How Afghan art was doctored to save it from Taliban censors

By Patrick Cockburn
Saturday 15 December 2001 01:00

Mohammed Yusef Asefi uses a big yellow sponge to rub vigorously at a painting of a mountain ravine in Kabul's National Gallery of Art, and an extraordinary change takes place. As the sponge passes over the surface, an old man herding three donkeys along a mountain path begins to appear.

Dr Asefi, 42, described yesterday how he had outwitted the Taliban – who destroyed all art showing living beings because it was "unIslamic" – and thereby saved 122 pictures.

Working in secret, he painted out the people and animals and replaced them, usually with plants. When Taliban inspectors arrived they were faced with bland landscapes to which they could not object on religious grounds.

"I told the authorities I was going to repair the paintings in my home," Dr Asefi said. "Then with watercolours I painted over the oil paint in a way that you could not detect. Some took me one or two days and others only a few hours."

Working at speed, Dr Asefi, a medical doctor by profession, discovered he had a talent for faking parts of a picture. As he moved around the gallery yesterday, the task of detecting in advance where he had used his camouflage was impossible.

Stopping at a scene of two houses by a stream, he dabbed at the canvas and four cows appeared by the water. He paused thoughtfully as if trying to recollect whether he had hidden anything else. He wiped the corner of a snowscape and a man on a horse was revealed.

In a few cases Dr Asefi clearly had had some difficulty when he painted over people. In the case of a canal scene, he had converted women selling flowers into gigantic flower pots. Presumably no Taliban official had examined it very carefully. But 400 other pictures, once in the gallery but moved to a depot, were found and destroyed by the Taliban. They are now back in the gallery to see if they can be restored.

Sadiq Sahi, from the Ministry of Information and Culture, looked gloomily into a tin box ofpaintings. There was a watercolour of an Afghan prince in a gold and white tunic that had been torn across the middle. Leaning against a wall was a picture of Kabul workers that had been slashed with a knife.

Dr Asefi said he had realised early on about the Taliban's hatred of art when he heard that they had hacked to pieces a large painting in the presidential palace after they took Kabul in 1996. "I was so upset that I took to my bed for 10 days," he said.

In October last year, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban spiritual leader, said that representations of living beings should be destroyed. Yahya Muhibzada, another ministry official, said: "His ruling was used to justify attacks on objects in the museum and art gallery in Kabul as well as the destruction of the colossal statues of Buddha in Bamiyan."

In March, Taliban officials turned up at the national museum and smashed a statue from AD200. By this time Dr Asefi knew what he would do. "I made a plan to rescue the paintings of living beings," he said. "I didn't dare let anybody else know what I was doing."

But Mr Sahi says he had a good idea of why the gallery suddenly contained so many still-life paintings. The gallery was open but few Afghans visited because it contained so many dreary landscapes.

Some of the paintings that Dr Asefi saved are not that good. But looking at even a second-rate painting in the same way is difficult after you know the pains and risks taken to preserve it.

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