Turquoise Mountain: Preserving Afghanistan’s legacy

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This calligraphy was created by a teacher at the Turquoise Mountain Institute in Kabul.
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Young artists are mentored through the first years of their training and given full access to equipment and workshops.
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Fakhria Nezami was born a refugee in Peshawar, Pakistan; she enrolled at the Turquoise Mountain Institute as a teenager.
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Artisans at the Turquoise Mountain Institute receive an intensive 3-year training of their chosen craft. The institute is home to the Alwaleed Bin Talal School of Calligraphy and Miniature Painting, the permier school for these arts in Afghanistan.
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"I do not see myself as just a jeweler, I am also an artist," said Afghan artist and jeweler, Storai Stanizai.
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During the 1992 rubber shoes were made from tires at this site. Today this grand serai is home to Turquoise Mountain's ceramics school.
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Afghan lapis lazuli has been traded for thousands of years and was used in Tutankhamen's mask.
Updated 12 May 2016
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Turquoise Mountain: Preserving Afghanistan’s legacy

It is quite a surprise when a renowned museum chooses to marshal its resources to help benefit a worthy non-profit organization; and this is exactly how your correspondent found herself — surprised — to discover that the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery had opened a section of its museum to replicate the vibrant marketplace of Old Kabul.
The transformation is further enhanced with onsite Afghan artisans demonstrating their skills in jewelry making, wood carving and jali shades, calligraphy, ceramics, carpets, ceramics, emerald and gold jewelry, gem cutting, miniature paintings, and yes, even homemade kites sailing across the ceiling of the exhibition.
The Sackler’s “immersive exhibition” depicts Murad Khani, the cultural center of Old Kabul. This idea of the Smithsonian’s interactive ‘souk’ is in tribute to Turquoise Mountain Trust, a non-profit, non-governmental foundation created in 2006 with the aim of regenerating historic areas, preserving and transmitting traditional craft skills, and creating jobs.
Ferozkoh means “Turquoise Mountain,” in both Dari and Pashto, Afghanistan’s key languages, and it once was the cosmopolitan and lost-lost capital of central Afghanistan’s 12-century Ghorid Dynasty.
“This is … meant to transcend the headlines of war and conflict,” said Julian Raby, the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Sackler Gallery of Art. “This exhibition highlights the vitality of these new Afghan artisans and demonstrates the power of art and culture to tell the story of artistic creativity, resilience and hope.”
Afghanistan, it often is too easy to forget due to the devastation it has endured through recent wars, was located at the heart of ancient Silk Road trade routes; and for more than 3,500 years it absorbed the cultures and traditions of India, Persia and Central Asia.
These decades of civil unrest that began in the 1970s nearly destroyed this vital heritage. Artisans often were forced to leave their country or abandon their crafts. Murad Khani, once the bustling center of craft and commerce in Afghanistan’s largest metropolis — collapsed into ruin.
The Turquoise Mountain Trust was founded in 2006 when British author and politician Rory Stewart established the trust with the support of England’s Prince Charles, and Hamid Karzai, the then-president of Afghanistan. In just ten years, they have revitalized the Murad Khani district of Old Kabul from slum conditions into a vibrant cultural and economic center, while training more than 450 male and female artisans since its founding eight years ago.
Its success on the ground has won world-wide recognition. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, for example, has given his support to the project. Its calligraphy school is named after him — the Alwaleed Bin Talal School of Calligraphy and Miniature Painting. Prince Alwaleed “strongly believes in the power and value of preserving and reviving the Islamic arts across the world,” said Dr. Tommy Wild, Director of Exhibitions with Turquoise Mountain Trust. “This has resulted in the Middle East and Afghanistan collaborating and exchanging ideas and support.”
The organization also has invested back by aiding the local community: it has renovated historic buildings, opened a primary school and a medical clinic which serves 18,000 patients per year, and rebuilt necessary infrastructure. Equally important, it has founded Afghanistan’s premier institution for vocational training in the arts which is dedicated to teaching a new generation of Afghan artisans.
Turquoise Mountain is succeeding in reviving the nation’s proud cultural legacy by providing on-the-job training in traditional construction techniques to over 1,000 masons, carpenters, and laborers during the restoration of Murad Khani; the project’s workers have also cleared 30,000 cubic meters of rubbish from the streets, rebuilt or restored 112 historic and community buildings using traditional earth construction techniques and provided water, electricity, and sanitation to the old city.
The Smithsonian’s Sackler Turquoise Mountain exhibition, made possible by the support given through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), conjures up the unexpected throughout the exhibit.
Here you will find a caravanserai — a courtyard that once served as a gathering and resting place for Silk Road travelers — which was recreated by shipping from Afghanistan more than three tons of hand-carved Himalayan cedar. It includes two 30-foot colonnaded arches and artisan stalls, embellished with colorful toshaks, or Afghan cushions. Visitors are invited to sit and explore with onsite interactive touchscreen maps of Afghanistan which allows visitors to explore the history of the region and better learn of its artistic traditions.
Throughout the duration of the Sackler Gallery’s Turquoise Mountain exhibition, which closes in January 2017, Afghan artisans will travel to Washington and share their skills and traditions with museum visitors. Seventeen visiting Afghan artisans, many of whom are teachers and young entrepreneurs, will showcase their talents to visiting public guests.
And, as an ultimate compliment to their hard work to maintain their heritage, Turquoise Mountain’s artisans have gained worldwide recognition for their beautiful creations. Major international exhibitions have been organized to display their work including the Venice Biennale and the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha. The Trust has also established partnerships with prestigious international retailers from Bloomingdales and Kate Spade in New York, to Pippa Small and Monsoon-Accessorize in London.
For more information log onto: asia.si.edu/turquoisemountain.


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‘Atlas of Beauty’: A Romanian photographer captures images of female beauty that defy every stereotype

Updated 16 July 2018
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‘Atlas of Beauty’: A Romanian photographer captures images of female beauty that defy every stereotype

  • Since 2013, Mihaela Noroc has photographed over 2,000 women in more than 50 countries, listening to their stories and learning about their lives.
  • For Noroc, beauty is diversity. She believes each one of the “shining stars” in her book radiates dignity, strength and beauty. 

JEDDAH: We live in a world where female beauty standards vary but are all socially and culturally constructed. The Romanian photographer Mihaela Noroc traveled that world with her camera and backpack, photographing women in their everyday surroundings and listening to their stories. The result is the “Atlas of Beauty.”

Since 2013, Noroc has photographed over 2,000 women in more than 50 countries, listening to their stories and learning about their lives.

“I noticed that there is a lot of pressure on women to look and behave a certain way,” she told Arab News.

“In some environments, it’s the pressure to look attractive. In others, on the contrary, it’s the pressure to look modest. But every woman should be free to explore her own beauty without feeling any pressure from marketing campaigns, trends or social norms.”

For Noroc, beauty is diversity. She believes each one of the “shining stars” in her book radiates dignity, strength and beauty. 

During her five-year odyssey, there have been tremendous ups and downs. Yet, with each country, Noroc never failed to tell the story of the woman in her photographs. Some countries were deemed dangerous — but she traveled there anyway. 

“In Afghanistan, I traveled in a remote area called Wakhan Corridor. The fighting was very close, condemning this place to total isolation,” she said. “People were living like their ancestors lived hundreds of years ago, so photography was a miracle for them. They were incredibly happy to see themselves in photos and I was invited to every home to photograph each member of the family.” 

Visiting North Korea, Noroc was accompanied by local guides as she walked the streets to get a glimpse of women in their daily routines as if nothing was out of the norm. 

“There is a lot of pressure on women to look a certain way, so sometimes it’s a struggle to be yourself, to make yourself accepted as you are. But I hope this project will encourage more women and men to follow their own path, to explore their own beauty without feeling constrained.”

Traveling as a backpacker introduced Noroc to all kinds of environments. She has captured beauty in Brazilian favelas, in an Iranian mosque, on the Tibetan plateau, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, the Amazon rainforest, upscale neighborhoods of Paris, downtown New York and more. 

She focuses on photographing the environment around the women, and prefers to photograph their natural faces, without a lot of makeup.

Noroc also makes sure that she chats with her subjects while the photographs are being taken — she is an excellent conversationalist. 

Woman shopping at a market in Nampan, Myanmar.

“Many of the women I photograph are in front of a professional camera for the first time. This isn’t bad at all because they are more authentic. For even more authenticity, I always use natural light. Through my camera, I try to dive into their eyes and explore what’s inside.”

Each image is raw, colorful, delicate, intimate, striking and empowering. A Jordanian Bedouin grandmother sits with her children and grandchildren in the background, the woman’s deep wrinkles revealing her desert life living off the land.

Another image shows the resilience in the striking green eyes of a Syrian refugee with her two daughters in a camp in Greece. In Jodhpur, India, a young woman heads to the market in a vibrant fuchsia outfit and silver jewelry. 

“There is much love, beauty and compassion in the world and I see it with my own eyes. Yet a few sources of hate and intolerance can ruin all this. Many times, the victims of intolerance are women, and while on the road, I hear many heartbreaking stories,” she said.

Gauri, an Indian from Kolkata, India, sells splendid flower garlands at a Hindu temple. Female “bomberas” (firewomen) in Mexico City. Sisters Olga and Anya, street performers from Odessa, Ukraine. Eleonora, a ballerina from St. Petersburg, at one of the most prestigious dance schools in the world. A Mayan descendant in Guatemala donning a colorful dress and posing in her village. These are just some of the stories in the “Atlas of Beauty,” yet the journey is continuing since there are no limits to beauty in this world. 

“For me, beauty is diversity and it can teach us to be more tolerant. We are all very different, but through this project, I want to show that we are all part of the same family. We should create paths between us, not boundaries,” said Noroc.