Laura Bush may have been a quiet First Lady—her clothes didn’t make headlines, her political positions didn’t make news—but she is no wallflower.
When she latches on to an issue, it sticks. And her involvement with the country of Afghanistan goes way, way back. When Bush was a sixth-grader in her hometown of Midland, Texas, her teacher assigned the students to do a report on a country of their choosing. In the introduction to a new book, We Are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope, Bush writes that she wanted to focus on a place “completely exotic and remote from anything I had ever seen.” She traced a map of the world and her pre-teen finger landed on faraway Afghanistan.
She recently toured a new Smithsonian exhibition focusing on the traditional arts of Afghanistan, and at the end of her visit stated her strongly held conviction that whoever becomes the next president, a continued American presence in Afghanistan is vital: “It is important that we stay engaged—with a real commitment—for a long time.”
The tumultuous decades after Laura Bush wrote her school report have seen the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, September 11th, the rise of the Taliban, and the years-long, much-debated American involvement in the country. Decades of conflict have not only decimated the country’s political institutions and economy but also laid waste to its cultural heritage. But slowly, that is beginning to change. “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan,” a new exhibition from the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery that makes Afghan artisans and craftspeople the stars of the show, is testament to that change.
Intricately worked jewelry, stunningly glazed pottery in vibrant hues, and meticulously woven rugs are on display, but it is the people themselves who are an integral part of the exhibition, making this show more of an experience than a traditional art museum viewing.
The mix of traditional arts and contemporary, innovative approaches to creating a museum show is exemplified by the traditional wooden sayaban (or pavilion) at its center: It is outfitted with handsome maroon striped pillows that beckon a visitor to sit—but also with iPads. Museumgoers are encouraged to touch, magnifying glasses hang from the wall, and the show is on Instagram and Twitter. A rotation of 17 artisans will be in residence at the museum while the show is up (through January 2017), and one of them, diminutive, exuberant Sughra Hussainy helped guide Bush through the exhibition on a recent evening.
Bush, fully absorbed and seemingly oblivious to the circling photographers, asked interested questions of Hussainy, whose richly patterned blue head scarf contrasted with Bush’s tailored blue-green dress. Hussainy, orphaned when she was young, explained to Bush in accented but excellent English, how she and two other artisans created the work of calligraphy and illumination on display. As wall panels and photographs show, they made from scratch the materials needed to create the final artwork—pigments, pens, paper.
Hussainy and all the craftspeople featured in the exhibition were trained at an extraordinary institution in Kabul called Turquoise Mountain whose mission is to preserve and foster the age-old arts of Afghanistan—the traditional jali style of lattice woodworking, ceramics, rug-making and more. Conceived at the joint request of Britain’s Prince Charles and Hamid Karzai, former president of Afghanistan, its founder is the writer and British politician Rory Stewart, author of the best-selling The Places in Between, the story of his 2002 solo walk across Afghanistan.
The country and its arts had thrived for thousands of years during the time of the Silk Road trade route, mixing influences from Persia, India and Central Asia into a vibrant aesthetic stew. Since its inception in 2006, Turquoise Mountain, named for a “lost” 12th-century Afghan city, has set about reviving Murad Khani, the traditional Old City of Kabul. Shoshana Stewart, Rory’s wife and the indefatigable CEO of the organization, explains that Murad Khani was in complete ruins.
Turquoise Mountain volunteers and workers had to clear away thousands of tons of debris and waste before starting work in earnest on the district’s historic buildings. To date, 112 of these structures have been rebuilt or restored, and hundreds of Afghan artisans have been trained in the country’s traditional arts, ensuring that the artisans’ precious skills will not be lost to future generations.
Turquoise Mountain’s work has an economic as well as a cultural motivation. Part of the goal is to help get the country back on its financial feet, and the organization is engaged in setting up partnerships with such famous Western commercial names as Bloomingdale’s and the handbag designer Kate Spade.
For Laura Bush, the motivation is to support Afghan women. In a March 7 Washington Post opinion article, timed to coincide with International Women’s Day, Bush spoke out about what Afghan women have faced and how far they have come: “Fifteen years ago, if you were a woman in Afghanistan, you could be beaten for laughing in public or if your shoes made noise. … Fifteen years ago, barely 5,000 girls were enrolled in primary school. Soon that number will exceed 3 million. Thirty-six percent of teachers are women. … In government, women hold 69 seats in parliament. There are four female government ministers and two female provincial governors. Thousands of women have started their own businesses.”
Bush, no stranger to politics, believes that if the United States withdraws completely from Afghanistan, the losers would be Afghan women like Sughra Hussainy, the talented Turquoise Mountain calligrapher who was Bush’s guide through the exhibition.
Tommy Wide, Turquoise Mountain’s energetic and erudite director of exhibitions, was also on hand during Laura Bush’s visit. His goal is to change the way the world sees the country about which he is so passionate. “Everyone thinks it’s just dusty desert,” he says. “That’s what you see on the news. We’re just trying to show another side. We’re not trying to pretend it’s not difficult.”
"Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan" is on view in the Smithsonian's International Gallery at 1100 Jefferson Drive in Washington, D.C. through January 29, 2017.