A major art exhibition has opened in the Afghan capital Kabul. Given its location in a war-torn country known better for anarchy than aesthetics, this is remarkable. But even if one were to ignore that fact, Living Traditions, an exhibition of contemporary pieces from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, is extraordinary on its own merits as a moving meditation on modernity, tradition, beauty and horror.
Running until Nov. 20 at the elegant Queen's Palace, in the newly renovated gardens of the Mughal era Emperor Babur, the exhibition has been expertly brought together by former Tate Gallery curator Jemima Montagu, and features modern interpretations of two genres that have long defined the region: calligraphy and miniature painting. "I wondered if it was possible to bring contemporary art to Afghanistan while at the same time going back to the traditions of the past and seeing how they still have links to modern day," says Montague, who now works with Turquoise Mountain, a foundation dedicated to revitalizing Afghanistan's cultural heritage.
Among the 15 participating artists is British-Iranian Jila Peacock, who plays with the Persian calligraphic practice of turning poetic verses into images of plants and animals. Peacock takes this one step further, breathing life into the images through mesmerizing animation accompanied by music and readings from the 14th century poet Hafez.
The work of Khadim Ali, an Afghan born as a refugee in Pakistan, incorporates classical miniature techniques honed at Lahore's renowned National College of Arts. He uses the flat planes, thick gouache, gold leaf and impeccable brushwork, all typical of 18th century Mughal miniatures, to portray scenes from the Shahnameh, a Persian epic familiar to Afghan children. Ali is a member of Afghanistan's Hazara minority, and his people's persecution by the Taliban during the late stages of the civil war is also reflected in the dark panels of his miniatures. His Herculean hero, Rustam, is ambiguous, portrayed as a demonic figure with horns and a monster's face, often bristling with an arsenal of modern weapons AK-47s, bayonets and grenade launchers. This is an allusion to Taliban videos in which militants declare themselves to be the new Rustam. Nothing is sacred, Ali seems to be saying. Even heroes can be co-opted.
Another renowned miniaturist, the Pakistani Muhammad Imran Qureshi, has contributed an installation entitled "Changing Times." In the pools of light coming through the exhibition venue's French windows, he has painted the delicate foliage common to traditional miniatures. They were executed at different moments of the day, indicating the passage of time, but also the ravages of history: it is as if the building's marble floors are witnesses to Afghanistan's eras of light and destruction. Some are filled in completely, others are more fragmented, as if indicating the slow state of reconstruction in Afghanistan today.
Qureshi, who teaches modern miniature painting at the National College of Arts in Lahore, was nervous at first about coming to Afghanistan. But this exhibition, bringing together work from three countries that suffer contentious relations even if they share a common heritage, has opened his eyes, he says. "We all live next door to each other, but there is no communication between our peoples. This experience may be able to bring about understanding, tolerance and the beginnings of change."