Rediscovering Afghan Designs

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I opened up the package and gave a yelp. Inside was a small book of about one hundred pages stapled together, featuring text in Dari—one of the languages of Afghanistan—and floral and geometric motifs. The document was a little ripped and bleached with age, but otherwise looked in pretty good nick.

A small note revealed that the book had been sent to me by a ninety-something visitor named Leila Poullada. Two weeks before, I had given a curator’s tour of my exhibition Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan. This tiny, birdlike lady had concentrated intensely during my talk and asked me rounds of quick-fire questions afterward, in which she proved herself deeply knowledgeable and insightful. We sat chatting for forty minutes in the middle of the exhibition as she told me about her life and travels.

It turns out that Leila had lived in Afghanistan in the 1960s, moving with her husband, Leon Poullada, a US diplomat and scholar of Afghanistan. Poullada is a major name in the historiography of Afghanistan, having written one of the main accounts of the country in the early twentieth century. I knew his work well from my time as a PhD student of Afghan history.

US Ambassador Leon Poullada stands to the left of President John F. Kennedy. Image c/o Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston
US Ambassador Leon Poullada stands to the left of President John F. Kennedy in this 1961 photograph. Image c/o Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Leon had died several decades ago, Leila told me, and she now lives in a condominium in St. Louis, Missouri. She still keeps in touch with friends from their Afghanistan days. Leila had been a great traveler in Afghanistan, visiting sites like the remote Minaret of Jam that are now extremely difficult for people to reach. She had seen more of the country than I had in all my years there.

The book Leila sent was one of many that she had collected during her time in Afghanistan. Titled Afghan Designs, it was printed in Kabul in 1967. It is a design book for teachers of art and craft skills, containing patterns found in buildings and sites across the country.

I recently spent a few years working with artisans in Afghanistan—woodworkers, calligraphers, jewelers, ceramicists—as part of the Turquoise Mountain organization. As explored in the Freer|Sackler exhibition, we focus on preserving and reviving techniques and designs that have fallen or were in danger of falling out of use. Here in Leila’s book were hundreds and hundreds of those designs, recorded and detailed by researchers in the 1960s. I recognized many from buildings that Turquoise Mountain has restored in the old city district of Murad Khani in Kabul, designs that were often carved into Himalayan cedar or wet clay up in the pottery village of Istalif.

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Aside from the practical uses of the work for Turquoise Mountain students in Kabul, I was struck by the nature of the designs. From the several hundred varieties that the researchers had collected, more than three-quarters are plant and flower motifs. Only a few are purely geometric, and about a fifth are a mix of geometric and floral. In a country with such a rich appreciation of flowers and gardening, it is interesting to see how this focus has played out historically in designs that artisans use in their work. It also challenges the common misapprehension that geometric design is the overwhelming mode used in the decorative arts of the Islamic world.

I’ll be taking the book back to where it belongs—Kabul—on my next trip over. I’m very grateful to Leila Poullada for sharing it with me.

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