By Sabrina Greene
On the third sublevel of the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., a new exhibition “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan” featuring jewelry, woodwork, rugs, calligraphy and pottery made by Afghan artisans, gives visitors a feel for what it’s like to live in a society where craft, art and practical living solutions are coming together.
A non-profit organization founded in 2006, the Turquoise Mountain project aims to physically restore the historic city center of Kabul after years of turmoil and to restore the traditional crafts of the city. The project is giving artisans the lessons and resources they need to relearn traditional craft. This collaborative effort between Afghan artisans and the folks at Turquoise Mountain also has helped local artisans find new markets, both domestic and international, according to Tommy Wide, Director of Exhibitions at Turquoise Mountain.
Urban regeneration in Afganistan organized by the Turquoise Mountain Project.
Turquoise Mountain aims to restore Afghan tradition without keeping Afghan artists in the past. “The last thing I’d ever want to do is for this presentation of tradition to be seen as locking Afghanistan into its traditional methods,” Wide says. “It’s about the fruitful preservation, but also transformation, of these traditions through the careful, judicious use of new materials, new techniques, new machinery, new design.”
Collaboration is something that Turquoise Mountain stresses. Nasser Mansouri, a celebrated classical Afghan woodworker, came up with the idea that visitors should be able to touch the woodwork he would create of the exhibit, and this principle was incorporated into the design of the entire exhibit. Wide notes that the exhibit questions how we approach art. “It’s not just treating the art as an aesthetic object, but as a lived experience and a story, and the person behind the art.”
To drive this point home, the exhibit provides large photographs of the artisans themselves, and each explanatory panel is written by the artist, not the curator. “That was really important for us, that it was all in their voices, so the visitors have an unmediated connection with the artist,” Wide says.
The tactility of the exhibit highlights the strong connection between form and function in the craft of the artisans. The jali panels, designed by Mansouri, have several uses in Afghan society: to regulate light, to divide rooms and to create beauty. In the exhibit, visitors are encouraged to touch Mansouri’s woodwork, which includes large archways and samples of the jali panels.
Beautiful flowers and traditional patterns are carved into the Himalayan cedar of the arches and columns, and darker walnut wood of the jali panels are carved with geometric lattice patterns, like a kaleidoscope. Visitors can lift the panels and hold them up to the light to see how the panels block and let through light to project the patterns onto the wall. The texture of Mansouri’s woodworking is enticing to touch, as the wood itself is smoothed but the patterns jut out to greet the hand.
While the jewelry in the exhibit cannot be touched, its texture is also enticing. The main attraction is a beautiful gold and emerald necklace designed in a collaboration between Pippa Small, a British designer, and Saeeda Etebari, an Afghan jewelry maker. Etebari, who is deaf, decided to make rain a motif in the design of the necklace, which is reflected in the emerald beads scattered throughout the gold fringe. The pottery in the exhibit reflects the name of the Turquoise Mountain organization, as the clay is found in the hills of Afghanistan and the pots are then glazed in turquoise.
Turquoise Mountain focuses on what Afghanistan has to offer, rather than what it lacks. Wide sees the strength of Turquoise Mountain’s work in the way it harnesses the skills and beauty that are already present in the country. Turquoise Mountain does well to act as an intermediary between the artisans and the rest of the world, helping to accentuate and promote what they do.
“Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan” is on display in the Sackler Gallery until January 29, 2017. To find out more, visit asia.si.edu or turquoisemountain.org.