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Afghanistan: Kabul Artists Tricked Taliban To Save Banned Paintings

  • Charles Recknagel

The Taliban forbid many pleasures in Afghanistan, including music, dancing at weddings and paintings depicting living things. But ordinary citizens -- and especially artists -- often refused to conform and found ways to deceive the Taliban. Among them is one painter who used his artistic skills to conceal banned figures in scores of paintings in Kabul's National Art Gallery -- saving them from certain destruction. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel filed this story from Kabul.

Kabul, 13 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Mohammad Yousef Asefi is a quiet and unassuming medical doctor who paints in his free time for the pure joy of expression.

He has long been one of Afghanistan's leading artists, with multiple shows abroad and a devoted following at home. He is also a leading figure in the country's artists' association and a member of the board of the National Art Gallery in the capital.

But until recently, Asefi had a secret life known to very few in the city. He used his skills to alter portraits and other paintings in the gallery to save them from destruction by the Taliban.

The doctor told his story in full today at a press conference in the National Art Gallery amid a selection of the paintings he rescued. Had he told his story just over a month ago, when the Taliban still ruled Kabul, it could have cost him his life. Even now, he tells it quietly, as if he can't quite believe he was never discovered.

Asefi's tale begins with the Taliban's fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, which forbid paintings depicting living figures. The militia equated portraiture with a blasphemous human attempt to create living objects, something only the supreme deity has the power to do.

But many artists in Afghanistan refused to obey the ban, which they viewed as ignorant and arbitrary. They continued to paint secretly, including portraits of deceased loved ones, which many Afghan families commission after funerals. They also continued to secretly pass on portraiture techniques to their pupils.

For Asefi, the challenge began when he learned that the Taliban planned to destroy the gallery's collection of figure paintings, as it had also destroyed two massive, ancient statues of the Buddha in Bamiyan last March.

"After the Bamiyan statues were destroyed, the Taliban knew that in the museum we also had things [which offended them]," Asefi said. "And after they destroyed sculptures in the Kabul Museum, their plan was to destroy the paintings in the National Gallery, saving only those in which there were no depictions of living figures."

The artist said he decided to use his position with the gallery to resist. So he told the Taliban that he wanted to do restoration work on many of the gallery's paintings. In fact, he intended not to restore the paintings but to alter those which the Taliban might target for destruction.

"I told them I had a plan to repair the paintings which are in the National Gallery. Of course, my aim was not to repair these things. It was to rescue most of the objects, most of the paintings, in our collection."

Asefi said he used watercolor paint to mask any offending figures in the museum's oil paintings, matching colors so well that the masking would be undetectable to any but an expert eye. As he says:

"I collected most of the figure paintings in a room and, using a special technique that I had, I painted over the parts of the canvas where there were figures."

The ruse worked well enough to save 80 paintings from destruction. But the Taliban still managed to eliminate about half of the gallery's total collection of some 800 artworks.

The saved paintings are now being returned to the gallery's walls after a washing with a sponge to remove their watercolor alterations. With the Taliban now gone, the National Art Gallery can again exhibit its full array of portraits, landscapes, and still-lifes without fear of censure.

Similar stories of secret art rebellions against the Taliban can be heard all over Kabul, including in almost any of the city's hundreds of commercial sign painter's workshops. The sign painters are themselves often fully trained artists, well-versed in portraiture, as well as other graphic techniques.

One such painter is Asatullah Hakimzada, who works in a small shop along one of the capital's busy main streets. Outside his shop are half a dozen half-finished signs showing the names of businesses, some painted on large sheets of tin, some on small ones. His customers range from auto repair shops to barbers. Currently, none of the commercial signs he paints depicts any living figures -- something still true for all of the signs in Kabul. But he says he and other sign painters have maintained their figure-painting skills, and he expects human forms to reappear on shop signs soon.

Hakimzada says he is again receiving commissions for portraits from many families.

"We did portraits on commission, even during the Taliban regime, but secretly. And now we are freely able to paint portraits of people and especially the portraits of the deceased, which are so traditional here in Kabul."

Hakimzada says his portrait business is up 70 percent now that the Taliban is gone. Among his commissions are not just depictions of people but also of birds and other animals, in the full range of both Western and Eastern painting styles.

The artist also says he teaches some 150 students. Until recently, he dared to publicly teach them only calligraphy, but he says he is now is conducting classes in all painting techniques -- openly and freely.