Thursday, June 12, 2008

Lost and Found Treasures

A new exhibit, Hidden Treasures of Afghanistan, recently opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Since the 1980’s, Afghanistan has been torn asunder, first by the Soviet invasion, followed by years of civil war; then by the ruinous dictates of the Taliban; and, more recently, as a result of America’s pursuit of Al Qaeda terrorists. Afghans have suffered terribly from these destructive forces, as has their culture.

The motto for the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul is, "A nation stays alive when its culture stays alive.” Until the time of the Taliban, the museum housed one of the finest collections in Asia; over 100,000 art treasures reflecting both violent conquest and peaceful intermingling. At the crossroads of the Silk Road, an ancient trade route which spanned from the Mediterranean to China, Afghanistan’s multicultural history is mirrored in Begram ivories, Roman glass vessels and Greek sculpture. The “Bactrian Hoard”, a collection abundant in wearable gold found in the burial site of six royal nomads, was discovered in 1978 and hurriedly excavated by a Russian-Afghan archaeological team before the Soviet invasion.

When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, 80% of the collection was already decimated by bombing and looting. In a strict interpretation of Sharia, depiction of human figures was expressly forbidden by the regime. In March 2001, with impotence and rage, nations watched as the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the largest examples of standing Buddha carvings in the world, were dynamited out of their sandstone alcoves. More inconspicuous and insidious was the destruction of figurative art in the National Museum of Afghanistan.

Fortunately, a few forward thinking museum personnel spirited away over 22,000 of the most precious objects. Hidden in a vault deep within the Presidential Palace, it was not until 2004 that this cache was found to have survived the ravages of war. Over 2,000 Greco-Bactrian gold and silver coins; hundreds of Buddhist terra-cotta figures; carved Begram figurative ivory panels; the beautiful Bactrian gold jewelry; as well as numerous glass vessels, bronze and stone sculptures were protected.

A similar collision of artistic innovation and traditional values is the overarching theme in Orhan Pamuk’s most recent historical novel, My Name is Red. Set in sixteenth century Istanbul, the text chronicles gifted miniaturists, the illustrators of the great handmade books of the Ottoman Turks. At its peak this empire encompassed much of Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East and Northern Africa, with Istanbul at its ethnic epicenter.

The conquering of Istanbul by the Ottoman Turks created a meeting place for eastern and western schools of painting. The public and private lives of rulers, their portraits, historical events, major ceremonies, epic poems, folk stories, animals, plants, medical and technical themes were all subject to centuries-old dictates of representational interpretation. Works were rarely signed, because most pages represented a collaborative effort between a head painter and his apprentices.

The realistic aspects of Frankish portraiture was pushing its influence into the eastern styles. Over the centuries, the miniaturist had learned to treat landscapes and human features equally. Never was an artist’s individual style to become apparent; never were you to look at a figure and recognize the individual depicted. In a November 2001 article, J. Stefan Cohen said, “ Portraiture was prohibited for fear that a human likeness would replace Allah as an object of worship--idolatry, in short. Light, the Koran says, belongs to Allah, nature belongs to Allah; it is for mankind to love, to view without competing: If you study nature, you will find Allah. Thus miniaturists were considered the most likely to burn in hell.”

Cultural conflicts and intersections are no less important today. Steve and I recently visited Santa Fe for a ceremony in which Navajo basket artist, Mary Holiday Black, along with San Ildefonso potter, Blue Corn; Santa Clara potter, Mary Cain; and Hopi artists, Lawrence and Griselda Saufkie, were awarded Lifetime Achievement Awards by the Southwest Association for Indian Arts. Few people understand the significance of her unassuming role in keeping this art form alive and providing a springboard to the most dynamic period seen in any Native American basketry form.

Navajo Basket Maker Mary Black
Navajo Weaver Mary Holiday Black

Mary was under great pressure from other Navajo people, traditionalists who felt (and many who still feel) that the only correct form of Navajo basketry is the ceremonial basket. Mary comes from a medicine family and strongly believes in the telling of ancestral stories. Because of her quiet and single-minded conviction in support of her childrens' and other weavers' endeavors in individual expression, Navajo basketry is vibrant in this corner of the Navajo nation while in all other areas, it has . . . vanished.

Those of us who have walked through the history of Native American art are uncertain of its future. When gazing forward, we are both confused and unsettled. Native basketry is learned at the sides of mothers, sisters, aunts and grandmothers and, more recently, the occasional father, uncle, or brother. Modern culture pushes iPods, cell phones and shoddy entertainment and we embrace it. Years of apprenticeship and mastery of art forms does not appeal to our, “I want it all now” sensibilities. Why buy an heirloom when a look can be replaced every few years at IKEA?

The glory of Afghan treasures have been mostly scattered or destroyed. The miniaturists of Istanbul faded, incapable of reconciliation with European realism. “A nation stays alive when it’s culture stays alive”. Blue Corn is gone; Mary Cain no longer creates pottery; Mary Black is slowing down. Soaring silver prices strange jewelry artists and basket making is struggling or dead across most American Indian nations. We no longer see huge stacks of Navajo rugs. While we are wildly encouraged by the stunning innovation demonstrated in certain young artists’ creations, in the back of our minds, a small voice asks, “Is it enough?” Perhaps the more correct question is, “For whom, is it enough?”

With warm regards,

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