Past masters: Saving Afghanistan’s artisans from extinction

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In this photograph taken on July 18, 2017 Afghan students work on a Jali wood carving during a Jali Screen Workshop at the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Mourad Khani in the old city section of Kabul. Ceramics, carpentry, calligraphy and gem cutting: centuries of Afghan craftmanship honed on the ancient Silk Road are being preserved in Kabul, a rare success story for an aid project in the war-torn country that organisers are now hoping to replicate with refugees from Syria. - TO GO WITH "AFGHANISTAN-CULTURE-UNREST,FEATURE" by Anne Chaon / AFP / WAKIL KOHSAR / TO GO WITH "AFGHANISTAN-CULTURE-UNREST,FEATURE" by Anne Chaon
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In this photograph taken on July 18, 2017, an Afghan student practices on a miniature during a calligraphy class at the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Mourad Khani in the old city section of Kabul. Ceramics, carpentry, calligraphy and gem cutting: centuries of Afghan craftmanship honed on the ancient Silk Road are being preserved in Kabul, a rare success story for an aid project in the war-torn country that organisers are now hoping to replicate with refugees from Syria. - TO GO WITH "AFGHANISTAN-CULTURE-UNREST,FEATURE" by Anne Chaon / AFP / WAKIL KOHSAR / TO GO WITH "AFGHANISTAN-CULTURE-UNREST,FEATURE" by Anne Chaon
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In this photograph taken on July 18, 2017 an Afghan student works on jewellery during a class at the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Mourad Khani in the old city section of Kabul. Ceramics, carpentry, calligraphy and gem cutting: centuries of Afghan craftmanship honed on the ancient Silk Road are being preserved in Kabul, a rare success story for an aid project in the war-torn country that organisers are now hoping to replicate with refugees from Syria. - TO GO WITH "AFGHANISTAN-CULTURE-UNREST,FEATURE" by Anne Chaon / AFP / WAKIL KOHSAR / TO GO WITH "AFGHANISTAN-CULTURE-UNREST,FEATURE" by Anne Chaon
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In this photograph taken on July 18, 2017, an Afghan student practices on a miniature during a calligraphy class at the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Mourad Khani in the old city section of Kabul. Ceramics, carpentry, calligraphy and gem cutting: centuries of Afghan craftmanship honed on the ancient Silk Road are being preserved in Kabul, a rare success story for an aid project in the war-torn country that organisers are now hoping to replicate with refugees from Syria. - TO GO WITH "AFGHANISTAN-CULTURE-UNREST,FEATURE" by Anne Chaon / AFP / WAKIL KOHSAR / TO GO WITH "AFGHANISTAN-CULTURE-UNREST,FEATURE" by Anne Chaon
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In this photograph taken on July 18, 2017, Afghan students work on carving wood during a class at the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Mourad Khani in the old city section of Kabul. Ceramics, carpentry, calligraphy and gem cutting: centuries of Afghan craftmanship honed on the ancient Silk Road are being preserved in Kabul, a rare success story for an aid project in the war-torn country that organisers are now hoping to replicate with refugees from Syria. - TO GO WITH "AFGHANISTAN-CULTURE-UNREST,FEATURE" by Anne Chaon / AFP / WAKIL KOHSAR / TO GO WITH "AFGHANISTAN-CULTURE-UNREST,FEATURE" by Anne Chaon
Updated 21 August 2017
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Past masters: Saving Afghanistan’s artisans from extinction

KABUL: Ceramics, carpentry, calligraphy and gem cutting: centuries of Afghan craftmanship honed on the ancient Silk Road are being preserved in Kabul, a rare success story for an aid project in the war-torn country that organizers are now hoping to replicate with refugees from Syria.
In the sixteen years since the fall of the Taliban, the Turquoise Mountain foundation has found some of Afghanistan’s best artisans and helped them preserve and pass on their skills, as well helping them showcase their work in international markets.
A painstakingly restored caravanserai — a roadside inn — in Kabul’s oldest district is once again a hub for exquisite woodwork carvers, potters making traditionally-glazed ceramics, Islamic calligraphers, and goldsmiths.
“When we started, there were very few artisans living in Kabul. Most of them were out of the country,” said Abdul Wahid Khalili, the nonprofit’s director.
“We had to start with the few old artisans we had, it was a very difficult start,” he said.
Kabul, a key stop on the silk road, was once renowned for its craftwork, but when Turquoise Mountain began work in 2006 in Kabul’s oldest district Mourad Khani, they had to excavate the caravanserai from tons of rubbish.
“For more than 50 years the rubbish had piled up in the yard,” he said, adding that they also immediately began training students.
“The idea was to restore the (caravanserai) and train the new generation,” he said.
Slowly more and more Afghan artisans joined the collective, preserving priceless skills that many feared would disappear altogether due to decades of war — a problem that many Syrian craftsmen, who are fleeing their country in droves, now face.
First started by British diplomat Rory Stewart, the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, which is supported by Britain’s Prince Charles, the British Council, and USAID, says it has now worked with some 5,000 artisans.
Their efforts have breathed new life into Murad Khani’s ancient silver bazaar, with hundreds traveling every day to the restored cedar paneled courtyard to learn and teach woodwork, calligraphy, ceramics, jewelry and miniature painting.
Staff at Turquoise Mountain began by combing Kabul’s streets and knocking on doors in the villages trying to find artisans and students to enroll.
The foundation now employs 30 Afghan masters, who are given retraining and support from the organization, and then help teach new apprentices in their craft.
Wakil Abdul Aqi Ahmani, 64, is one of the institute’s founding fathers.
“It’s my heritage, it’s important because we have to preserve the culture of our country,” he says, as he leans over his student’s cedarwood panels and explains the art of Jali carving.
Turquoise Mountain’s selection process is now more rigorous: more than 500 candidates apply each year, Khalili said, with just 50 taken on, both girls and boys.
“They show what they learned with their family, in the shops, at the bazaar, with the elders,” said Abasin Bahand, who is in charge of the entry exams.
“They are all trained, but they are not professional — anyone can apply.”
The three years of their training are free, the students are fed and housed if they come from the provinces. They are also given a small monthly stipend to cover transport costs. They leave with a double certifications — Afghan and British.
“Eighty percent of our graduates have moved to their own business or are working for other business in the craft they chose,” said Nathan Stroupe, the director of the Turquoise Mountain foundation in Afghanistan.
Some of their carpentry students have decorated palaces in London and the Emirates, and jewelers have received commissions for New York Fashion Week.
“We have a business incubation process to support our students for three years,” Stroupe said.
“Some of the craftsmen had worked for the King,” he said, referring to Mohammed Zaher Shah, who was deposed in 1973.
But the process is still a race against time.
“For Jali and Nuristani carving, we had teachers who were the last in Afghanistan, they passed away. If we were not able to preserve these arts, they would have been lost,” said Khalili.
“Already there are specific areas we lost — there are no copper makers left, no bronze makers.”
“Now we are documenting all those areas, we want to spread (knowledge) all over the country, the idea is to transfer it to community... if not it will be lost again,” he said.
After its successes in Afghanistan, the foundation is looking at wartorn Syria, which is also seeing ancient traditions threatened by an exodus of artisans.
“We have already met Syrian artisans in Jordan,” said Scott Riddle, a project director who will start work in September.
“Some people in Amman have already managed to set up small ateliers. We’re researching in the refugee camp in Azraq, in the desert in the country’s northeast.”
After Jordan, Turquoise Mountain is looking to work with refugee artisans from Libya.


Middle Eastern art exhibition celebrates life and work of Kahlil Gibran

Updated 16 August 2018
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Middle Eastern art exhibition celebrates life and work of Kahlil Gibran

LONDON: What is it about the work of the famed Lebanese poet, writer and artist Kahlil Gibran that touches the hearts of so many people across the world today, decades on from his death in 1931? An exhibition of art inspired by his writings held this month at Sotheby’s in London provided an opportunity to consider that question
“Kahlil Gibran: A Guide for our Times” was organized by the peace building movement, Caravan, and co-curated by Janet Rady and Marion Fromlet Baecker. It featured work by 38 artists from across the Middle East. The vision for the exhibition grew out of a recent book on Gibran titled “In Search of a Prophet: A Spiritual Journey with Kahlil Gibran” by the Rev. Canon Paul-Gordon Chandler, Caravan’s founding president.
Chandler is committed to breaking down cultural, racial and religious barriers. Through the Caravan initiative he has hosted numerous exhibitions using art to build bridges between the Middle East and the West. He sees the message contained in Gibran’s 1923 book “The Prophet” as profoundly relevant today.
Speaking to Arab News at the packed-out event, he said: “All the artists in this exhibition are trying to express how they have been inspired, challenged and encouraged by Gibran’s themes of peace, love and harmony for all of humanity. The thread running through all the work is the unique role that Gibran plays in reminding us that we are one family.
“The idea of the Caravan movement is that we are all journeying together, regardless of background, tradition or religion,” he continued. “The arts have a unique role in peace-building between the Middle East and the West.”
Lebanese-Syrian artist Rana Chalabi, who was raised in Lebanon, said she first read “The Prophet” at school, but made a point of re-reading it several times before starting work on her contribution to the piece, “On Giving.”
Her painting shows a throng of people gazing upwards at a transcendent figure — the Prophet — who seems to shimmer above the multitude in hues of gold.
“To me, Gibran’s Prophet represents an enlightened mystic,” she explained. “He was so ahead of his time and such a spiritual person.”
For Chalabi, Gibran’s work continues to resonate. “The wisdom of Gibran is very much needed today,” she said. “He could explain his ideas in a simple way to people. In his day he was misunderstood and branded a heretic by those who missed the essence of what he was saying and took his teachings at a very superficial level.”
Chalabi was clearly pleased to have been invited to submit work to Caravan’s exhibition.
“I believe in what Rev. Chandler is trying to do,” she said. “We have to bridge the differences in the world and try to understand each other’s religions, cultures and perspectives.”
Bahraini artist Lulwa Al-Khalifa showed a striking painting of a woman, titled
“Blind Faith.” The starkly expressive figure looks perplexed and stares out from the painting with an abstract and tense expression.
Al-Khalifa said: “There are a lot of emotions I wanted to convey through this work. I was exploring the concept of faith and how sometimes people have to abandon some of the ideas that give them their own sense of identity and take a leap of faith. I consider the question ‘How much of you are you prepared to surrender for your faith?’ Faith is surrender with cause but without proof. Sometimes people have to face ambivalence, fear and anxiety on this journey.”
Al-Khalifa also stressed how relevant Gibran outlook remains today.
“I love how Gibran explored many aspects of many themes. His thought process is very fresh and modern — even today,” she said. “It is not rigid, but very hopeful and expresses love and acceptance.
“I really believe that all people are united as human beings. But we try so hard to separate from each other, even though in reality we all have the same concerns and loves and hates. We should come together,” she continued.
Lebanese artist Christine Saleh Jamil echoed Al-Khalifa’s sentiments. “Gibran means so much to me. Reading his book ‘The Prophet’ taught me a lot about life, how to live peacefully and accept things in a harmonious way,” she said. “His message is very important today.”
Jamil created “The Wanderer,” a captivating image of Gibran as a child, for the exhibition. Her work, she said, was based on a photograph and inspired by Chandler’s book, which, she said, “took me back to my childhood in Beirut.”
“That’s why I chose to represent Gibran as a child and in this image you see his face set among birch trees, as he loved nature,” she explained.
Lebanon’s ambassador to the UK, Rami Mortada — a special guest at the event — spoke to Arab News about Gibran’s legacy.
“The interest shown here tonight and the big turnout is an indication of how the message he stands for is relevant, badly needed and timely in our world today,” Mortada said. “It is a message of harmony and peace, of removing barriers between nations and cultures, and of interfaith dialogue. This is what Gibran encapsulated. If I had to sum up his work up in one word, I would say (it is) inspirational.”
Another ambassador, Dr. Alisher Shaykhov from Uzbekistan, stressed that Gibran’s work is of truly global significance.
“Gibran’s fame extends far beyond the Middle East. He is a person who has succeeded in transferring the spirit of the Islamic people in a harmonious way,” he observed. “One of his most important messages is that of the unifying elements, rather than the differences, between religions. He has a gift of being able to express the feelings of the people. The artists here, imbued with his spirit, have transferred his message through their artworks in their own personal way.”
Art enthusiast Mira Takla said she had attended a number of ‘Caravan’ art events and always found their message very persuasive.
“As far as I am concerned these events do more for interracial understanding and comprehension and tolerance of different cultures than many other such initiatives,” she said.
Another guest. Anthony Wynn, gave a good example of Gibran’s cross-cultural appeal, pointing out that he had often heard Gibran quoted at weddings in the UK — particularly a verse from “On Marriage” from “The Prophet”:
“Love one another, but make not a bond of love/Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls/Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup/Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf/Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone/Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.”