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One thousand years of Afghan Art. (Mosaic).

At a time when much of the news from the Middle East region is bad, the Musee Guimet in Paris is hosting a timely exhibition. One Thousand Years of Afghan Art was inaugurated last month by President Hamid Karzai, who was in the French capital to discuss the reconstruction of his country. A reconstruction that, Mr Karzai explained to his host President Jacques Chirac, must be not only structural and financial, but also cultural.

Indeed, one of the first things Mr Karzai let Mr Chirac know upon his arrival in Paris was that he was not so much in France to discuss money as culture. "Our cultural co-operation with France goes back ages," Mr Karzai told the French President, "and as for myself, I would rather not have to measure the level of co-operation between us in dollars, but rather in terms of culture."

The Afghan art exhibition is particularly noteworthy for the splendid presentation Musee Guimet has achieved with artefacts, most of which are representative of a style referred to as "Gothico-Buddhist" or "Greco-Buddhist", museum director Jean-Francois Jarrige explained.

One Thousand Years of Afghan Art is also exceptional for making clear that Afghanistan, at least in terms of its art, is much more than a hotchpotch of influences taken from other civilisations. Over the years the country may have fallen under the domination of a diverse assortment of cultures, but it nevertheless successfully produced its own particular style of art, with its own quintessential identity.

"It is a heritage," comments art critic Valerie Duponchelle, writing in Le Figaro, "that is not only surprising but powerful." She continues: "It provides a fascinating answer to the question: what is a nation's cultural heritage in the first place?" And, if there were a time when an Afghan identity needed to be expressed, notably through its culture, it is certainly now.

The 250 objects in the exhibition come not only from Guimet's own' rich collections, but also from institutions as far away as Japan, whose Hirayama Foundation has lent the foot of a statue of Zeus from the third century BC found at Ai Khanoun. Another foundation that possesses some of the choicest examples of Afghan Art, the Caixa Foundation of Spain, is co-sponsoring the exhibition, along with Musee Guimet.

Significantly, many of the pieces are effectively "on loan" from the provisional government of Afghanistan. Like the foot of Zeus lent by the Hirayama Foundation, they were removed, often secretly, from Afghanistan in an attempt to save them from the Taliban-inspired destruction that has devastated Afghan culture over recent years.

Among the exhibits that proved most interesting to President Karzai during his visit to the Guimet museum were reproductions of the two giant statues of Buddha, carved into the cliffs of Bamiyan more than 1500 years ago. The wanton destruction of these ancient wonders at the instruction of the Taliban-dominated government last year elicited an international out-cry, and was the inspiration for the current exhibition. Musee Guimet officials were seeking a way of reminding the world that Afghanistan's culture is alive and thriving despite the acts of cultural terrorism perpetrated across the country.

The provisional president of Afghanistan was also evidently impressed with the "Genie aux Fleurs" (Genie with Flowers), a piece from the third-fourth century AD and once the property of French culture minister Andre Malraux, who came across the sculpture during a 1929 trip to Afghanistan.

Mr Karzai also expressed interest in a series of ivory figures, part of the treasure trove discovered by French archaeologists in 1937 at Begram, an important historical site located north of Kabul.

Many of the sculptures, Mr Karzai was told by exhibition curator Pierre Cambon, had been rescued over the years by archaeologists like Alfred Foucher and Joseph Hackin, who feared that the treasures would be destroyed or plundered, for, as Mr Cambon pointed out, it is not only the Taliban who have engaged in the wholesale destruction of Afghanistan's cultural past. Many of the pieces, said Mr Cambon, remained the property of Afghanistan, and would be returned to the country whenever Mr Karzai desired.

Mr Karzai was expected to return to Afghanistan with a few of the pieces, notably some items that formed part of the legendary Bagram Treasure, removed for safe keeping from the National Museum of Kabul. The objects were preserved from destruction with the assistance of Unesco, to whose Paris headquarters Mr Karzai also paid a visit during his stay.

The Musee Guimet exhibition lasts through 27 May and is accompanied by an extraordinary catalogue that not only presents an illustrated listing of the 250 art works proposed by Musee Guimet, but also provides a comprehensive listing of each piece, placing it in its cultural and historical context.

The exhibition makes the cogent point that, as in the case of Afghanistan, a country's history and its culture are quite inextricably intertwined, one being part-and-parcel of the other. And, as President Karzai stressed during his visit to Paris, his country's future depends not only on infrastructural development, but also on an effective and permanent reconciliation of Afghan history and culture.
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Comment:One thousand years of Afghan Art. (Mosaic).
Author:Michaud, Paul
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:9AFGH
Date:May 1, 2002
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