Afzal, someone American journalists would call my ‘Kabul fixer’, turns back from the passenger seat of our jeep and asks in effortless Hindi, “Do you like art?” I am somewhat taken aback and answer tentatively, “Depends on the quality of the art, I guess.” I realise a moment later that only a firm negative would have stopped him from doing what he instantly does. He asks the driver to take a left and five minutes down a typically dusty Kabul street, we stop in front of the Afghan National Gallery.
The building has a recently restored feel to it. “It is 114 years old and I have friends who work here,” exclaims an excited Afzal. I find it hard to find a relation between his obvious pride and the building’s age, but feel glad to have found an enthusiastic translator. I am introduced to the gallery’s vice chief, Sabrah Rahmani, who is seemingly in her 40s, wears a headscarf, pink lipstick, fashionable silver bangles, pencil heels and henna on her hands.
Burkhas for the portraits
Walking up a royal, spiralling staircase, Afzal translates Sabrah’s Dari: “This building was converted into a gallery in 1362.” Despite my horrid mathematical skills, I realise that this is far from possible. Seeing my overt bewilderment, Afzal explains that Sabrah has just referred to the Afghani calendar and, using his fingers to calculate, he informs me that 1362 was 23 years ago. I mumble an ‘I wish’ and ask Sabrah, “What happened to the building when the Taliban were in power?”
I am surprised to hear that the turbaned militia used it as an art gallery, but not without a twist. “They expectedly fired all the female employees, stole around 200 art works and destroyed another 220.” Sabrah stops in front of a painting that is simply titled ‘European Scenery’, and points to the cows which, along with windmills, litter the landscape. “The Taliban would cover all living things depicted in paintings with sandpaper or cloth. The Prophet had supposedly said that namaz is not possible in a house if living things are depicted on its walls. But if someone else had asked me the question that you did, I would say ‘nobody knows’.”
I feel special and congratulate the cows that can now breathe on canvas. And I continue to be guided along, what I suddenly realise, is a detour.
Eight lost years
Aware that I must rush to make it for an interview on time, I ask Sabrah to take me to the painting she likes the most. I get worried when she looks offended. “How can you ask me to do that? These paintings have all been created by worthy artists. I can’t choose favourites.” I recover and ask her to elucidate her relationship with art. She kindly agrees. “After finishing school, I got myself an Arts degree. Fresh out of university, I got a job at the gallery, which was only a year old then. I have worked here since, apart from the eight years I had to sit at home in a burqa.”
I ask her if she paints herself, a question she chooses to ignore. A little desperate, I then push her for her favourites. “Abdul Gafour Brushna and Professor Gh M Maemanaghi,” she concedes.
Sabrah then leads me through tall doors and curtains into the rooms that showcase works by her favourites. Mostly in the oil-on-canvas format, their paintings are either impressionistic landscapes or portraits. And even though we go through many a room and curtain, the subjects of Afghani art do not seem to change with the artist.
Looking up from my watch, I am predictably attracted to a painting that has two haloed women, dressed in what look like contemporary hot pants and spaghetti straps, collectively playing a harp-like instrument. Embarrassed to be in the presence of both Sabrah and the painting, I start moving but am asked to stop. “The celebrated poet, writer and artist Youssef Kohzad, who now lives in the US, painted this. These women are playing the chang and they are believed to be in the presence of the Bamiyan Buddha. This was one of the many paintings we hid with other really old books once the Taliban arrived.”
Afzal, who until now has done a sterling job as an objective translator, finally gives a personal view. “The destruction of the Buddha was really very bad.” Fuelled a little by the comment, Sabrah shouts angrily, “There are so many disasters that happened, which the world does not know about. For instance, just after the Taliban had destroyed the Buddha, they came and broke two beautiful sculptures of renowned musicians. The logic was that anything in stone is bad. I wish they had applied this logic to their own words and dictates.”
Brushing aside violence
Having got that perfect quotable quote and also realising that I am half-an-hour late for my interview, I inform Sabrah that I have to run. She leads me down the spiralling staircase and I suddenly realise that given the country’s violent history, it’s surprising that none of the works by Afghan artists are dark or gloomy. The two works that fit the bill are by anonymous foreigners; one depicts two bleeding dead crows and the other a cockfight. I ask Sabrah if the gallery houses any contemporary art. She points to a wall that again has portraits and historical landscapes, which only appear recent when you see the ‘2002’ signed at the bottom right.
Just before I leave, Sabrah says that she has one last thing to show me. She takes me to a broken glass cabinet, which displays taped, glued and torn sketches and drawings. And then comes the parting shot: “These were all destroyed by the Taliban. So you see, artists in this country have always had a lot from which they needed to escape.”