Category Archives: Events

The Beauty of Afghanistan

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Photographer Steve McCurry shared the beauty of Afghanistan with the world more than thirty years ago, when his captivating photo Afghan Girl stared out from the cover of National Geographic magazine. A few weeks ago on Instagram, he asked the public to post their own interpretations of Afghanistan’s beauty for the opening of our exhibition Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan. We’ve been following the responses using the #turquoisemountain hashtag, which are also featured in the exhibition itself. Below are a few of our favorite shots that you’ve posted of Afghanistan and of your experiences in the Turquoise Mountain galleries.

 

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Remembering A Memorial

Left: the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC (Joe Ravi, CC-BY-SA 3.0). Right: Mausoleum of Cyrus, Ernst Herzfeld, Iran, 1905–28.

Left: the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC (Joe Ravi, CC-BY-SA 3.0). Right: Mausoleum of Cyrus, Ernst Herzfeld, Iran, 1905–28.

Imagine Washington, DC, abandoned and half-submerged into the Atlantic. The rounded dome of the Jefferson Memorial is visible like a little white island, but no one remembers the structure or its origins. Imagine New York covered with layers and layers of sands, the Chrysler Building in ruins, and the identity of the Statue of Liberty forgotten.

A doomsday scenario? The plot for a science fiction movie? A little far fetched? Maybe, but not when compared to the fate of Pasargadae, the magnificent capital of the Achaemenids (550–330 BCE), the first empire of the ancient world. It was built by the empire’s founder, Cyrus the Great (reigned 550–530 BCE), who conquered much of the Near East within a twenty-year period. He was known for his military skills as well as his tolerance: in 539, when he conquered Babylon, Cyrus allowed the Jews and other prisoners to return to their homeland.

Pasargadae was located in southwestern Iran, in the so-called “plain of the water bird.” Introducing a new architectural plan that would be widely emulated, the palace complex was centered on a large garden and included striking columnar palaces and pavilions, as well as Cyrus’s tomb. It was a pivotal site of the ancient world. Even when the Greeks conquered the Achaemenids in 330 BCE, Alexander the Great visited Pasargadae and paid his respects to Cyrus.

View of dasht-i murghab, or "plain of the water bird"

Over the years, however, Pasargadae gradually fell into neglect and was largely forgotten in favor of nearby Persepolis, built by Darius I (522–486 BCE). In the thirteenth century, a local ruler transformed Cyrus’s tomb into a mosque using stones and columns from the nearby palace. According to fifteenth-century Western travelers to the area, very little of the capital and the palace grounds remained, and the tomb was believed to be a woman’s resting-place. Although some scholars had speculated that the site was that of ancient Pasargadae, it was only in 1908 that the celebrated German archaeologist Ernst Herzfeld identified it beyond any reasonable doubt as the royal capital of the Achaemenid Empire.

Even if not much of the once-magnificent capital still stands, thanks to Herzfeld’s efforts, Pasargadae and the tomb are once again linked to Cyrus the Great. The story is a poignant reminder of the passage of time and the power of our collective memory. Experience it in person in Heart of an Empire: Herzfeld’s Discovery of Pasargadae, on view through July 31.

A New Day: Celebrating Nowruz

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Nowruz, the Persian word for “new day,” coincides with the vernal equinox and the first day of spring. Rooted in Zoroastrianism, the religion of Iran before the founding of Islam, Nowruz was celebrated in much of the ancient Near East as early as 3000 BCE. Today, people in many countries—from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Albania, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan to India and Pakistan—participate in the thirteen days of Nowruz festivities with their own local variations.

A Haft sin table at the Freer|Sackler's annual Nowruz celebration

A Haft sin table at the Freer|Sackler’s annual Nowruz celebration

The centerpiece of the Nowruz celebration is the Haft sin table. It includes at least seven (haft) items that refer to new life and renewal. Although the custom has regional variations, in Iran each of the seven items begins with the letter s (pronounced seen in Persian).

  1. sib (apples): fertility and beauty
  2. sonbol (hyacinth): fragrance
  3. serkeh (wine vinegar): immortality and eternity
  4. senjed (wild olives): fertility and love
  5. sabzeh (wheat, barley, or lentil sprouts growing in a dish): rebirth
  6. samanu (wheat sprout pudding): sweetness
  7. sekkeh (coins): wealth

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Other symbols of good luck can also be placed on the table, such as:

  • A mirror, to reflect the light of wisdom and creation
  • A book of poetry by the fourteenth-century writer Hafiz or a copy of the Qur’an
  • An orange floating in a bowl of water, to represent Earth floating in space
  • Candles, to symbolize holy fire
  • Decorated eggs, to represent fertility

Join us Saturday for a scaled-down version of our annual Nowruz celebration!

#5WomenArtists: Sughra Hussainy

Sughra Hussainy

Sughra Hussainy

Throughout Women’s History Month, we’re joining the National Museum of Women in the Arts in highlighting and celebrating women who are artists. We’ll introduce female artists throughout Asian art history, as well as those who currently grace our galleries with contemporary works. Use the hashtag #5womenartists to join in.

This Saturday, we debut Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan, an exhibition on the eponymous organization that is reviving traditional Afghan crafts. Artisans from Afghanistan will visit us throughout the show’s run, sharing their stories and their creations.

The first artisan to make her way to DC is Sughra Hussainy. At the age of fifteen, Hussainy was orphaned and left to care for her siblings by herself. Hoping to generate income to support her family, she began studying calligraphy and miniature painting at the Turquoise Mountain Institute.

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Hussainy, who is now studying fine art at Kabul University, is regarded as one of Afghanistan’s most promising young artists. She has received a number of international commissions and has showcased her work at several exhibitions in Kabul and the United Kingdom.

Meet Hussainy and see her work when Turquoise Mountain debuts on March 5. Have questions? Share them with us, and we’ll pass them on to our artisans.

How Did Turquoise Mountain Get Its Name?

Since 2006 Turquoise Mountain has worked in partnership with the community of Murad Khani, providing employment, education, healthcare, and a renewed sense of pride. Image courtesy 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. Image courtesy Turquoise Mountain

Turquoise Mountain is named after a fabled lost city, located in what is now central Afghanistan. The city was destroyed in the early 13th century by Ögedei Khan, son of Genghis Khan.

The charity’s name was chosen by its founder, Rory Stewart, who walked across Afghanistan in the winter of early 2002. During his walk, Rory Stewart passed the Minaret of Jam, a two hundred-foot structure built around 1190 CE, located in a remote and largely inaccessible area of Ghor province in central Afghanistan. This minaret is likely one of the last surviving elements of the city of Turquoise Mountain. Stewart decided to name the charity after this lost city as a symbol of the rebirth and revival of Afghanistan’s once-proud cultural heritage.

Read Stewart’s New York Times piece on his travels, and experience the wonders of Afghan art when Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan opens March 5.

Behind the Scenes of “Turquoise Mountain”

Dedicated to teaching a new generation of Afghan artisans in woodwork, calligraphy, ceramics, jewelry design, and other crafts, Turquoise Mountain is reviving Afghanistan’s proud cultural legacy. To share this transformative story of people, places, and heritage in Afghanistan, the Freer|Sackler is recreating a visit to Old Kabul for Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan, opening March 5. Tommy Wide, director of exhibitions at the organization, takes us behind the scenes of our forthcoming presentation. 

We wanted this show to be an exploration and celebration of Afghan contemporary art and culture. We wanted to capture the voices and ideas of the remarkable team of people in Afghanistan who have regenerated Murad Khani, a district of Old Kabul, and are leading the revival of Afghanistan’s artisan crafts. The exhibition, which is now being installed, features sections dedicated to several of these art forms.

Ceramics
I started planning the show by talking to artisans whom I have worked with for many years at Turquoise Mountain. Abdul Matin Malekzada, whom I first knew as a student at the institute, now runs his own ceramics business and teaches at the Turquoise Mountain Institute.

Left to right: Abdul Matin Malekzada and Tommy Wide

Left to right: Abdul Matin Malekzada and Tommy Wide

Abdul Matin was interested in focusing on the process of ceramic production, the different stages needed to make a traditional bowl, and the sheer work that goes into making a single piece. We decided to make a long film in his village, Istalif, which would show the whole process of making one bowl. Our filmmaker, Lalage Snow, and I drove up to Istalif at 4 am one October morning to film a day of pottery making with Abdul Matin and friends. It was special for me to come back to Istalif, a place where I had worked in 2007 and 2008, and where I had learned to speak Dari, one of the languages of Afghanistan. The weather was beautiful, and we got some lovely photos to go along with our film. Here is Abdul Matin (center) with his friends Abdul Wahab and Masoud, on their way to look for a clay seam in the hills around Istalif.

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We designed a display that will show bowls in different stages of production and includes lots of bowls on the wall—a reference to the bowls lining the famous pottery bazaar in Istalif (below). We’re even hanging the bowls the same way, fastening wire loops around the bases that slip over nails hammered into the wall.

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Woodwork
For the woodwork sections, we relied on the vision and creativity of Ustad Nasser Mansouri, one of the Islamic world’s finest woodworkers. I have worked with Ustad Nasser for many years and have always been in awe of his design ability and technical skills. In cooperation with our head engineer, Hedayat Ahmadzai, we decided to recreate part of one of our favorite buildings, the Double Column Serai, which Ustad Nasser had helped restore in 2007–9. Below are photos of the building and of Ustad Nasser with the columns he made for the exhibition.

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To share our plans with the exhibition team at the Freer|Sackler, we made a model version of the building’s arches out of Himalayan cedar and sent pictures and diagrams to DC.

Exhibition arch in miniature

Exhibition arch in miniature

Seeking inspiration for the rest of the woodwork sections, Ustad Nasser and I walked around Old Kabul looking at buildings. Ustad Nasser had been a refugee in Iran as a young man and always said that Kabul’s historic buildings taught him a great deal about Afghan history and culture. He thus decided to make jali (latticework) panels to reference a historic Afghan design, examples of which he and I photographed last August while visiting a shrine in Asheqan-o-Arefan.

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Ustad Nasser started working on pieces in his workshop in western Kabul. I was particularly struck by his jali geodesic dome, made by hand without nails or any industrial machinery. It reminded me of Buckminster Fuller’s designs from the 1960s, and I enjoyed showing Ustad Nasser photos of Fuller’s work. Ustad Nasser’s piece seemed perfect for the show—illustrating the way Afghan artisans are playing with traditional motifs and techniques in their strikingly original creations.

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Ustad Nasser also designed the large walnut jali panels you’ll see when you enter the exhibition. They’re designed to give a glimpse of the show while distinguishing the semicircular entry area from the rest of the gallery. Ustad Nasser made sure the jalis could be packed in small crates and reassembled—without nails—in DC.

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The panels were so beautifully made that they slotted together perfectly once they arrived. The installation team, pictured here installing the pieces, was amazed that they were made entirely by hand.

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Calligraphy
We worked with a team of young calligraphers to realize their vision for the calligraphy section of the show. First stop was Samira Kitman, a young calligraphy business owner whom I’ve worked with for several years. She discussed the need to use natural pigments, and she and I had fun looking at gold leaf and the pigments she used in her work.

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Jewelry
Turquoise Mountain graduate Saeeda Etebari, one of the most talented young jewelers in Afghanistan, created a special piece for the exhibition’s jewelry section. Very excitingly for Saeeda and for us, the United Kingdom-based designer Pippa Small then agreed to work with Saeeda to make a one-off piece. Pippa visited Kabul several times to design with Saeeda, and they established a deep bond. Watching Pippa and Saeeda work together was a joy for us all. Here they are collaborating on the piece with Javid Noori, a jewelry teacher at the Turquoise Mountain Institute.

Left to right: Javid Noori, Saeeda Etebari, Pippa Small

Left to right: Javid Noori, Saeeda Etebari, Pippa Small

Carpet
I wanted something spectacular for the carpet section, so I turned to one of the most exciting carpet designers in the world, Erbil Tezcan. Erbil is based in New Jersey and has been working with Afghan carpet-makers for several years. I gave him a simple task: make something really special that tells a story of Afghanistan. The result, which Erbil is shown working on below, was the Afghan history carpet that you’ll see in the exhibition. It traces the evolution of Afghan carpets by weaving together more than twenty historic designs.

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We wanted the piece made wholly in Afghanistan rather than having it finished in Pakistan, which is often the case with Afghan carpets. It took a team of weavers in Dawlatabad several months to weave the rug. Finally, in September 2015, it was sent to Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan to be washed.

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The history carpet was then shipped to DC, where it spent several weeks undergoing CO2 treatment to kill off any insects. It was a nerve-wracking moment when Kenny Mitchell of the Roto design firm, who is heading the exhibition’s installation, opened up the carpet for the first time. I’d seen carpets ruined in transit from Afghanistan, so I was holding my breath. Luckily, this one was beautiful and intact.

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Finishing Touches
We wanted the exhibition to involve as many people from Murad Khani as possible. A few of the community’s skilled women tailors made the cushions for the show’s central pavilion—a place to catch your breath, watch the beautiful films, and learn more about Afghanistan through our specially designed interactive map.

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Now that everything has arrived safely in DC, we’ve spent the last week installing the pieces in the exhibition space. Miraculously, none of the several tons of woodwork we shipped was damaged, and everything seems to fit together well. We’ve been very lucky, too, that one of our Afghan engineers, Hedayat Ahmadzai, has been with us, advising the installation team as they get everything set up.

Left to right: Joseph Patterson and Hedayat Ahmadzai

Left to right: Joseph Patterson and Hedayat Ahmadzai

We can’t wait to show you the final result when Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan opens in just a few weeks.

Art and Hearts for Valentine’s Day

Throughout Valentine’s Day weekend, join us to celebrate love at the Freer|Sackler. Our Love in Every Language programs (12–4 pm on February 13 and 14) will feature a slideshow of depictions of love in our collections. Japanese artist Kajita Hanko created this work, Unrequited Love, in 1903 for a novel of the same name.

 

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Couple in a Landscape was created in the 1600s, possibly in Herat in historical Iran (present-day Afghanistan). The painting is surrounded by landscape and animal motifs.

 

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Other fun activities include the opportunity to create Valentine’s Day cards, using woodblock prints that say “love” in more than a dozen languages. You also can fold heart-shaped origami. Should you wish to get a jump-start, watch a video that guides you through the process:

 

 

This program is suitable for all ages with adult companions. Join us in the ImaginAsia classroom, located on sublevel 2.  Don’t miss out!

Iranian Film Festival: Grand Finale

Monir screens Saturday afternoon at the National Gallery of Art.

Our Iranian Film Festival has been a great success so far, with many—if not all—of the five hundred seats in the National Gallery of Art’s auditorium filled screening after screening. The festival ends its run at NGA on February 13 with a pair of films by and about artists. Experimental filmmaker Bahar Noorizadeh’s Wolkaan explores memory and exile through two family stories, one set in North America and the other in Iran. And Bahram Kiarostami’s documentary Monir looks at the life of the pioneering artist Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, who is full of new creative energy as she enters her ninth decade.

After that, the festival moves to the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Maryland. Jafar Panahi’s Taxi, whose screening at NGA was snowed out in January, plays there on February 20. Three additional films will be screened at AFI, each of them an artistically ambitious take on contemporary Iran. Set entirely in the apartment of a couple preparing to go into exile, Nima Javidi’s debut feature Melbourne features brilliant performances and a devastating plot twist. Payman Haghani’s playful 316 traces a woman’s life (and several decades of Iranian history) entirely through shoes.

The festival concludes with a look at a side of Tehran rarely shown on film. Atomic Heart, which takes its title from a Pink Floyd album, follows two drunk party girls on an increasingly apocalyptic nocturne, featuring a mysterious stranger who may be the devil himself.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the twentieth edition of our Iranian Film Festival. Join us in March as we celebrate the DC Environmental Film Festival.

Celebrate the Year of the Monkey

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon by Xu Bing

Calling visitors of all ages: Ring in the Year of the Monkey at our second annual Lunar New Year Celebration on Saturday, February 6, 11 am–4 pm. Join us to explore the museum, take family-friendly tours of the suspended sculpture Monkeys Grasp for the Moon, and enjoy dance performances by the Madison Chinese Dance Academy. Plus: ribbon dancing, mask making, calligraphy, photo booth fun, and Lunar New Year resolutions!


About the Artwork

Chinese artist Xu Bing created Monkeys Grasp for the Moon specifically for the Freer|Sackler. Each of the sculpture’s twenty-one pieces represents the word “monkey” in one of a dozen different languages and writing systems, including Indonesian, Urdu, Hebrew, and Braille. The work is based on a Chinese folktale in which a group of monkeys attempt to capture the moon. Linking arms and tails, they form a chain reaching down from a tree branch to the moon—only to discover that it is just a shimmering reflection in a pool of water.

Listen to Xu Bing chat about the work during its initial installation at the Freer|Sackler (click on “Interview with the Artist”).

A Tour de Force of Iranian Cinema

Fatemeh Motamed-Arya in "Avalanche"

Fatemeh Motamed-Arya in Avalanche.

In a career spanning three decades and more than fifty films, Fatemeh Motamed-Arya (born 1961) has established herself as one of Iran’s most acclaimed actresses, both at home and abroad. At the Fajr Film Festival, Iran’s premier cinema showcase, she has won awards for her performances four times, in addition to prizes at the Montreal World Film Festival and the Prix de Henri-Langlois at the Vincennes International Film Festival.

With her expressive face and impressive range, Motamed-Arya is instantly recognizable to followers of Iranian cinema—including fans of our Iranian Film Festival—particularly through her powerful performances in such films as Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s antiwar drama Gilaneh and Bahram Tavakoli’s Here Without Me. Attendees of this year’s festival already got a taste of Motamed-Arya’s work in the opening film, Bani-Etemad’s Tales, which played at the National Gallery of Art on January 2.

Motamed-Arya also is an in-demand world traveler, having made appearances at film festivals in India, Dubai, Holland, Korea, and Dhaka in the last couple of years (just to name a few). I met her at the 2014 Tokyo International Film Festival. With some mutual friends, we spent a memorable afternoon sightseeing and shopping, during which I broached the idea of inviting her to Washington. I was able to make good on my promise this year, with the release of the film Avalanche, in which she gives a tour-de-force performance as a night nurse tormented by insomnia as a snowstorm descends on Tehran.

Motamed-Arya was scheduled to attend the screening of the film on January 31 at the National Gallery of Art, but I’m sorry to say that she will not be able to attend. Due to a flood of applications from Iran in the wake of the nuclear deal, her visa, unfortunately, was not approved in time.

Just yesterday, I also heard the terrible news that she and director Kaveh Ebrahimpour were attacked by an angry mob at a screening of their latest film, Yahya, in Iran over the weekend. Whether the attack was motivated by the film itself (in which she plays an abortionist), Motamed-Arya’s outspoken progressive political positions, or her habit of defiantly taking off the hijab when she travels abroad ultimately doesn’t matter. It serves as another reminder of the very real threats that uncompromising artists can face in Iran. Luckily, she seems to have come through the ordeal unharmed.

Even though we won’t be able to see her in person, I hope you’ll show your support for this courageous artist by coming out to the screening of Avalanche this Sunday.