Tim Bonyhady

Tim Bonyhady is one of Australia’s leading environmental lawyers and cultural historians. He has previously traced connections between art and national mythologies in books such as Images in Opposition (1985) and The National Picture (2018). In his latest work, Two Afternoons in the Kabul Stadium, he turns his attention to Afghanistan, unpicking the fabric of contemporary Afghan society by following closely the warp and weft of its visual culture, from women’s fashion to war rugs to photography. In today’s episode, Morag Fraser reviews Bonyhady’s book, writing in the wake of the Taliban victory and immersing herself in the ‘intriguingly tangential and complex history’ woven by one of Australia’s most scrupulous and sensitive observers of culture. Morag Fraser, a previous chairperson of ABR, has been writing for the magazine since the 1990s.

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In 1994, the Afghan mujahideen commander, Abdul Haq, rebuked the United States for forgetting about Afghanistan once the communist-backed government of Mohammad Najibullah had fallen in 1992. He predicted that Washington would rue its neglect: ‘Maybe one day they will have to send in hundreds of thousands of troops,’ he told The New York Times. ‘And if they step in, they will be stuck. We have a British grave in Afghanistan. We have a Soviet grave. And then we will have an American grave.’

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The enchanting of rats has a long history. The Pied Piper, who enchanted first the rats then the children of Hamelin, is familiar to European readers. Here, Tim Bonyhady brings us a new story of rat enchantment by the Diyari and the Yandruwandha people in the eastern Lake Eyre basin. According to explorer Edwin Welch, they sang ‘in low, weird and dirge-like tones ...

Many good books are published about Australian art, but few change the way we see and understand it. When Andrew Sayers’ ​Aboriginal Artists of the Nineteenth Century appeared in August 1994, it immediately did that, as the critic Bruce James was quick to recognise

Would it be indulgent to invoke Leonard Cohen? It’s just that his song ‘Take This Waltz’, which begins ‘Now in Vienna there are ten pretty women’, brings to mind that city’s fin-de-siècle world. In a liquescent poetic mosaic of shoulders and thighs, lilies, hyacinths, moonshine, and dew, I see the women as if painted by Gustav Klimt – portraitist, libertine – someone who ‘climbs to your picture with a garland of freshly cut tears’. And Cohen’s Kafkaesque ‘lobby with nine hundred windows’ stirs up images of Vienna as a city of windows, of watching and being watched.

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Influence spotting is one of the major preoccupations of traditional art history. Important and necessary though the practice may be, I sometimes suspect that it is employed to keep art history the preserve of the specialist and to deny access to the general reader. How refreshing, then, to be confronted with a scholarly Australian art history book that explores the artists’ subject matter and its local context rather than the derivation of the artists’ styles.

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