Turquoise Mountain illuminates Afghan arts and culture

Just over a decade ago, Murad Khani — a once-bustling section of the Silk Road in Kabul, Afghanistan — was buried under piles of trash. Today, more than 100 historic buildings there have been restored, and the community is home to a primary school, a medical clinic and a thriving center for traditional Afghan arts.

Until recently, the Old City of Kabul was buried under several feet of garbage. It had no running water, drainage, or electricity. Its historic buildings were in ruins and were being threatened by modern development. Image courtesy Turquoise Mountain.

Tommy Wide saw Murad Khani’s transformation firsthand, starting as a volunteer with the British NGO Turquoise Mountain in 2007. Despite the ongoing American war in Afghanistan, Wide told ivoh it was a remarkable time to be working in Kabul’s Old City. “The whole neighborhood was a building site and alive with activity. It was amazing to see the mountains of garbage being cleared and the beautiful mud and timber construction that had somehow survived.”

In the last year, thousands of visitors to the Freer|Sackler galleries in Washington, DC have also gotten a glimpse of Murad Khani’s metamorphosis through the exhibition  “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan.”

Wide, who eventually served as a country director for Turquoise Mountain and now works for the Freer|Sackler, curated the exhibition. “(We) wanted to show a different side of a country understood overwhelmingly through the lens of war,” he said. “We wanted to disrupt that narrative a little, to focus on the creativity, genius, joy, resilience that can be found (in Afghanistan), alongside all the wrenching social and political problems that also exist.”

Views from inside the Turquoise Mountain exhibition at the Freer|Sackler galleries in Washington, DC. Photo credit: Kara Newhouse

Upon entering the exhibition, videos and photos introduce visitors to the history of Murad Khani and how it fell into ruin during decades of unrest in the 20th century. Turquoise Mountain began working with Kabul residents to revive the neighborhood’s centuries-old traditions of art and architecture in 2006. Since then, more than 450 artisans have completed three-year training programs in woodwork, calligraphy, ceramics, jewelry or miniature painting.

Turquoise Mountain is committed to providing a sustainable source of income for Afghanistan’s young women. Currently over half of Turquoise Mountain’s calligraphy and jewelry students are women. Image courtesy Turquoise Mountain.


Further into the gallery space, the broad arc of Murad Khani’s transformation is brought to life through the individual stories of several of those artisans, such as Saeeda Etebari, who was born in a refugee camp in Pakistan and lost her hearing at age 3:

“After the fall of the Taliban, our family returned to Kabul. I finished high school and even started teaching at the same school, but I did not find teaching as rewarding as I had hoped.

Then my brother suggested I study a craft instead, so I enrolled in the Turquoise Mountain Institute. I chose jewelry because I love the focus and skill that making jewelry requires. You need to be really precise and really patient.

I can lose myself for hours when I’m working on a delicate piece. The more intricate the work, the more I enjoy it.

Designing a piece that somebody will buy and wear is a special experience for me. I love making a connection with someone through a shared sense of beauty.”

Views from inside the Turquoise Mountain exhibition at the Freer|Sackler galleries in Washington, DC. Photo credit: Kara Newhouse.

Or Abdul Matin Malekzadah, who descends from generations of potters:

“When the Taliban came, we buried our tools in the ground and fled with my family. We were refugees for several years. After the Taliban lost power in my area, I returned. I remembered where my tools were buried, but the Taliban had found them and destroyed them. I rebuilt my house with my brothers, and we started to make pots again.”

Tommy Wide, Assistant Director For Special Projects At Freer|Sackler, at Turquoise Mountain. First-person narratives like these were used to encourage a deeper connection between visitors and the artists, according to Wide, who said he “wanted to avoid the falsely ‘objective’ tone of the normal museum exhibition label.” Photo credit: Andrew Quilty

Wide also threw out the rulebook when it came to displaying the artisans’ work. Rather than placing items behind glass or “do not touch” signs, the exhibition is designed to replicate parts of a caravanserai, a traditional Afghan courtyard area. Gallery visitors can run their fingers over wooden latticework, squeeze skeins of spun wool, and relax in a Himalayan cedar pavilion. Getting these handmade products to DC was a logistical feat that included transporting several tons of woodwork out of a landlocked country. “I had a few anxious days with the woodwork stuck in various airports around the world,” Wide said. “But, in the end, everything made it in one piece on time.”

Born in 1988 in Mazar-e-Sharif, Zahir Shah Amin is the son of one of Afghanistan’s most renowned tile makers. He joined the first tile-making program of the Turquoise Mountain Institute in 2007, and today he is its head teacher. Image courtesy Turquoise Mountain.

And the ability for visitors to touch and feel these items while reading the artisans’ stories has proven powerful. Wide recalled some of the most memorable exchanges with visitors: “I think of the Afghan-American visitors who have often not been back to Afghanistan for decades, and are so proud to see their culture’s art on the National Mall. I think of a Peace Corps worker who was in Afghanistan in the ‘70s. He walked into the exhibition and just burst into tears. He told me, ‘I thought this had all been destroyed. I love watching children sitting on the floor, unglazed bowls in their hands, watching as Abdul Matin throws a pot.”


During the 1990s rubber shoes were made from tires at this site. Today this grand serai is home to the Turquoise Mountain Institute ceramics school. Image courtesy Turquoise Mountain.

Though many examples of restorative narratives draw from journalism, the Turquoise Mountain exhibition illustrates how other cultural and artistic forms can embody the genre. When asked if he thought the label was appropriate, Wide said yes.

“I see (ivoh) talk about ‘capturing hard truths’ as well as ‘highlighting a meaningful progression,’” he said. “I think that balance is exactly what we were trying to achieve — to not overlook the difficulties (in Afghanistan), but to look at how local communities find possibilities, beauty, excellence amidst such difficulties. … It seems to me that museums too have an important role in telling these kinds of stories.”

“Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan” opened in March 2016 and closes in October.

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