One of the most awaited museum exhibits of the year in the United States finally opened up in Washington, D.C., last weekend. Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan opened to positive reviews on March 5 in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, a Smithsonian Museum, and will run until January 29, 2017. The exhibition is made possible by “the support the American people have given to Turquoise Mountain through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).”
Turquoise Mountain is a British non-governmental organization founded at the request of Prince Charles of Wales and the former President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai. It takes it name from the lost capital of the Ghorid Empire, Firozkoh–turquoise mountain–destroyed during the Mongol invasions in the 1220s, the only remnant of which is the Minaret of Jam. For most of the last ten years, the organization has focused on reviving traditional Afghan craftsmanship and arts, while also providing health services and education to communities ravaged by almost constant war since the 1970s: the Soviet invasion, the mujahideen resistance, civil war between warlords, and the U.S.-led invasion to topple the Taliban.
Turquoise Mountain has focused particularly on reviving Kabul’s Old City, especially the district of Murad Khani, where it has “renovated historic buildings, opened a primary school and a medical clinic, and rebuilt necessary infrastructure [and] founded Afghanistan’s premier institution for vocational training in the arts…dedicated to teaching a new generation of Afghan artisans in woodwork, calligraphy, ceramics, jewelry design, and other crafts.”
Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan focuses on showcasing the arts, crafts, and architecture of the revived Murad Khani district. The exhibit is modeled after a courtyard built out of “magnificent wood arcades, screens, and a pavilion, all carved by hand from Himalayan cedar,” all imported from Afghanistan. Behind each arcade are exhibits dedicated to a different craft and the processes behind the production of manuscripts, carpets, jewelry, woodworking, and pottery. During the course of the exhibition, 18 artisans from Afghanistan will come to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate their crafts.
On the day I visited the exhibition, its opening day, I observed the painter and illustrator of manuscripts, Sughra Hussainy, at work. As the exhibit explained, calligraphy and manuscript illumination, known as tazhib (to gild), is a long and complex process that requires an amazing amount of concentration and time because the artist must draw geometric patterns or floral motifs by hand. One slip of the hand can would require redoing a page. As I looked at a intricately illuminated page of the Gulistan of Sa’di on display, I could not help but marvel at the amount of effort and discipline, measured in the tens of hours, that it took to complete just this one page.
Time and effort and the risk of having to start over due to even a small glitch applied to some of the other traditional crafts on display as well, especially pottery. The process of making a pot takes a week. The clay must be prepared, the pot shaped on a handmade wheel, and then decorated and glazed. At the end of all this, it must be fired in a homemade mud-based kiln. But until the pot comes out, there is always uncertainty as to the end product, since all sorts of things can go wrong in the kiln.
Many of the skills on display were useful for a variety of crafts. For example, the art of cutting and grinding lapis lazuli (a pigment used in illumination) was primarily taken care of by the jewelers in Murad Khani, who also created lapis and emerald jewelry for the exhibit. The art of dying was important to both illuminators and carpet weavers.
The highlights of the exhibit in terms of complexity of craft were, in my view, were the woodworks and carpet weaving. Many of the wood productions on display were wooden panels, which function in lieu of glass windows in parts of Afghanistan. These jali, based on how they are carved, produce interesting geometric patterns on walls as the sun shines through them. The artists also created new innovative types of jali for the display, including a geodesic dome.
The carpets were also impressive. Carpets are enormous and complex works of art that involve multiple steps: acquiring wool from sheep, selecting and preparing dyes from plants only found in or near Afghanistan, binding dyes to the wool, and months of actually weaving complex patterns. The artistic centerpiece of the exhibit was the huge, magnificent “Afghan History Carpet” that tells the story of carpet weaving in Afghanistan by patching together 23 different designs from its long history. As the carpet designer states, “in the shifting colors and designs… [there is] a spirit of adventure.”
So it is with Afghanistan, a beautiful country blessed with beautiful arts and skilled craftspeople. A visit to Turquoise Mountain is an opportunity to see another side of Afghanistan, the side that has reemerged since the U.S. invasion in 2001. We should reflect that Afghanistan is not all war and destruction; that there is a deep heritage and artistic richness that has reemerged since the fall of the cruel Taliban government.