It’s hard to picture Afghanistan, one of the poorest and most anarchic countries in the world, as a vibrant stop on the ancient Silk Road. Three thousand years ago, royal emissaries, merchants, cartographers, and soldiers traveled through the region on routes that stretched from Asia to the great capitals of Mediterranean Europe. Afghanistan was a bustling locus of commerce, wealth, and culture. Now a collection of artifacts from its golden age has made the journey to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures From the National Museum, Kabul” comprises more than two hundred objects, including elaborate gold jewelry, painted Roman-Egyptian glass vessels, and Indian ivory figurines. The pieces date from around 2500 BC to the second century AD, but it’s the story of their survival that makes this exhibit so moving.
In 1988, after nine years of violent occupation by the Soviet Union and a descent into civil war, officials at the National Museum secretly stashed about 600 of its most prized objects in vaults beneath the presidential palace. It was a prescient act: Over the next two decades, the museum was looted, bombed, taken over by militias, and set on fire. The Taliban, intent on eliminating all representations of the human form, smashed more than 2,000 artworks in forty days. By the end of 2001, the museum had lost two thirds of its 100,000-piece collection.
The vaults in the presidential palace were not opened again until 2003, when newly installed president Hamid Karzai learned of their existence. Among the contents was the famed Bactrian Hoard, a collection of more than 20,000 gold ornaments originally unearthed in 1978 by Soviet archaeologists. Before “Hidden Treasures,” this glittering assortment of medallions, necklaces, and headdresses had never been seen by the public. Among the Bactrian showstoppers on view here is a gold crown once worn by a woman thought to be a nomad princess. Exquisitely detailed and dripping with sculpted flowers and golden disks, it is also collapsible, so its owner could pack it flat at a moment’s notice.
Of all the finds in “Hidden Treasures,” which draws from four of Afghanistan’s major archaeological sites, the most striking are those that demonstrate how varied the country’s cultural influences have been. Two “Dragon Master” pendants depict an Asian man wearing an Indian bindi and grasping a pair of dragons. A silver-and-gold ceremonial plate, found in the former city of Aï Khanoum, shows the Greek goddesses Cybele and Nike attended by Asian priests. Fragments of Bronze Age bowls wrought in Afghan gold are embellished with Mesopotamian-style bearded bulls. It’s remarkable that these pieces, fashioned several millennia ago, were ever resurrected from their earthen graves, and more remarkable still that they have transcended the turmoil Afghanistan continues to endure. From March 1 to May 17; 713-639-7300, mfah.org
Accused of curatorial myopia one too many times, the Austin-based Texas Biennial is broadening its scope and shaking up its format. Opening at six galleries this month, the third biennial will showcase 73 contemporary artists—nearly double the number chosen for its last show, in 2007. This year, though, instead of being selected by a jury, they’ve been cherry-picked by a single judge, Los Angeles—based art critic and independent curator Michael Duncan. Duncan’s fresh point of view has been an asset. “We were looking for an outside perspective, and with Michael’s help we’ve become more encompassing,” says first-year executive director Xochi Solis, who credits Duncan with encouraging the grassroots operation to overcome its creative biases.
To demonstrate just how deep and varied the Texas art pool is, Duncan has created two multifarious group shows, “Big Tall Texas” and “Wide Open Texas.” Among the participants are El Paso’s Keith Allyn Spencer, who incorporates cutout pictures of hip-hop personas (Vanilla Ice, Flavor Flav) in colorful mixed-media canvases; Edinburg’s Paul Valadez, who taps into his bicultural upbringing by juxtaposing Americana images and Spanish text in acrylic paintings; and Ennis’s Celia Eberle, who makes “fake artifacts” out of found objects (plastic toys, alabaster busts). To give equal weight to the various sections of the state, Duncan has awarded solo exhibitions to four artists: Greenville’s Lee Baxter Davis, San Antonio’s Jayne Lawrence, Houston’s Kelli Vance, and Lubbock’s William Cannings. The Texas Biennial has heard its critics—and moved far beyond them. In Austin from March 6 to April 11 at various locations; 512-385-1670, texasbiennial.com
The organizers of the AFI Dallas International Film Festival might have been forgiven if their first outing, in 2007, had fallen short of its boldly ambitious goals. Attracting ten thousand filmgoers and filling an eleven-day schedule with screenings of some 150 features and shorts seemed endearingly optimistic, especially since the city was already playing host to several notable fests, including the USA Film Festival. But spurred on by the energy of well-connected founders Michael Cain and Liener Temerlin, the inaugural event far exceeded expectations. Thirty thousand cinephiles poured into theaters to watch more than 200 silver-screen offerings.
Although critics dutifully pointed out AFI Dallas’s early shortcomings—particularly its “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to programming—the festival exploded again in 2008. Its sophomore effort was bigger, glitzier, and more finely tuned than its predecessor, with red-carpet appearances by Charlize Theron and Helen Hunt and nearly three hundred celluloid treats for its growing audience.
Given the abysmal economic climate, no one would deem the 2009 festival a failure if box office sales slipped, but if this year’s titles are any indication, AFI Dallas is still on the upswing. Its organizers have secured the rights to several U.S. premieres (the JFK thriller The American Trap, Robert Keener’s documentary Food, Inc.) and at least three world premieres, including Justin Wilson’s One Nation, an artful profile of the tumultuous year 1968, and Playground, Libby Spears’s haunting investigation of child sex trafficking in America. Yes, several of the marquee features have already debuted at other major festivals, but they are superlative films: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Sugar, for example, a coming-of-age drama about a Dominican baseball prospect, and Matt Aselton’s comedy Gigantic, which follows a mattress salesman