Mohammed Yusuf Asefi specializes in sunkissed mountains. They loom purplish behind all of his scenes: desert nomads at rest, bazaars bustling tidily, shepherds manipulating flutes. It’s not the kind of painting you could call “avant-garde.” But in 2012, this 50-year-old physician and amateur painter showed his work at the world’s biggest and most self-consciously contemporary art show: Documenta 13. A visiting critic claimed to love Asefi’s “nondescript” landscape, while another strained to praise his “pleasantly derivative van Gogh-ish” style. Asefi’s unremarkable technique happens to be his forte: in 2001, his bucolic renderings of flowers, trees, bushes and boulders saved more than 100 Afghani masters’ oil paintings from destruction.
One strict interpretation of Islamic sharia law defines all images of people or animals as idolatry. In the past, this spurred the creation of intricate Islamic geometric design and calligraphic arts, but under Mullah Mohammed Omar, supreme leader of Afghanistan’s Taliban government, it was simply the excuse to scour Afghani culture clean of any signs of life. In January 2001, Taliban soldiers began firing anti-aircraft artillery at a pair of giant 1,700-year-old sculptures of Buddha in Bamiyan Province, before blowing them up with dynamite. When representatives of the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice started culling sculptures in the National Museum in Kabul, Asefi received word that the National Gallery’s paintings would be next. He immediately contacted the National Gallery’s curator, also a member of the Taliban, with an offer to “repair” damaged paintings. The curator accepted and Asefi began visiting the gallery everyday while museum staff were at lunch, locking himself in an unused room with a watercolor palette and a selection of the museum’s figure paintings. He covered faces with bright bouquets of flowers and layered thick strokes over bodies to transform them into shrubbery, before replacing each picture on the wall. When the Taliban arrived a few months later, the new landscapes were hanging in plain sight, but their patches of fresh paint went unnoticed. Only half of the gallery’s collection was destroyed.
During five years in power, the Taliban banned nearly the entire spectrum of creativity and performance – including clapping – and destroyed an estimated 80 percent of Afghani cultural heritage, from religious relics to film reels. But after the fundamentalist regime fell in December 2001, Kabul’s filmmakers began to reveal hidden caches of film negatives; musicians, dancers and actors returned to the stage; and Mr. Asefi started destroying his own work, taking a wet sponge to paintings he had carefully defaced. The hobbyist’s watercolors rubbed off, leaving the original oil paints to reemerge as hands, feet and faces.
From the pages of COLORS #87 - Looking at Art.