A new generation of artists and artisans wants the world to know that there’s more to Afghanistan than four decades of war, destruction and rubble.
The vibrant revival is on display at a major new exhibit, Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan, opening March 5 at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington DC.
What is the most outstanding element of this museum exhibit? You can touch it.
Visitors are encouraged to feel the carved wooden colonnades made of Himalayan cedar from eastern Afghanistan and carved by hand.
They can hold up a wooden jali latticework windows to the light and see the patterns the shadows cast. They can lounge on the comfortable red, gold and blue cushions, toshaks, in the caravanserai, and check out more information on the exhibit iPads.
They can gawk at a huge multi-design carpet whose designer “spent 6 weeks working 18 hours a day just to make the design,” says Thomas Wide, CEO of U.K. non-profit Turquoise Mountain Trust, “and that’s before we started weaving it.”
Turquoise Mountain is an immersive multi-media exhibit with videos, calligraphy, draped carpets, ceramics, emerald and gold jewelry, wood carving and jali shades, and, sailing neatly above, homemade kites.
Julian Raby, Director of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery says, “It’s a story of a transformation of a place, it’s a transformation of people’s lives, a transformation, a re-vivification of the old craft traditions.”
The museum’s “building” is based on historic nineteenth-century buildings in Murad Khani, the Old City of Kabul. The woodwork was “carved by hand (with) twenty-five woodworkers working four months and the whole design is without nails, without glue,” says Wide.
The exhibit’s principal sponsor is USAID who provided support to the Turquoise Mountain. That was founded in 2006 at the request of the UK’s Prince Charles and then-president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai.
“When the foundation began its work decades of war had decimated the beautiful artifacts of Afghanistan’s rich and diverse history,” said Ambassador from the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Hamdullah Mohib . “These treasures were lost, stolen, destroyed or buried. So the job at hand was not only to rediscover the lost treasures, but also to rediscover Afghanistan’s lost identity. “
Over the next nine months, 18 Afghan artists and artisans will visit Washington and go around the U.S.
The first one to arrive was Sughra Hussainy, a calligrapher whose work is on display. Tired from her trip from Afghanistan, she told a crowd, “Thank you for all patrons who support me. When I first started my art, I don’t believe that one day I come to the United States. I am very happy that I am now here.”
On the wall of her niche at Turquoise Mountain is the motto, “The body needs food; the soul needs art. “
Then there are the kites.
“In 2002, when I first got to Afghanistan, there was very little art,” said Donald Sampler of USAID, who first landed in Kabul in 2002. “The Taliban did not tolerate it and the civil war did not allow it. There wasn’t the opportunity for artisans to express themselves.”
“Some of the first bursts of color that I saw in Afghanistan were, in fact, the kites. That young boys and girls had manufactured them off scraps from the junkyards and trash heaps of the city.”
Fast forward to 2016. Cheryl Sobas, the head of exhibitions at the Freer Gallery, and project director for this exhibition, unpacked a box and found brilliantly colored kites, some with the (unsolicited according to Sobas) words “Smithsonian” and “Freer | Sackler.” Those kites now hang above a large screen showing a video of kite-flying children in Afghanistan.
Sobas said, “In this exhibition the focus is on the people, the people and their stories, and we want people (visitors) to have a rich experience of that. It’s meant to be interactive. “