To many Americans, Afghanistan is abstract: a place of hostility and violence, war-torn and ruined. Historically, the country is a vibrant place along the Silk Road, a cultural intersection of the Hellenistic world, India, China, and Persia. It has long been known for its unique syncretic culture, but after years of violence, civil war, and oppression, many artisans and tradition bearers were killed or forced into exile. The country’s cultural heritage remains at risk.
In response, a new breathtaking exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Freer|Sackler showcases Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage and craft traditions. Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan challenges stereotypes by proving the country to be a wellspring of creativity and beauty, steeped in tradition, history, and craftsmanship.
Although it features exquisite woodwork, jewelry, ceramics, carpets, and calligraphy, Turquoise Mountain is not simply a collection of beautiful objects. It is a story of cultural revitalization and sustainability. As the ambassador of Afghanistan to the United States said at the exhibition’s opening, Turquoise Mountain is about rediscovering Afghanistan’s lost identity and honoring its past in order to build a better country.
The featured artisans come from Turquoise Mountain, an organization dedicated to reviving Afghanistan’s traditional crafts and rebuilding Murad Khani, a historic area of Kabul’s old city. Since its founding in 2006, Turquoise Mountain has trained more than 450 artisans in traditional crafts and restored or rebuilt more than 100 buildings. By facilitating the transmission of traditional knowledge, connecting artisans with the international market, and providing economic stability for practioners of traditional crafts, it contributes to the sustainability of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage.
Similar to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Turquoise Mountain is an exercise in cultural democracy, allowing artisans to speak for themselves, with each other, and with the public. The artisans are traveling to the United States one at a time, and are in the galleries three days a week to speak with visitors. They will demonstrate wood carving, jewelry making, calligraphy and ceramics; participate in panels on traditional craft and cultural industries; and lead workshops for the public. For many, this is their first trip to the U.S.
The Smithsonian strives to provide direct support to the artisans through the Freer|Sackler gift shop, professional development, capacity building, and networking. In this manner, the exhibition supports cultural sustainability by helping make their cultural expressions economically sustainable, in addition to a source of pride, skill, and community.
The Turquoise Mountain exhibition is groundbreaking, combining the traditional museum-going experience of viewing art with innovative approaches to facilitating cultural understanding and exchange by bringing people together. Visitors have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet master artisans from Afghanistan, learn from them, and build human connections.
The Freer|Sackler’s exhibition Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan is on view through October 29, 2017.
James Mayer is the public affairs specialist at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.