If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out" -- law number 196 from the Code of Hammurabi. Some 3,700 years ago in what is now Iraq, King Hammurabi established the first comprehensive law code and engraved it in cuneiform -- the world's oldest system of writing -- on a diorite stele. But that's not the country's only claim to fame. Iraq is the Mesopotamian cradle of civilization, home to the massive ziggurats of the Sumerians -- the 5,000-year-old White Temple in Warka and the 4,000-year-old Ziggurat of Ur, the second of which is marred by shell fragments from Gulf War bombing.
Stay tuned: Iraq is the next target in President Bush's war on terror. And if the current display of Afghan artifacts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is any indication, we may soon be seeing an exhibition of the ancient art of Iraq -- if we don't blow it all up.
Fundació "la Caixa" of Barcelona and Musée National des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet in Paris began planning "Afghanistan: A Timeless History" two days after the world learned of the Taliban's horrific destruction of the 1,700-year-old Buddhas at Bamiyan. The Taliban also systematically destroyed every artifact in the Kabul Museum that depicted a human or animal, pounding them all into a six-cubic-meter mound of debris.
"Afghanistan: A Timeless History"
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet
Through February 9; 713-639-7540
But the events following September 11 gave the exhibition, which opened in October 2001 in Barcelona, a whole new poignancy and topicality. With our invasion of Afghanistan, new venues -- including the MFAH -- signed on for the show, which features Afghan treasures from prehistory through the Buddhist period.
Laura Bush beams up from her full-page, full-color photo in the exhibition catalog. The first lady is the ironic honorary chair of "Afghanistan: A Timeless History." Her introductory letter on White House stationery asks us to "share the hope that this important cultural event will further strengthen the friendship between our two nations." She informs us that "preserving and reconstructing the art and culture of Afghanistan is essential." What she doesn't mention, of course, is the United States' role in helping to fund the regime that destroyed the country's art and culture in the first place.
The catalog text laments not just the destruction of artifacts under the Taliban but the selling and looting that continue today. The expropriation of items of national cultural importance is truly lamentable. But it is also the stuff of every museum collection. Greece still wants back the sculptures Lord Elgin hacked out of the Parthenon and carted back to England. How do you think the Louvre acquired many of its fabulous objects? Napoleon was a big souvenir hunter. And well, if you have an entire army at your disposal, you can come away with some pretty amazing tchotchkes.
Many of the objects in "A Timeless History" come from the Musée Guimet, which possesses a vast collection of Afghan artifacts on par with the Kabul Museum before it was looted. Guimet's bounty was acquired through French-led archeological excavations by the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan (DAFA). The catalog acknowledges that DAFA held a virtual monopoly over excavations from 1922 until after the end of WWII. In an arrangement that seems less than equitable, DAFA took half of everything it found. While the French objects ultimately survived better, there is a dangerous paternalism in viewing foreign appropriation of third-world cultural artifacts as "for their own good."
Some objects in the exhibition are from the extensive collections of George Ortiz and other private collectors. While the provenance of these items is not disclosed, it's doubtful that they were all acquired through an official government sale of national treasures. On his Web site, Ortiz states his opposition to the UNESCO/Unidroit Conventions concerning "the measures to be adopted to forbid and prevent the importation and the transfer of the illicit property of cultural goods." The art world party line seems to be, it's okay when we do it, but it isn't okay when they do it, unless they, um, sell it to us.
I guess I might agree with Ortiz if I had his second-century sculpture of Prince Siddhartha, the first Buddha and founder of Buddhism. The head is missing its nose but retains the placid, smoothly defined features we associate with images of the Buddha, while his topknot and flowing locks are infused with Hellenistic drama. It's just one of many works in the exhibition that reveal the diverse cultural influences on the region's history.
In a case of what should have been strange bedfellows, the MFAH -- along with the Baker Institute for Public Policy, the French Consulate and the Schlumberger oil company -- co-presented a November symposium on Afghanistan in conjunction with the exhibit. Afghan ambassador Ishaq Shahryar, a former U.S. citizen and NASA employee, touted the region's natural resources, ripe and ready for development. The solar scientist-turned-diplomat essentially lifted up his country's burqa and displayed her natural charms for salivating oil executives.
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At the break I asked the ambassador how Afghanistan would protect its natural resources from overexploitation. Misunderstanding and apparently mistaking me for one of the numerous businesspeople he had chatted with that day, he answered, "Your people will be very safe. We will make every effort to ensure their safety."
Things got even weirder when national security council member Zalmay Kahalilzad spoke about the rebuilding of Afghanistan and assured us that the "Germans are renovating [restructuring] the police academy in Kabul." Isn't that an old joke? And what, the British are redesigning the national cuisine?
It is important that the MFAH has brought these artifacts to Houston; presenting the artistic production of a culture makes it more comprehensible as a real place with a real history. But there seems to be a lot of other agendas swirling around this collection of antiquities. World politics are sticky, hypocritical and grossly self-interested. It would be nice to think that museums are exempt from the realpolitik, that they are holy temples housing vestal virgin artworks. But art gets around, and you don't always know who it's been hanging out with. Still, the objects themselves are spectacular things, created by long-dead people with their own motivations, agendas and flaws.
So let's look forward to a humanizing collection of objects representing the rich history of Iraq. Yes, Tarzan: Afghanistan friend, Iraq friend -- at least after we're through with them. Maybe the MFAH will get the Stele of Hammurabi and its cuneiform code of laws; after all, it was excavated by French archaeologists and resides in the Louvre, and that eye-for-an-eye part seems very meaningful to President Bush.