the foundation. Its rescue work was facilitated, in part, by the fact that Japan is a major destination for artworks from Afghanistan — both works that enter the market legitimately, and those smuggled out via Pakistan. Afghan Gandhara art, a Graeco-Roman style that developed in northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan between the first century B.C. and the sevent century A.D., has long been prized by Japanese collectors.

As with France’s appropriation of items from those early joint digs, Japan is a conserver of Afghan art for less-than-ideal reasons. The country has yet to sign the 1970 UNESCO Agreement on the Illicit Traffic of Cultural Objects (although in June the government finally announced its intention to ratify the agreement), meaning that if a buyer “unknowingly” acquires a stolen artwork in Japan, he or she can keep it even if the item’s illegal provenance is subsequently discovered.

Reputable collectors, however, refuse to touch items without authenticated provenance — pieces that are not fakes, but which have been removed from their source without authorization. In the case of the Afghan Museum, many artworks smuggled out of the country in the flood of illicit exports which began with the U.S. bombardment of Kabul in October 2001, have since been returned to the care of reputable institutions, having proved unsaleable on the open market. The Musee Guimet is currently hosting some such pieces, acquired in Pakistan by a nongovernmental organization; others are in a small temporary museum in Basel, Switzerland; and some are in the care of the Hirayama Foundation. Many will eventually return to the Afghan Musem.

Under the direction of Ikuo Hirayama, Japan’s first UNESCO goodwill ambassador, the Japanese foundation has acquired some impressive pieces. Notable among them are a number of small third- and fourth-century friezes of the Buddha, often lavishly ornamented. One shows the birth of Prince Siddhartha from his mother’s side, and is striking for its graceful figures and mixture of styles — an attendant figure on the left has almost Mongolian features, one on the right wears a Roman toga. The provenance of this piece is uncertain — it’s perhaps from the Afghan Museum. Another — showing the Buddha seated and surrounded by masterfully expressive, listening figures — is known to have come from Kabul.

These items are intact, but most of what’s on show is maimed art. There are tatters of frescos rescued from the caves of Bamiyan, cut away from the walls around the mighty Buddha statues at some unknown point before their destruction. These glow with delicate colors, reds and translucent blues, but are in such bad condition that the bodhisattvas they depict are almost unrecognizable (on many the face is gouged out). Two display cases hold only statuary heads — some intricately detailed, others showing cruder, freestyle carving; some Grecian in appearance, others central Asian, others again bearing characteristics of Far Eastern Buddhist art.

In the upper gallery, containing the works which traveled from the European shows, the story is the same: cases of heads; one monumental hand from a fourth- to fifth-century Bamiyan Buddha; a torso, the arms lost but delicate fingers remaining, clasped over a toga-draped chest.

So extensive is the damage that any near-intact figure draws wonderment — and regret for what is lost. One such piece is the centerpiece of this exhibition, the celebrated “Genie aux fleurs.” This radiant stucco image of a young man was acquired by Andre Malraux, then the French Culture Minister, on a visit to Afghanistan in 1930. Malraux bequeathed a number of such Graeco-Buddhist pieces to his daughter and today the Genie is part of the Florence Malraux collection. It will not be returning to Kabul.

International efforts have recovered artworks for Kabul, and overseas institutions, like the Guimet, have conserved Afghanistan’s treasures during the decades when the country’s rulers were unable to protect its heritage or willfully destroyed it. It is to be hoped, though, that the country’s new leaders never again give us cause to be glad that Afghanistan’s treasures are in foreign hands.