Democracy Dies in Darkness

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How Turquoise Mountain is helping Afghan artisans preserve and pass on their skills

By Sadie Dingfelder

March 3, 2016 at 6:21 AM

The ceramics school at Turquoise Mountain Institute in the old city of Kabul, above, inspired the design of the exhibit, which re-creates the school in the Smithsonian’s International Gallery using intricately carved wooden arcades shipped from Afghanistan and assembled without the use of a single nail. (Turquoise Mountain)

When the Taliban came to burn down Abdul Matin Malekzadah's home in 1997, they gave him three hours to pack up and leave. An eighth-generation potter, Malekzadah buried the tools he couldn't carry with him before fleeing his beloved village in the mountains of Afghanistan. When he returned a few years later, the tools were gone.

"The Taliban had found and destroyed them, but, nevertheless, he rebuilt his kilns and started making again," says Thomas Wide, who works for Turquoise Mountain, a nonprofit organization that's been helping Afghan artisans preserve and pass on their skills since 2006.

Malekzadah's story is just one among many that reveal the formidable fortitude of artists in Afghanistan, Wide says.

"Extraordinary resilience, these people have," he says. "Making art amidst war is a kind of active resistance — it's a way of saying, 'We have this culture that we are proud of, that still has meaning and value.' "

That's the message of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery's "Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan," an exhibit opening in the S. Dillon Ripley Center's International Gallery on Saturday. (Visitors can get to the exhibit through either location.)

The show is bringing a little piece of Kabul's old city to Washington in the form of an 8,000-square-foot courtyard. Modeled after Turquoise Mountain Institute, the organization's campus in the historic district of Murad Khani, the arcade was built with more than 3 tons of Himalayan cedar carved by Afghan artists and shipped to the U.S. (The exhibit, and Turquoise Mountain's mission, is made possible with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development.)

Over the duration of the exhibit, 18 artisans, including Malekzadah, will come to D.C. to demonstrate their crafts.

Abdul Matin Malekzadah’s village of Istalif has been destroyed three times in modern history: by the British, the Soviets and, most recently, the Taliban. Every time, his family has returned and rebuilt its pottery studios. (Lalage Snow/Turquoise Mountain)

"Everything in the show is in the voice of the artisans themselves," Wide says. "Afghanistan is so often mediated by other voices. We want this to be a way for Afghans to express themselves, exactly what they think — their hopes, dreams and fears."

Afghanistan's long history of traditional craft-making has been left largely untouched by industrialization, Wide says. Passed down through generations, these skills are rare and valuable in today's world, and Turquoise Mountain is a place where artisans come to teach the next generation of artists and connect with modern markets. For instance, hotels around the world clamor for intricate woodwork made by Turquoise Mountain instructor Nasser Mansouri, and Turquoise Mountain jeweler Saeeda Etebari has collaborated with British designer Pippa Small to make stunning modern necklaces that incorporate traditional motifs.

Mansouri and Etebari will both be visiting the exhibit, where their work will be on display, and pieces by Mansouri will be sold in the museum's gift shop.
By bringing Afghan artists to D.C., Wide hopes to present a new view of what many Americans consider to be a place of ceaseless turmoil and tragedy.

"I would never try to pretend it's an easy place to live. It's really, really difficult. But millions of Afghans are still going about their lives, falling in love, making friends and doing business," he says.

This piece by calligrapher and painter Hasibullah Hasaan Hashimi shows his mastery of several types of script. He will come to D.C. in October to teach and take classes, and speak with visitors at the exhibit. (Turquoise Mountain)

Turquoise Mountain calligraphy teacher Hasibullah Hasaan Hashimi is one such person. He's had many opportunities to move away, but he refuses to give up on his country, he says.

"The situation here is bad," Hashimi says via Skype from Kabul. "Every day I'm worried that I might die, when [there] will be another suicide attack. But it's important for us to refresh those artistic traditions that we had, that have been damaged in the last 28 years of war."

The way Wide sees it, holding on to Afghanistan's rich heritage might even be the key to the country's economic future.

"We want to preserve the culture for Afghans, but also for people who might want to visit someday," Wide says. "What we are doing now is hopefully safeguarding Afghan culture and architecture for the decades ahead."

Ten years in Kabul
Founded in 2006, the nonprofit Turquoise Mountain began by disinterring a neighborhood in Kabul's old city known as Murad Khani, which had been buried underneath 30,000 tons of garbage. Enlisting the entire neighborhood, the group restored historic buildings and arcades using traditional mud construction and elaborately carved woodwork. The complex, now run almost entirely by Afghans, includes the organization's prestigious art school, with 150 students, a local primary school and a clinic.

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW; Sat. through Jan. 29, 2017, free.

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Sadie Dingfelder will write about anything, but she especially loves art, science, wildlife and quirky people.

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