Buddhas of Bamiyan Exhibit in Toronto: an Artists’ Perspective on Taliban Destruction

In April 2008 visual artists Khadim Ali and Jayce Salloum travelled from Karachi Pakistan to Kabul Afghanistan, and then into Bamiyan the region famous for its giant Buddha statues that were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. We spoke to them about their unique experiences of the site.

Ali is Hazara, the same background that many of the people who live in Bamiyan are from. His parents were born just to the south of the region. The Taliban treated the Hazara brutally, killing them and burying them in mass graves. Today the Taliban wage an insurgency in the south and east of the country, their control being confined to the border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Salloum and Ali filmed nearly 40 hours of video, photographing the remains and talking to people living at Bamiyan. Ali also drew visual art-pieces that discuss the situation at Bamiyan in a more abstract manner.

This Saturday they will open an exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum, in Toronto Canada, that examines the aftermath of the destruction. It is being curated by Haema Sivanesan, executive director of the South Asian Visual Arts Centre.

Damage to the Caves

In ancient times the caves beside the Buddhas were full of frescoes and small statues. Research published in 2008 suggests that some of the earliest oil painting in the world was done there.

The videosthe artists shotshow that, sadly, the damage to these caves is extreme. Starting with the Russian invasion, nearly 30 years ago, conditions deteriorated to the point where people at Bamiyan started living in the caves as a last resort. Bamiyans weather can get chilly and people had to build fires in the caves to stay warm. One video shows the caves covered with soot, looking as dark as night. The only thing I could see were these white footprints marks left from when the Taliban were destroying the artwork with their shoes.

You dont see a lot of the frescoes for instance but youll see little fragments and youll see things like (shelves where) there used to be Buddhas sitting, said Salloum.

Its important to emphasize that the people of Bamiyan are not at fault for the damage to the caves. They were forced to live in them out of desperation. Ali and Salloum have a wall full of pictures that show derelict Russian tanks and armoured vehicles from around Bamiyan. There must have been at least 30 of them – a testament to the conflict that Afghanistan has gone through.

At times 500 families were living in those caves, said Ali.

Intentional damage to the caves started as early as the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. During the Russian (war) lots of mujahedeen came actually from different parts of the world… they burnt some caves and destroyed some small statues, said Ali.

One of the sponsors of the mujahedeen, as we all know, was the Reagan administration in the United States in all fairness probably not what the president had in mind.

As if the Taliban related damage isnt enough, Bamiyan has not been spared the wrath of looters who have been eating away at the site for the past 100 years. I asked Salloum if looting is still a problem at the site.

Theres nothing left to loot, he responded.

The Buddhas of Bamiyan

The exhibit willshow video of the fragments of the Buddha statues. Salloum told me that the UN has gathered all the remaining fragments, labelled them and is trying to protect them from the elements as best they can.

Photo courtesy SAVAC. A man offers a blessing on the road from Panjab to Bamiyan. Its a matter of debate, given the great poverty at Bamiyan, whether now is the time to rebuild the statues. Theres still an ongoing discussion about whether thats the most useful way to spend (millions of) dollars, to restore one of the statues or other types of aid, said Salloum.

The destruction of the statues, in March 2001, is still fresh in the mind of the people.

Ali told me of cases where, on the day the Taliban blew up the statues, the explosion caused damange as far as 2 km away from the site. When they blew it up, there was lots of explosive used in it, he said. There were people one or two kilometre far way, windows, glasses were broken.

He told me that Hazara peoplewere very sad at the destruction of the statues, but the struggle to survive consumed their lives back in 2001. They were really struggling for their survival, their survival was a big matter for them rather than saving their culture.

Bamiyan: The heart that has no love/pain/generosity is not a heart opens on April 3 at the Royal Ontario Museum.