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Afghanistan Opens First Post-Taleban Art Exhibit - 2001-12-14

Afghanistan's National Gallery of Art opened December 13 for the first exhibition since the Taleban were driven out of Kabul.

There are 400 works on display all that remain of Afghanistan's National Gallery collection. The rest, at least 400 other pieces, were destroyed by the Taleban, who viewed any depiction of living things as a sacrilege.

One of the featured artists in the new exhibition is Mohammed Yousef Asefi, a painter who, at great personal risk, single-handedly saved all that remains of the National Gallery's collection.

The small, thin frame of Mohammed Youssef Asefi is easily lost among the knot of foreign journalists who crowd around him as he speaks of the highlights of the exhibition. A soft spoken man, his gestures become more animated as he points out features of one of his works. He hardly fits anyone's image of a hero. Yet his quiet defiance of the Taleban's drive to destroy anything they considered un-Islamic, defines what it means to act heroically.

"Throughout history artists have fought for their art. So as an artist myself, I tried my best and do what I could to save Afghanistan's art," he said.

Mohammed Asefi's profession is medicine. He is a doctor. But his life's passion is art. And when the Taleban came to power in 1996 he realized almost immediately that they posed a serious threat to those things he holds most dear.

It was very early, in the Taleban reign, that the destruction began. One of the first victims was one of Doctor Asefi's own works - an oil painting that hung in the Presidential Palace, depicting the traditional Afghan sport of Bushkashi. When the Taleban saw its portrayal of the dramatic, polo-like sport, they destroyed it. The Taleban consider such representations of living things an affront to Islam.

The knives they used to slash his work, cut Doctor Asefi to his soul.

"Most of the paintings are important, but when I got the news that my Bushkashi painting had been destroyed I was sick for days," he said.

After he recovered from the shock, he decided to act. He realized that any attempt to stop the destruction would not sit well with the Taleban authorities. He was afraid of asking anyone to help, as they would be put at risk too and it might also increase the chance of discovery. He decided to work alone.

Dr. Asefi began by collecting other paintings that hung in public buildings, under the guise of making necessary repairs to them. His real aim, though, was to alter the paintings so they would no longer be at risk of destruction.

"I used watercolor to remove the figures from the oil paintings. The technique did not damage the painting and it was a simple matter to restore the original by simply washing off the watercolor," Dr. Asefi said.

Doctor Asefi worked secretly in the basement of the National Gallery, carefully doctoring any painting that he thought might be at risk. He managed to alter 122 paintings using that technique. Altogether, by either changing the paintings or hiding them as restoration projects, he saved 400 paintings from the Taleban knives. Four hundred others, however, were destroyed.

During the Taleban's time in power here, much of Afghanistan's cultural heritage was destroyed: the giant Buddhist carvings in Bamiyan, many of the sculptures in Afghanistan's National Museum and half of the paintings in the National Galleries Collection.

Mohammed Asefi saved 400 paintings. He only wishes he could have done more.