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Rediscovering Afghan Fine Arts: The life of an Afghan student in Germany, Abdul Ghafur Brechna

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 May 2021

Department of History, University of California, Los Angeles Email:


In 1919, Afghanistan embarked on a series of reforms that led to the presence of Afghan students at various European universities, facilitating the circulation of peoples, ideas, and goods. Focusing on one of these cases, this article examines how an Afghan student engaged critically with ‘Western’ art and translated artistic ideas and technologies through the grid of Afghanistan's own history of the fine arts. Through an exploration of the work of Abdul Ghafur Brechna (1907–1974)—artist, music composer, poet, and writer—I argue that, despite his desire to train at German technical schools, Brechna translated, then connected, his Western training to restore Afghanistan's traditional visual and literary arts, making it problematic to define his oeuvre as purely ‘modern’ or ‘traditional’. The first aim is to situate Brechna within the intellectual milieu of Weimar Germany, placing emphasis on how he curated the course of his education to support his aims. By tracing out the evolution of his artistic knowledge to Afghanistan, the second part of this article connects his earlier training to the newly emerging scholars in Kabul who also grappled with national renewal and an ‘Aryan’ literary and cultural heritage. Lastly, I discuss his attempt to rewrite the history of the arts by closely analysing his visual and literary work, emphasizing in particular his attempt to reconnect to themes and genres that had previously been lost or neglected.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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I would like to extend special gratitude to Nile Green and Sanjay Subrahmanyam for extensive readings and comments on various oral and written versions of this article. I also thank Benjamin D. Hopkins and Norbert Peabody for their insightful comments and continued support of this manuscript. Comments from the two anonymous reviewers of MAS substantially improved this article. Sohaib Baig, Robert D. Crews, Scottie Hale Buehler, Ali Nehme Hamdan, Fredrick Walter Lorenz, Mejgan Massoumi, David Sabean, and Jesse Sadler generously offered comments throughout.


1 I thank Saloni Mathur for drawing my attention to T. Clark, J., ‘The look of self-portraiture’, The Yale Journal of Criticism, vol. 5, no. 2, 1992, pp. 109118Google Scholar. Also see Saloni Mathur, ‘A retake of Sher-Gil's Self-Portrait as Tahitian’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 37, no. 3, 2011, pp. 515–544.

2 All Persian names and words follow the IJMES transliteration system. However, ʿAbd al-Ghafūr Brishnā is standardized as Abdul Ghafur Brechna, as per the Brechna Archive, throughout the text, except for sources and references published outside the Brechna Archive.

3 For an examination of the unsettling temporalities that accompany the experience of migrants and ensuing creativity, see Guha, Ranajit, ‘The migrant's time’, Postcolonial Studies, vol. 1, no. 2, 1998, pp. 155160CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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5 Basalla, George, ‘The spread of Western science’, Science, vol. 156, no. 3775, 1967, pp. 611622CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed. For a critique of this view in the South Asian context, see Raj, Kapil, ‘Beyond postcolonialism … and postpositivism: circulation and the global history of science’, Isis, vol. 104, no. 2, 2013, pp. 337347CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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7 Recent studies in this direction include the work of Shakry, Omnia El, The Arabic Freud: psychoanalysis and Islam in modern Egypt (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020)Google Scholar.

8 May Schinasi, Kaboul 1773–1948: Naissance et croissance d'une capitale royale (Napoli: Università degli studi di Napoli ‘L'Orientale’, 2008), p. 148; and Ināyat Allāh Shahrānī, Sharḥ-i aḥvāl va āsār-i pirūfīsūr Ghulām Muḥammad Maymanagī (Peshawar: Kānūn-i Farhangī-i Qizil-i Chūpān, 1385 (2005)). I thank Jawan Shir Rasikh for sharing a copy with me.

9 ‘Afghan artist returns from international art exhibition’, Kabul Times, vol. 10, no. 201, 1971, pp. 2–4.

10 Tehran (1953, 1966); Delhi (1954, 1974); Cairo (1956); New York (1957); Moscow (1965, 1973); Peking (1967); Sofia (1967); Cannes (1971); and Dushanbe (1972).

11 Brechna Archive, Karlsruhe, Germany: ‘Hohe Auszeichnung für Abdul Ghafur Brechna’, Deutsches Nachrichtenblatt: Herausgegeben von der Botschaft der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, no.14, 1968.

12 Treaty parties included Turkey (March 1921), Iran (June 1921), Italy (1921), France (1922), Belgium (1923), Germany (1926), and Poland (1928).

13 For a discussion of this historiography and critique, see Elsharky, Marwa, ‘When science became Western: historiographical reflections’, Isis, vol. 101, no. 1, 2010, pp. 98109Google Scholar.

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23 Niẓāmnāmah-i asāsī-yi vizārat-i jalīlah-i ma‘ārif-i Afghānistān (Regulations of the Afghan Ministry of Education), 1302 (1923).

24 Politisches Archiv des Auswärtiges Amt (German Foreign Office) (hereafter AAmt): R 63256-7: ‘Die Aemani/Amani Oberrealschule, 1927–1934’.

26 Emadi, Hafizullah, Dynamics of political development in Afghanistan: the British, Russian, and American invasions (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 22CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Schinasi, May, ‘Femmes afghans: instruction et activités publiques pendant le règne amâniya (1919–1929)’, Annali dell'Istituto Universitario Orientale di Napoli, vol. 55, no. 4, 1995, pp. 446462Google Scholar.

27 For France, see ‘Les élèves étrangers dans les lycées’, Revue universitaire, vol. 30, 1921; and Mehrzad Bouroujerdi, ‘“The West” in the eyes of the Iranian intellectuals of the interwar years (1919–1939)’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, vol. 26, no. 3, 2006, pp. 391–401.

28 This estimate comes from British surveillance records that traced the numbers carefully; see India Office Records, British Library/L/PS/10/1015/1: 1921–1928: Afghanistan: Education of Afghan Youths in Europe and Turkey.

29 Schatzberg, Eric, Technology: critical history of a concept (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), pp. 6768CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Schatzberg, E., ‘Technik comes to America’, Technology and Culture, vol. 47, 2006, pp. 486512CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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32 Ramnath, Maia, The Haj to utopia: anti-colonial radicalism in the South Asian diaspora, 1905–1930 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 AAmt: R 62998 and 9: ‘Die Zulassung’.

34 AAmt: R 62998f, ‘Die Zulassung von Schülern aus Afghanistan zu deutschen Lehranstalten 1921–1927’, p. 28.

35 The process is documented in his memoir, see Brechna Archive: Abdul Ghafur Brechna, Khātirahhā-yi Abdul Ghafur Brechna, 1959–60; and ‘Afghan artist returns from international art exhibition’, Kabul Times, vol. 10, no. 201, 1971, pp. 2–4.

36 Green, Nile, ‘From Persianate past to Aryan antiquity. Transnationalism and transformation in Afghan intellectual history, c.1880–1940’, Afghanistan, vol. 1, no. 1, 2018, pp. 2667CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

37 The Māshīn Khānah served different purposes under different sovereigns, and under both the Amān Allāh and Nādir Khān regimes, the state housed a printing press (Maṭbaʻ-i Māshīn Khānah).

38 The German Foreign Office banned intermarriages between migrants and German women, and therefore monitored the itinerancy of Germans going to Afghanistan. See the files held at the Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archives), Koblenz (hereafter BArch): R 901/28136: ‘Überwachung des Auswanderung nach Afghanistan, 1924–1938’. Brishnā's letter sent to the German Foreign Office was kept in these same files that monitored German émigrés; see, in particular, ‘Überwachung des Auswanderung nach Afghanistan: Anschrift an das Auswärtige Amt, Sept. 1928’.

39 Madhavan K. Palat and Anara Tabyshalieva, History of civilizations of Central Asia, Vol. 6 (Paris: UNESCO Publishing, 2005), p. 766.

40 Mitter, Partha, Art and nationalism in colonial India: Occidental orientations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 6Google Scholar.

41 Mitter, P., The triumph of modernism: India's artists and the avant-garde, 1922–47 (London: Reaktion, 2007), p. 10Google Scholar.

42 Brechna, Khātirahhā-yi, p. 45.

43 Ibid, p. 96. See original: Pirūfīsūr Fārinkrūg ustād-i anātūmī va pūrtrit-i mā, ʿalāvah bar naqqāshī, shāʿir va adīb ham būd. Asarī banām-i lūsīfar yaʿnī iblīs dārad. Aghlab tāblūhā-yi ū (bashīvah-yi rūmāntīk) hamīn mawżūʿ rā namāyish mīdahad. Bar ʿaks ānchi man shaytān rā taṣavvur mīnamūdam bāl va dumī barāyash qiyās mīkardam ū iblīs rā qashang rasm mīnamūd.

44 Robinson, B. W., Fifteenth-century Persian painting: problems and issues (New York: New York University Press, 1993), p. 14Google Scholar.

45 Brechna, Khātirahhā-yi, p. 96; see original: Sabk-i ū dar naqqāshī bashīva-yi Max Klinger—Feuerbach va dar baʿṣi tasāvīr ba ravish-i Arnold Böcklin naqqāshān-i maʿrūf-i Almān būd.

46 Bourneuf, Annie, Paul Klee: the visible and the legible (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), p. 95CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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48 Böcklin, Arnold, German School (Boston: Bates and Guild, 1906), p. 116Google Scholar.

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56 One of these colleagues was Aḥmad ʿAlī Kuhzād (1907–83); see Ahmad Ali Kohzad, ‘Les relations culturelles entre l'Afghanistan et l'Inde’, Afghanistan, vol. 1, no. 2, 1946, p. 14.

57 Shahwali Ahmadi, ‘Fiction in Afghanistan’, Encyclopædia Iranica, vol. 9, no. 6, 2012, pp. 603–606.

58 Nile Green, ‘The Afghan discovery of Buddha: civilizational history and the nationalizing of Afghan antiquity’, International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 49, no. 1, 2017, pp. 47–70. See also Aria Fani’s excellent close reading of Āryānā, which uncovered both the local and transregional processes of new disciplinary formations. Aria Fani, ‘Disciplinizing Persian literature in twentieth-century Afghanistan’, Iranian Studies, forthcoming.

59 This tandem collaboration manifested in the naming of the national airline ‘Ariana’, new sporting clubs (such as the Klub-i Āryānā Kābul Afghanistan, and political tracts that reflected a uniform message highlighting Afghanistan's regional centrality. See for instance: ‘Tārīkhcha-i Klub-I Āryānā Kābul Afghanistan (The History of Aryana Club, Kabul Afghanistan)’, Afghanistan Digital Library, available at, [accessed 26 February 2021]; and Abdussattar Shalizi, Afghanistan: ancient land with modern ways (Kabul: National Government of Afghanistan, 1961).

60 Ali Ahmad Naïmi, ‘Afghan calligraphy, illumination and miniature—work in ninth century A.H.’, Afghanistan, vol 1, no. 1, 1946; Ali Ahmad Naïmi, ‘Behzad’, Afghanistan, vol. 3, no. 2, 1948; and Ali Ahmad Naïmi, ‘Une famille d'artistes’, Afghanistan, vol. 3, no. 3, 1948.

61 Naïmi, ‘Une famille d'artistes’, p. 43. See original: ‘Comme l‘art gréco-bouddhique dont le foyer était á l'Est de notre pays, avant l'Islam, l'art de la peinture miniature, l'incrustation, la calligraphie, l'art de la reliure lesquels sont nés à Hérat aux IX et X siècles de Hégire, sont les arts propres à l'Afghanistan.’

62 For Safavid Iran, see David Roxburgh, ‘Kamal al-din Bihzad and authorship in Persianate painting’, Muqarnas: An Annual on the Visual Culture of the Islamic World, vol. 33, 2016, pp. 119–146. For Mughal India, see Abū’l Fazl ibn Mubārak, The Ain-i Akbari, trans. and reprint Henry Blochmann and H. S. Jarret (Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal, 2010).

63 Naïmi, ‘Afghan calligraphy’, p. 35.

64 Tapati Guha-Thakurta, Monuments, objects, histories: institutions of art in colonial and post-colonial India (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).

65 Roxburgh, ‘Kamal al-din Bihzad and authorship in Persianate painting’.

66 A. G. Breshna, (trans.) Maliha Fazil Zafar, ‘A glance at the history of fine arts in Afghanistan’, Afghanistan, vol. 25, no. 3, 1972, pp. 1122Google Scholar.

67 Ibid., p. 11.

68 See this argument developed further by one of Brishnā’s contemporaries: Enayatullah Shahrani (Ināyat Allāh Shahrānī), ‘Art education in Afghanistan’, PhD thesis, University of Arizona, 1978, p. 45. See also Shahrānī, Sharḥ-i aḥvāl va āsār-i pirūfīsūr Ghulām Muḥammad Maymanagī.

69 Most notably for the 1965 film Waqt (1965). See ‘Imaginary encounter with a maestro’, The Hindu, published online on 24 October 2018, available at <>, [accessed 14 April 2021].

70 Breshna, A. G., (trans.) Nurullah Sahraii, ‘Haji Mirwais Khan: a historical play in 3 scenes’, Afghanistan: Historical and Cultural Quarterly, vol. 23, no. 2, 1970 [1349], pp. 5981Google Scholar.

71 ʿAbd al-Ghafūr Brishnā, Jāddah-’i afyūn (Kabul: Dawlatī-i Maṭbaʿah, 1967 [1346]).

72 I thank Ahmad Rashid Salim for this point.

73 Green and Arbabzadah (eds), Afghanistan in ink.

74 Ahmadi, ‘Fiction in Afghanistan’.

75 For a history of radio in Afghanistan, see Mejgan Massoumi, ‘The sounds of Kabul: radio and the politics of popular culture in Afghanistan, 1960–79’, PhD thesis, Stanford University, 2021.