Visitors to “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan” may wonder if they’ve accidentally wandered into some sort of trade show. The exhibition’s press materials promise a transformation of the Sackler’s International Gallery into an immersive environment: a recreation of a bustling marketplace in the historic Murad Khani district of Kabul. Instead, viewers will discover a tidy, conventional piece of non-art exhibition design, punctuated by photo portraits of beaming artisans, oversized text panels describing empowerment through art, and a video of Afghan children flying kites on rooftops. The results make for a handsome PR campaign, but bear little resemblance to an actual museum-level art exhibition.
That’s too bad, since co-curators Thomas Wide, director of exhibitions for the Turquoise Mountain Trust, and Julian Raby, director of the Freer-Sackler, have a compelling story to tell, and have brought some unusual objects to D.C. to tell it.
The exhibition title refers to the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a British NGO based in Kabul and founded by politician and former diplomat Rory Stewart. Stewart is perhaps best known for an outlandish feat: In 2002, in the wake of the U.S. invasion, the pale, bookish Scot decided to travel unarmed and on foot across Afghanistan. “It would be a pity to be killed, of course,” he told a Los Angeles Times reporter at the start of his 32-day, 600-mile journey.
Along the way, Stewart encountered the Minaret of Jam—the last remnant of the Turquoise Mountain, capital of Afghanistan’s Ghurid dynasty in the 12th century. By the time he arrived, looters had dug massive trenches around the site and carted off truckloads of antiquities. Horrified, Stewart resolved to fight the destruction of the country’s cultural heritage.
Since 2006, the Turquoise Mountain Foundation has worked to restore Kabul’s crumbling mud and wood buildings by clearing seven-foot-deep mountains of trash from city streets and saving historic architecture from bulldozers. It has also spurred a revival of traditional arts in Afghanistan, including calligraphy, woodworking, and jewelry-making—all of which declined or nearly disappeared under the Taliban’s strict imposition of Sharia law in the 1990s.
Over the years, Turquoise Mountain’s Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture has trained nearly 500 students. Graduates of the institute have created their own thriving businesses; to date, they’ve sold roughly $3.5 million worth of Afghan crafts on the international market.
To their credit, the exhibition organizers have tried to put these graduates in the spotlight. Through next January, 17 Afghan artists will travel to the U.S. and be present in the gallery, leading workshops and participating in panel discussions. Many of them, like calligrapher Sughra Hussainy and jeweler Saeeda Etebari, are women; their current livelihoods would be impossible under Taliban rule.
But the show provides an incomplete picture of present-day life in Kabul. While the wall texts highlight childhood hardships—Hussainy was orphaned; Etebari contracted cerebral meningitis in a refugee camp and lost her hearing—little is mentioned regarding current political realities, or the U.S. role in shaping them.
It turns out that many of the objects on view were created under fire. Take, for example, the gold and emerald jewelry collection presented here, produced for British designer Pippa Small by the workshop of Javid Noori. The New York Times reported how Noori’s workshop was destroyed by a suicide bomb in 2009, looted in 2014, and forced to relocate on at least four occasions by threats of violence. Noori does employ women to do this work, but many are unable to leave their homes. None of this is mentioned in the extensive story panels—only the excitement of his jewelers at the opportunity to work with real precious stones.
The show also offers very little historical or cultural context for the objects themselves. Two 30-foot-long colonnades—carved from several tons of Himalayan cedar, and assembled without nails—divide the space, and are ostensibly the main works on view. But they ultimately serve as window dressing for the video projections, photos, and text panels that dominate the gallery.
At one end of the show, a specially commissioned carpet is displayed on a large, low slab. Called “The Afghan History Carpet,” the piece was designed by Erbil Tezcan to reflect on the entire history of Afghan carpet design. “I researched the subject by looking at antique carpets,” the designer tells us in the interpretive label text, “and by gathering together samples and pieces that I could use for inspiration.”
Apparently the rug incorporates elements from 23 different designs. Viewers hoping to learn more—say, by comparing this new rug to specific examples of older Afghan carpets, or images of them, or by seeing some kind of timeline for the development of such rugs—are out of luck. No such supplementary materials are offered.
Some of the objects on view look like simple props of no particular value: A group of Turquoise Mountain instructor Abdul Matin Malekzadeh’s ceramic bowls, some unfired or unfinished, others fully decorated and glazed, have been unceremoniously spread across the floor in front of a video projection, and attached in clusters to the lower half of the wall beside it.
Interested in learning more about these ceramics? A sieve for creating clay, which the brief label text describes as “over twenty years old,” leans against the adjoining wall, presumably to give a window into the creative process. It looks almost as if someone left it there by accident during the show’s installation.
It’s no fun to fault this show, since the Turquoise Mountain Foundation does admirable work. Vinyl signage on the show’s back wall tallies up the humanitarian aid efforts the foundation pursues alongside its cultural mission: providing primary education, health clinics, and sanitation in Murad Khani. This all sounds worthy of attention.
Yet this terse, bulleted infographic itself underscores the exhibition’s main problem. With “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan,” the Sackler has inflated an informational brochure into a giant life-sized diorama. The results are too sterile and sparse to function as the recreation of an Afghan bazaar, and too informal and information-free to count as a proper art exhibition. “Turquoise Mountain” may reflect good intentions, but the Afghan men and women it features deserve a better platform for their work.
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