Behind the Scenes of “Turquoise Mountain”

Dedicated to teaching a new generation of Afghan artisans in woodwork, calligraphy, ceramics, jewelry design, and other crafts, Turquoise Mountain is reviving Afghanistan’s proud cultural legacy. To share this transformative story of people, places, and heritage in Afghanistan, the Freer|Sackler is recreating a visit to Old Kabul for Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan, opening March 5. Tommy Wide, director of exhibitions at the organization, takes us behind the scenes of our forthcoming presentation. 

We wanted this show to be an exploration and celebration of Afghan contemporary art and culture. We wanted to capture the voices and ideas of the remarkable team of people in Afghanistan who have regenerated Murad Khani, a district of Old Kabul, and are leading the revival of Afghanistan’s artisan crafts. The exhibition, which is now being installed, features sections dedicated to several of these art forms.

Ceramics
I started planning the show by talking to artisans whom I have worked with for many years at Turquoise Mountain. Abdul Matin Malekzada, whom I first knew as a student at the institute, now runs his own ceramics business and teaches at the Turquoise Mountain Institute.

Left to right: Abdul Matin Malekzada and Tommy Wide
Left to right: Abdul Matin Malekzada and Tommy Wide

Abdul Matin was interested in focusing on the process of ceramic production, the different stages needed to make a traditional bowl, and the sheer work that goes into making a single piece. We decided to make a long film in his village, Istalif, which would show the whole process of making one bowl. Our filmmaker, Lalage Snow, and I drove up to Istalif at 4 am one October morning to film a day of pottery making with Abdul Matin and friends. It was special for me to come back to Istalif, a place where I had worked in 2007 and 2008, and where I had learned to speak Dari, one of the languages of Afghanistan. The weather was beautiful, and we got some lovely photos to go along with our film. Here is Abdul Matin (center) with his friends Abdul Wahab and Masoud, on their way to look for a clay seam in the hills around Istalif.

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We designed a display that will show bowls in different stages of production and includes lots of bowls on the wall—a reference to the bowls lining the famous pottery bazaar in Istalif (below). We’re even hanging the bowls the same way, fastening wire loops around the bases that slip over nails hammered into the wall.

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Woodwork
For the woodwork sections, we relied on the vision and creativity of Ustad Nasser Mansouri, one of the Islamic world’s finest woodworkers. I have worked with Ustad Nasser for many years and have always been in awe of his design ability and technical skills. In cooperation with our head engineer, Hedayat Ahmadzai, we decided to recreate part of one of our favorite buildings, the Double Column Serai, which Ustad Nasser had helped restore in 2007–9. Below are photos of the building and of Ustad Nasser with the columns he made for the exhibition.

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To share our plans with the exhibition team at the Freer|Sackler, we made a model version of the building’s arches out of Himalayan cedar and sent pictures and diagrams to DC.

Exhibition arch in miniature
Exhibition arch in miniature

Seeking inspiration for the rest of the woodwork sections, Ustad Nasser and I walked around Old Kabul looking at buildings. Ustad Nasser had been a refugee in Iran as a young man and always said that Kabul’s historic buildings taught him a great deal about Afghan history and culture. He thus decided to make jali (latticework) panels to reference a historic Afghan design, examples of which he and I photographed last August while visiting a shrine in Asheqan-o-Arefan.

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Ustad Nasser started working on pieces in his workshop in western Kabul. I was particularly struck by his jali geodesic dome, made by hand without nails or any industrial machinery. It reminded me of Buckminster Fuller’s designs from the 1960s, and I enjoyed showing Ustad Nasser photos of Fuller’s work. Ustad Nasser’s piece seemed perfect for the show—illustrating the way Afghan artisans are playing with traditional motifs and techniques in their strikingly original creations.

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Ustad Nasser also designed the large walnut jali panels you’ll see when you enter the exhibition. They’re designed to give a glimpse of the show while distinguishing the semicircular entry area from the rest of the gallery. Ustad Nasser made sure the jalis could be packed in small crates and reassembled—without nails—in DC.

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The panels were so beautifully made that they slotted together perfectly once they arrived. The installation team, pictured here installing the pieces, was amazed that they were made entirely by hand.

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Calligraphy
We worked with a team of young calligraphers to realize their vision for the calligraphy section of the show. First stop was Samira Kitman, a young calligraphy business owner whom I’ve worked with for several years. She discussed the need to use natural pigments, and she and I had fun looking at gold leaf and the pigments she used in her work.

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Jewelry
Turquoise Mountain graduate Saeeda Etebari, one of the most talented young jewelers in Afghanistan, created a special piece for the exhibition’s jewelry section. Very excitingly for Saeeda and for us, the United Kingdom-based designer Pippa Small then agreed to work with Saeeda to make a one-off piece. Pippa visited Kabul several times to design with Saeeda, and they established a deep bond. Watching Pippa and Saeeda work together was a joy for us all. Here they are collaborating on the piece with Javid Noori, a jewelry teacher at the Turquoise Mountain Institute.

Left to right: Javid Noori, Saeeda Etebari, Pippa Small
Left to right: Javid Noori, Saeeda Etebari, Pippa Small

Carpet
I wanted something spectacular for the carpet section, so I turned to one of the most exciting carpet designers in the world, Erbil Tezcan. Erbil is based in New Jersey and has been working with Afghan carpet-makers for several years. I gave him a simple task: make something really special that tells a story of Afghanistan. The result, which Erbil is shown working on below, was the Afghan history carpet that you’ll see in the exhibition. It traces the evolution of Afghan carpets by weaving together more than twenty historic designs.

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We wanted the piece made wholly in Afghanistan rather than having it finished in Pakistan, which is often the case with Afghan carpets. It took a team of weavers in Dawlatabad several months to weave the rug. Finally, in September 2015, it was sent to Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan to be washed.

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The history carpet was then shipped to DC, where it spent several weeks undergoing CO2 treatment to kill off any insects. It was a nerve-wracking moment when Kenny Mitchell of the Roto design firm, who is heading the exhibition’s installation, opened up the carpet for the first time. I’d seen carpets ruined in transit from Afghanistan, so I was holding my breath. Luckily, this one was beautiful and intact.

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Finishing Touches
We wanted the exhibition to involve as many people from Murad Khani as possible. A few of the community’s skilled women tailors made the cushions for the show’s central pavilion—a place to catch your breath, watch the beautiful films, and learn more about Afghanistan through our specially designed interactive map.

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Now that everything has arrived safely in DC, we’ve spent the last week installing the pieces in the exhibition space. Miraculously, none of the several tons of woodwork we shipped was damaged, and everything seems to fit together well. We’ve been very lucky, too, that one of our Afghan engineers, Hedayat Ahmadzai, has been with us, advising the installation team as they get everything set up.

Left to right: Joseph Patterson and Hedayat Ahmadzai
Left to right: Joseph Patterson and Hedayat Ahmadzai

We can’t wait to show you the final result when Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan opens in just a few weeks.

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