Saving Beauty

In March 2001, the Taliban demolished two of Afghanistan's treasures: the Bamiyan Buddhas, believed to be built in the third century. Towering at 50 and 36 meters in height and reflecting both European and Asian artistic styles, the Buddhas were a reminder of the country's rich past. But the Taliban considered the statues to be idols, and as such, an affront to Islam.

The explosion was heard around the world. "Any thinking person would have to be appalled," says Peter Marzio, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. "The revulsion felt was second only to humans being killed."

Pierre Cambon, the chief curator of the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet in Paris, which has one of the largest collections of Afghan art in the world, says his museum was suddenly flooded with reporters seeking to understand the art and history of the troubled country.

Sitting at a crossroads in Asia, Afghanistan is a natural trade center. And over the centuries, Indian, Iranian and Mediterranean peoples have, at various times, ruled the country. Ideas and artistic styles from different lands have always coexisted and interacted in Afghanistan.

Afghans are believed to be the first people to create human representations of the Buddha, giving him a Greek-looking face. Before, the Buddha had been represented by his absence, in an empty, indented chair that only suggested the deity's presence. These early Buddhas are an indication of the interplay between Greek and Buddhist cultures in Afghanistan, but they also show that original ideas were born on Afghan soil.

As journalists flooded Cambon with questions, he and his colleagues at the Musée Guimet decided that it was time to organize an exhibition of Afghan art, which has been displayed in Paris, Barcelona, Tokyo and now Houston.

"As the Taliban was destroying the cultural heritage of Afghanistan," says Marzio, "it occurred to me that even though museums don't have any power, we should at least make a statement about the important cultural treasures in Afghanistan, and that religious fanaticism shouldn't destroy the past."

Marzio aggressively campaigned to bring "Afghanistan: A Timeless History" here. First Lady Laura Bush is the show's honorary chair. The exhibit includes art from prehistoric times through the ninth century. Many of the pieces are on loan from Paris's Musée Guimet.

Despite controversy concerning ownership of art found in archeological digs aided by the French, one fact is indisputable: The art that remains in museums outside Afghanistan has been protected. A good deal of the art that remained in the country has been destroyed, either in the name of religion or by the elements.

During the exhibit's first stop in Barcelona, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were attacked. "After 9/11," says Cambon, "some curators and other people said, 'What are you doing?' " because the exhibit celebrates Afghan culture. "I said, 'Especially because of 9/11, we have to do it and do it right.' "

Still, the exhibition's organizers don't want the value of the art itself to be obscured by politics. "The idea wasn't to do a political crusade against the Taliban," says Cambon. "It was to show Afghan culture on a civilization level and on an art level. Everyone needs beauty."

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Cathy Matusow
Contact: Cathy Matusow