Afghan Art Undergoes a Revolution

The Associated Press
Saturday, February 3, 2007; 3:01 PM

KABUL, Afghanistan -- For 25 years, Mohammed Akbar Salam painted the style that he and his colleagues knew _ realism. Under the ultra-restrictive Taliban regime, depictions of the human figure were forbidden, and their work shriveled to an austere repertoire of calligraphy and still life.

Now, Afghanistan is emerging from decades of war and Taliban rule to a new world and the information age, and its art is undergoing a revolution to find an identity that is both fresh and distinctly Afghan.

"After the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan's borders opened up, and we had access to the Internet. We could connect with people abroad, so everyone is now looking for a new style," Salam said as he served tea huddled next to an electric heater in his small, cold studio.

"We're part of the 21st century. Realism is done by cameras. An artist should do something new," said Salam, 50, who teaches painting at Kabul University.

The flood of images and ideas from the outside have triggered a new wave of art and paintings that resemble European works from the early 20th century, but that are a radical change for Afghanistan. This art with its distinctly Afghan themes _ war, corruption and violence _ provides a rare glimpse of the country's creative psyche.

Salam's work shifted from dry, realist images of street scenes and landscapes into sad and often angry critiques of life through Afghan eyes, in a color palette and style evocative of Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse and their contemporaries.

His most striking painting, which was part of an exhibit in neighboring Iran, depicts a Chinook helicopter _ commonly used by the U.S. military _ flying menacingly above a pair of scared, fleeing chickens. Military aircraft and American and NATO forces are common sights in this war-torn country.

One of Salam's colleagues at Kabul University, 40-year-old Eaniyatullah Niazi, portrays the violence through the traditional Afghan game of buzkashi, in which players on horses wrangle for a headless goat carcass.

"It's a very hard, cruel game. It is a kind of tyrant's game _ the poor goat is beheaded and everyone tries to grab for it," Niazi said, sitting on cushions in a red carpeted, sunlit room in his apartment where he displays his paintings. To him, the game symbolizes the violence in Afghan society today.

Niazi, whose work has been published by UNESCO in a book called "Refugee Painters," turned sharply away from realism to abstraction.

A buzkashi painting from 2004 is a frenzy of curved black lines, with horse's heads, men and a carcass in the fray. He work has become increasingly abstract, and now, though the subject is still buzkashi, the figures are barely discernible.

His work is appreciated and purchased mainly by foreigners, and his asking prices for two of his buzkashi paintings are $350 and $500 _ a fortune for most Afghans, who earn only about $50 a month.

Compared with the collection at Afghanistan's National Gallery, the work of Salam and Niazi are apparently entirely new genres here.

The National Gallery's collection includes blatant copies of Western masterpieces _ such as a wood-chip mosaic of the iconic "Liberty Leading the People" by Eugene Delacroix. Works by Afghanistan's best known 20th-century painters, two of whom were trained in Germany, show European pastoral scenes. One painting shows a Tudor cottage.

Several artists adopted this classical style, without adding any personal interpretation or expression, for more than half a century, said Rahraw Omarzad, founder of the Center for Contemporary Arts Afghanistan.

During the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, Afghan artists were encouraged to create propaganda posters, he said. Artists fled the country during the ensuing civil war. Then, in the mid-1990s, came the Taliban which infamously destroyed two ancient Buddha statues at Bamiyan despite an international outcry.

A display case tucked away under a staircase on the ground floor of the National Gallery contains the torn up remains of hundreds of figurative artworks that were also destroyed by the hardline militia.

"They wanted to stop art completely," said Omarzad, who is also a photographer and video artist. "They were against art. Artists were allowed only to do calligraphy and nonfigurative paintings, like still life."

Omarzad hopes the contemporary arts center will nourish and encourage budding artists through workshops with foreign artists and exhibits of Afghan artwork abroad. The center has helped organize shows in New York, Istanbul and Frankfurt, he said.

His recent photos document the rough lives of Afghan children or simple everyday scenes that symbolize the shaky Afghan leadership. In one photo criticizing the government, an old wall has been painted over with another layer, crumbling because the old paint underneath was not removed.

But continuing fear of the government and warlords constrain these artists from going beyond the metaphorical when it comes to commentary on Afghan politics.

Salam's Chinook painting lashes out at the U.S. military, but his criticism of local power brokers is more cryptic. He disguises corrupt Afghan politicians as two balloons in one painting; Afghans' distrust of their leaders is depicted in a video that shows people joining a man under his leaking umbrella, only to get wet and leave.

"The government says there is freedom of speech, but if a journalist does something, he is jailed," Salam said, as he bemoaned the government's lack of support for the arts. "If I do something, the gunmen can come and take me away."

© 2007 The Associated Press