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A Visit to Kabul’s National Gallery
by Steve Mumford
Kabul, June, 2010 -- The National Gallery of Kabul is situated in a beautiful and stately old manor, surrounded by the crazy bustle of this dusty, crowded city. It houses a collection of 20th century painting, distinct from the National Museum, which is devoted to ancient sculpture and artifacts. The National Gallery has no website, and no one there speaks much English on the day I visit. Through a combination of pidgin and miming I indicate to the staff that I want to take some photographs of the collection.

"Fifty Afs per photo!" I‘m told, or about a dollar apiece. I hasten to explain that the museum’s exposure on would be worth more than that! I think I get my meaning across, or simply wear them down; I’m assigned a female guide to show me the collection, an attractive middle-aged woman whom I’ll call Noor. She’s got a pragmatic Afghani toughness that seems to set in after childhood here, evincing an ability to bargain down a merchant, slaughter a sheep or deal patiently with a nosy foreigner.

The galleries are dark, the electricity having been cut for a month now due to construction work being done on the street. We move from dim room to room, opening up the curtains to shed light on the paintings, some of which are hung on the walls; most are simply stacked against the baseboards throughout the rooms and hallways.

Noor doesn’t object as I rummage through the stacks, pulling out works that catch my eye and bringing them over to the light from the windows. Most of the paintings are landscapes. I notice that the few that depict nudes are turned towards the walls. All are covered in dust, which Noor doesn’t hesitate to vigorously brush off with her hand when she deems it necessary. Many of the paintings have dents and cracks from the rough treatment they’ve received over the years, some have tears and holes. I was told that some were painted over with watercolor to hide their imagery from the Taliban, some stored underground for a time.

The way paintings are treated here reminds me of Iraq -- a bit like carpets! -- roughly stacked when not in use, enjoyed for their tactile as well as visual esthetics, rarely admired from afar. No doubt the white-glove treatment artworks receive in the West would amuse these Afghan art lovers.

Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan doesn’t seem to have been dominated by a modernist tradition; in Iraq, a generation of painters trained in Europe or Turkey in the first half of the century, absorbing the language of abstract painting.

Far and away, landscape painting dominates the National Gallery’s collection, edging into Impressionism and expressionism, with a few rare sorties into Cubism (the Taliban are said to have destroyed 210 portraits from the museum’s collection, invoking the Koran’s injunction against depicting the human face). The main exceptions seem to be works by foreigners, including a tantalizing still life from 1972 including a depiction of the record cover from the Beatles’ Let It Be album by a Russian artist whose signature I couldn’t adequately decipher. Nearby, an orphaned Op Art painting with a couple of holes sits forlornly with neither name nor date attached. I imagine that many of the works by foreigners were done by faculty of the art school in Kabul, pre-Taliban.

Attributions at the National Gallery are vague at best (sometimes absent altogether), with a name and a title but never a date, unless inscribed by the artist. Works by foreigners are simply labeled "Foreign Painter."

The oldest paintings in the collection look to me to be from somewhere around the turn of the century, by Muhammed Maimongi. Two tall canvases each shaped with a gothic arch depict stately European landscapes, framed into the wall, as if installed when the house was built. Nearby is his weird Red Mountains in America, which seems to be based on a Pashtun re-imagining of America’s badlands, more Tora Bora than Arizona.

Yusuf Assafi’s earliest works are from the 1930s and depict romantic landscapes with gazelles or deer. For many of these painters, French and German 19th century landscape painting seems to have been an inspiration.

Ghowsudin’s earliest painting in the collection, a lovely sunset behind a village mosque, dates from 1946. Like Assafi, his later works get progressively more impastoed and date to the 1970s. Hamon Muhammed Yuri specialized in genre scenes including a wonderful roughly-painted picture of a Bozkashi match, Afghanistan’s rough-and-tumble version of polo, played with a calf’s carcass. His Harem is a steamy bath scene crammed with women sporting similarly lithesome, large-boobed bodies -- more Penthouse than Ingres, but a terrific and fun painting nonetheless.

Abdul Ghafer Brechna’s paintings are simple and straightforward landscapes that remain remarkably consistent from the 1940s to the ‘70s: richly-painted views specific to Afghanistan, rife with rivers rushing through valleys and plains jammed between mountain chains.

A museum highlight is the recent paintings by Abdul Wedud, a faculty member at the Kabul fine arts school. His epic and detailed 2006 painting Battle, depicting, perhaps tellingly, a British defeat, is filled with narrative incident and bravura paint handling.

Outside the Gallery I sit down to draw the view from the garden; soon one of the museum staff, an art student, arrives to chat with me. He describes how, as a child, he’d seen his first paintings here and been immensely moved. This was what he wanted to do. His family had no money but a sympathetic calligrapher-painter accepted him into his school in exchange for apprentice work.

I notice a few more kids gathering down the path, boys and girls, drinking tea. I recognize a member of District Unknown, Kabul’s metal band among them. They bring me a cup of tea and invite me to join their artists’ meeting. Tired, I politely decline, and watch them file solemnly into a side building clutching sketchpads and agenda notes, young torch-bearers of Afghanistan’s creative future.

STEVE MUMFORD is a New York artist and author of Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq (2005). The illustrations accompanying this text are his own. For the complete archive of his writings on Artnet, click here.