April 15, 2010
KABUL, Afghanistan — Moheb Sadiq gazed at his self-portrait and sighed.
Moheb — call him only Moheb, that’s how he signs his work — paints to trick reality. Each canvas is a refuge, a hallucinatory image of how he wants himself and his broken country to appear in the eyes of others. He is a man unfolding his own prophecy amid a war that seems to have no end.
‘‘I began painting six years ago. I had been writing small poems and one night a vision entered my sleep. I saw pictures and woke up an artist,’’ he said without a wink of humor while pointing to his latest work. ‘‘See my sky? I put red and yellow in my sky, and it is gorgeous.’’
Some things are not, though, and they trouble Moheb’s artistic sensibilities. Beyond his gallery window, militants plot and army patrols rumble. War in the provinces leaves unmarked stones on quickly dug graves, and the air in the city can crack and turn to smoke without notice.
‘‘I heard about a suicide bomb attack today,’’ Moheb said. ‘‘I saw many soldiers in the streets and I lost the urge to paint. I don’t want a rocket or explosion to kill me, to shatter my shop.’’
He slipped into uncharacteristic quiet, as if someone had smeared gray across his yellow-red sky.
‘‘I’ve only done one painting of the war in my country,’’ he said. ‘‘I was afraid of that painting, so I took it off my wall and had my brother sell it. I didn’t want it around.’’
That is the world he hides from; the world he paints is an escape into vivid colors and dramatic strokes. His crowded alleys and teeming mountainsides are impressionistic, as if looking at marketplace mornings and amber twilights through a rained-upon window.
‘‘I want a city of people having jobs, of busy shops and movement, of peace,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s imaginary, I know, but it is my desire for Afghanistan.’’
His studio was cold. He worked in a back corner bundled in a black coat, dabbing his palette and mixing colors, bangs swaying across his forehead. Face drawn, eyes fast and bright, he twitched like a magpie, preoccupied and searching for another image.
He often mentioned the word ‘‘unique,’’ and in conversation spoke of himself alongside Van Gogh and Picasso.
His largest work, a hillside cityscape, is for sale for $10,000, but most of his paintings are priced between $1,000 and $5,000, many of them sold to foreigners attached to international organizations that are trying to rebuild Afghanistan.
He likes Westerners.
‘‘They have money and buy my work,’’ he said. ‘‘There are two kinds of other people: Afghans who have returned from Europe and abroad and appreciate my art, and the other Afghans, who just don’t realize the value of what I create.’’
His wife is one of the other Afghans.
‘‘She knows nothing about art. When she sees paint on my clothes all she can say is, ‘Be careful.’ ’’
He glanced out the window to the street. Is it ever safe for a man desperate to leave a legacy? War does that, makes an artist rush against a clock he hears but cannot see. His biggest fear, this thin man who holds painting knives as if they’re weapons, is to be forgotten, for war to obscure the countless tubes of oils squeezed onto his palette.
‘‘Look at the other famous painters who have passed into history,’’ he said, then pointed to a portrait of a long-ago Afghan poet hanging above him. ‘‘Look at him. He’s not alive but I love him. That’s what I want for me, people to see my name and remember.’’
He stood and posed for a picture next to his self-portrait, which like his other paintings was prettier than reality.
He struck the same pose as his imagined self, looking toward something unknown beyond the frame. Thick strokes gave the man in the painting a fuller, more handsome face, which, along with a trim mustache and an open-collared shirt draped in a blazer, suggested an urbane character who once might have been a prince.Source: The Pueblo Chieftain