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This New Smithsonian Exhibit Shows Another Side of Afghanistan

By Sarah Purkrabek

Jan 25, 2016

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Student practicing illumination

Photo courtesy of Turquoise Mountain

Student practicing illumination

Traditional jewelry, painting, woodworking, and more are on display

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In March, the Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington, DC will transform into Afghanistan’s Old Kabul marketplace. It’s all part of the charity Turquoise Mountain’s plan to revitalize the real Kabul, where Afghan artisans used to sell everything from jewelry to pottery and clothes. Over the last 50 years, though, unrest in Afghanistan has led to the Old Kabul marketplace being destroyed, and the artisans dwindling in numbers. 

Turquoise Mountain, founded by Prince Charles in 2006, is named, fittingly, after a 12th-century Afghan city. The organization brings ancient skills to Western designers' attention through modern technologies like Skype. Current Managing Director Tommy Wide has been with Turquoise Mountain since its early days: he came on in 2007 as a volunteer. Wide went to Harvard and then Oxford between 2008 and 2012, returning to Turquoise Mountain with a Ph.D. in Afghan history in 2013. Wide is also the Lead Curator for Freer and Sackler’s storytelling exhibition of Kabul’s artisans, “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan” (March 5, 2016 through January 29, 2017). As the expert, he’s got the lowdown on everything from what you’ll see on your visit to how you can help the cause.

How did this exhibition come to be?

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“In December of 2013, our CEO, Shoshana Stewart, met with Julian Raby, the director of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, to talk to him about doing a show surrounding these artisans' stories. The goal of the exhibit is to give a human face to Afghanistan. We want to show the side of the country that’s full of resilience and hope, and to disrupt the stereotype that it’s all war and violence."

Rebuilding Kabul

What can a visitor expect to see and do?

“I’m the lead curator, but this exhibit is really curated by the Afghan artists themselves. There are four artisans who have made installations for the show, and we also had help from an Afghan engineer (who also oversaw the restoration of buildings in Kabul). I went back and forth for six months, working with the artisans on their design ideas, then going back to Freer and Sackler to show them, then going back to Afghanistan to help continue to refine their ideas. 

“The exhibit is really story-based, not object-based. It’s about each individual. Each of the six has their own section of the exhibit room, and they display what they’ve made alongside text—written by them—and whatever the natural material is. So one of our jewelry-makers will exhibit a beautiful emerald necklace she made and all sorts of gems from Afghanistan, with her own writing about them.

“This isn’t as much of a typical museum exhibit. We want people to touch things and make that physical connection with Afghanistan.

Part of the market recreated in exhibition
“There will also be artisans visiting and speaking at the exhibit. We’re bringing 18 total (four of whom are the artisans that designed the show). Two at a time will spend two weeks in the exhibit. They’ll do displays, workshops, lectures."

 How is the exhibit helping the artisans back in Afghanistan?

“A key part of the Turquoise Mountain project is that we want the artisans to make money off of what they do, support their families.

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“Especially for women, it’s tough being a business owner in Afghanistan. It’s not a very women-friendly industry there. So we help create export opportunities, for both men and women, to get their products to Europe and the U.S. We've faciliated almost four million dollars in sales for artisans since we started. 

Earrings made by artisans for designer Kate Spade
“Afghanistan’s artisans are actually really well placed to capitalize. It’s hip and cool right now in the U.S. and Europe for people to become makers and own handmade things. In the West we have to recreate it, but in Afghanistan it’s completely continuous, because they never industrialized.

"One of the biggest problems Afghanistan faces today is the economy. There are no jobs. No opportunities for young people. We’re trying to stimulate old and new artisans so they can support their families.

“The artisans we’re bringing to D.C. for the exhibit will also be meeting with designers in New York as well as other museums. But the artisans back home are also in touch with Western designers all the time, via Skype and email. We also have designers who come to stay with us in Afghanistan, like designers Sebastian Conran and Pippa Small, who visits a few times a year and carries our artisans' goods in her L.A. store. We’re also building a Portal in Kabul—a shipping container with life-size video-chat screens inside.”

Where can we buy their work?

“The Freer and Sackler Galleries will be selling things in their gift shops, of course. We also partner with the Far & Wide Collective, an online platform that sells artisanal goods from all over the world.”

Designer Pippa Small shopping in Kabul

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