Last June, artist Steve Mumford visited the National Gallery in Kabul to explore the artistic heritage of war-torn Afghanistan. Thankfully, he has written a short account of his visit — along with a few dozen photographs of what he saw — for Artnet. While there aren’t any major revelation in the post, it is an interest piece that gives you a taste of the dangers facing poor nations that lack the resources to preserve their artistic heritage.
Mumford introduces the National Gallery as:
… 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.
He points some of the fundamental issues facing the Museum:
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.
[The guide] 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.
Mumford doesn’t seem to have the art historical knowledge to place what he is seeing into the heritage of the region but his viewpoint is welcome and informative. Judging by the images, Afghanistan appears to be heavily influences by regional trends, particularly those in the former Soviet Union and neighboring Iran. You can spot social realism mixing freely with plein air and history painting. There are glimpses of Qajar (19th C. Iranian) painting but the art is mostly dominated by derivative regional styles.
As the devastating earthquake earlier this year in Haiti proved to us, a poor country’s artistic heritage is always threatened by things we rarely worry about in the West. We can only hope that the National Gallery of Kabul survives the current war, and it will see better days in the future.