Women Artisans Transforming Afghanistan Have a Major Booster in a Former First Lady

Long an education advocate for Afghan women and children, Laura Bush stops by a new show at the Smithsonian that showcases the country’s resilience

Laura Bush recently toured “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan,” a new and highly unusual exhibition at the Smithsonian that makes the artisans and craftspeople the stars of the show. (Freer/Sackler)

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.

Sughra Hussainy
Afghan artist Sughra 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. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)

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.

The Institute is home to the Alwaleed Bin Talal School of Calligraphy and Miniature Painting, the premier school for these arts in Afghanistan. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
Master carver Nasser Mansouri, fled Iran at age 11 following the Soviet invasion, and is now working in the old city of Kabul, employing a large number of young Afghan craft artists. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
A geodesic dome crafted by master carver Nasser Mansouri, who is producing woodwork for UNESCO's restoration of the Gowhar Shad Mausoleum in Herat. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
Detail of a Nuristani carving (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
After incorporating 25 different colors into the design, rug maker Erbil Tezcan employed a team of weavers that worked for six weeks to complete the rug. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
Wool drying near the old city of Kabul at Turquiose Mountain, Afghanistan's premiere institution for vocation training in the arts and crafts. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Nasser Mansouri (left) fled to Iran at the age of 11. There, he was apprenticed to an Iraqi master of classical wood carving. When he returned to Afghanistan in 2006, Mansouri became a woodwork master at the Institute. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
Calligraphy from the shop of Samira Kitman (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
Artisan Samira Kitman (middle) runs one of Afghanistan's most successful businesses, employing 15 professional caligraphers. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
Afghanistan is one of the last countries where carpets are made completely by hand with natural dyes. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
Fakhria Nezami was born a refugee in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1989. At the Turquoise Mountain Institute, she specializes in the technique of 'nuqtapardazi'—a type of pointillism that requires use of the tip of a paintbrush to dab thousands of tiny dots in an intricate design. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
'Jali' is a form of woodwork that uses slivers of wood, held together by delicate joints, to form hundreds of geometric patterns. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
Afghanistan was once a great center of civilization at the heart of the Silk Road. It inherited the traditions of India, Persia and Central Asia and over the centuries blended them into a unique artistic culture. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
British jewelry designer Pippa Small (left) has been visiting Turquoise Mountain since 2008 and has produced eight collections in collaboration with Afghanistan’s jewelers. Her firm was named the Ethical Jewelry Business of the Year at the 2015 UK Jewelry Awards. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
Afghan lapis lazuli has been traded for thousands of years. It can be found in Tutankhamen's funeral mask and was ground into powder for the blue pigments used by Renaissance artists in Europe. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
Since 2006 Turquoise Mountain has worked in partnership with the community of Murad Khani, providing employment, education, healthcare, and a renewed sense of pride. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
During the 1990s rubber shoes were made from tires at this site. Today this grand serai is home to the Institute's ceramics school. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
Applying to the Institute is a highly competitive process, with only 15 students selected in each craft every year. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
Until recently, the Old City of Kabul was buried under several feet of garbage. It had no running water, drainage, or electricity. Its historic buildings were in ruins and were being threatened by modern development. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
Turquoise Mountain is also committed to providing a sustainable source of income for Afghanistan's young women. Currently over half of the school's calligraphy and jewelry students are women. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
Today this building houses the Turquoise Mountain Institute dormitory, where visiting students and teachers stay. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
When Turquoise Mountain started working in the historic district of Murad Khani in Kabul, it was on the World Monuments Fund Watch List of the world's most endangered sites. On the verge of collapse, the wall of this building had to be held in place with wooden props. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
Born in 1988 in Mazar-e-Sharif, Zahir Shah Amin is the son of one of Afghanistan's most renowned tile makers. He joined the first tile-making program at the Turquoise Mountain Institute in 2007—today he is its head teacher. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
The small class sizes allow students to work closely with the Institute's distinguished master artisans, with one teacher to every four students. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
Born in 1992 in Pakistan, Storai Stanizai comes from an Afghan family with a strong connection to the arts. "In life you must do the things you want," she says. "I do not see myself as just a jeweler... I am also an artist." (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
Turquoise Mountain woodworkers often incorporate traditional styles and techniques, such as 'jali' latticework and 'nuristani' carving, into contemporary pieces for everyday use. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
A teacher at the Turquoise Mountain Institute in Kabul delicately crafts calligraphy. The Institute has trained more than 450 artisans since its founding eight years ago. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)
Young artisans are mentored through the first years of their training, given access to equipment and workspace, and connected with international markets. (Courtesy of Turquoise Mountain)

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.

About Anne Glusker
Anne Glusker

Anne Glusker has been an editor at and written for a wide variety of publications, including Forbes, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. She has had a life-long passion for food, and while living in a small French town for several years, hosted a weekly food show, "Stir It Up," for European public radio.

Read more from this author |

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus