The Beauty of Afghanistan

steve mccurry

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.

 

jprobertson

scott.liddle

shaghaye

sirensenyook

 

karonf

 

lagoarthurstudio

 

livbowen

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

Nowruz_2015_120

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

Nowruz_2015_245

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!

Seventeen Angry Heads

Seventeen Angry Heads; Central Tibet, 15th century; gilt copper alloy with inlays of semiprecious stones; Purchase—Friends of Asian Arts in honor of the 10th Anniversary of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery; S1997.27

Seventeen Angry Heads; Saptadashashirshi Shri Devi; Central Tibet, 15th century; gilt copper alloy with inlays of semiprecious stones; Purchase—Friends of Asian Arts in honor of the 10th Anniversary of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery; S1997.27

Howling in anger and wearing skulls as ornaments, this goddess is a fierce form of the compassionate and beautiful Tara. Buddhist deities are peaceful, enlightened beings, but sometimes their passion turns to rage—particularly when they are protecting devotees and sacred teachings. A master craftsman sculpted her seventeen human and animal heads.

The sculpture was once part of a frieze (a horizontal band of painted or carved images) on a shrine at Densatil, a Buddhist monastery in Tibet. The monastery burned down in the 1960s, and fragments from the frieze were acquired by American and European collections. Experience these seventeen heads of ferocity in our galleries of South Asian and Himalayan art.

#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.

Turquoise-Mountain-Artisan-Soghra-Hussaini-2

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.

Sunflowers in the Peacock Room

Sunflower andirons; designer: Thomas Jeckyll (1827–1881), manufacturer: Barnard, Bishop, & Barnards; England, Norwich, ca. 1878–84; iron with gilding; Purchase, Freer Study Collection, FSC-M-66a–b

Sunflower andirons; designer: Thomas Jeckyll (1827–1881), manufacturer: Barnard, Bishop, & Barnards; England, Norwich, ca. 1878–84; iron with gilding; Purchase, Freer Study Collection, FSC-M-66a–b

While the Freer is under renovation, its famed Peacock Room is closed. We continue to explore it in Peacock Room REMIX, however, as well as in our Peacock Room app, the Story of the Beautiful web feature, Google Art Project, and on Bento. Below, Clive Lloyd, a retired professor and blogger in Norwich, England, writes about the contributions of architect Thomas Jeckyll, who designed the original dining room that Whistler made into his masterpiece. 

The Peacock Room may be stunningly beautiful, but my eye is drawn to the contents of the fireplace, where I see the sunflower andirons designed by Thomas Jeckyll (1827–1881), born just outside my home city of Norwich, England. As a pioneer of the Anglo-Japanese Aesthetic Movement and chief designer for a local ironworks, Jeckyll introduced Japanese motifs—such as sunflowers, cherry blossoms, and fan shapes—to their products. Similar to the larger freestanding sunflowers that form the Peacock Room’s andirons, the bloom appears in various forms embossed on domestic fireplaces. Since writing an article for my blog on these sunflowers, several people have contacted me to say they have an Aesthetic fireplace identical to the one I illustrated.

I have been fascinated with this motif since I read about the seventy-two sunflowers forming the railings around a Chinese pagoda that once stood in my local park. Jeckyll designed the pagoda for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition; he would later adapt the sunflowers for the Peacock Room’s rather more ostentatious versions. The Norwich Corporation purchased the pagoda in 1880 and placed it in Chapelfield Gardens. The structure suffered damage from bombing during World War II and was dismantled in 1949, but the best of its sunflowers were refurbished and used first as railings, then later as gates, at another Norwich park.

  • Jeckyll’s pagoda exhibited in Philadelphia, surrounded by the golden sunflower railings. Image courtesy Jonathan Plunkett.
    Jeckyll’s pagoda exhibited in Philadelphia, surrounded by the golden sunflower railings. Image courtesy Jonathan Plunkett.

During the most recent refurbishment, a local photographer told me she had seen original and replacement sunflowers mixed in boxes in the city council’s works department. Imagine my excitement when I saw a solitary sunflower in the corner of a nearby architectural salvage yard. I realized it must have been a surplus item liberated during the last restoration. I hoped the owner was unaware of exactly what he had, but no luck: He mentioned the magic name of Jeckyll (and the price), and I went home disappointed.

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.

TM-blog2

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.

TM-blog3

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.

TM-blog4

TM-blog5

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.

TM-blog7

TM-blog8

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.

TM-blog9

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.

TM-blog10

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.

TM-blog11

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.

TM-blog12

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.

TM-blog14

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.

TM-blog15

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.

TM-blog16

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.

TM-blog17

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.

NYFW: Accessories through the Ages

As New York Fashion Week struts toward its final round of shows, all eyes are on the apparel—and on the accessories. After all, you can’t truly dress to impress without the proper accoutrements, a tenet that discerning dressers seem to have embraced for millennia. Take, for example, the vivid splash of cerulean offered by this string of glazed-clay beads, which may date as far back as Late Period Egypt (712–332 BCE).

String of beads

Spinning to the opposite side of the color wheel (and to some two thousand years later), this Chinese necklace, dating to the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), comprises coral, amber, and gold beads.

FS-7533_01

Women also decorated their wrists in Qing dynasty China. The bracelet on the left is made of jade, known in China as the “fairest of stones.” The gold bracelet on the right likely would’ve been worn as one of a pair by an elite Chinese woman. Within the filigree design, two dragons play with a magic pearl.

bracelets

Gold, unsurprisingly, has been shaped into fine adornments for centuries across the globe. Both this ring and these earrings are hollow, fashioned from gold sheets. Made in twelfth-century Iran, the ring bears Arabic inscriptions that read in part, “Good fortune and blessing and joy and sovereignty.” The earrings, created in India circa 1880, are typically worn by Muslim women in the southern state of Kerala, along the country’s west coast.

ring and earrings

And let’s not forget a key piece of arm candy: the purse. This twentieth-century version was made by Pakistan’s Sodha community. Closed with a drawstring, it bears geometric and peacock designs stitched in satin, as well as discs of mirrored glass.

S1991.28

Circling back to brilliant blue: these three Qing dynasty Chinese hair ornaments, fashioned from kingfisher feathers, are nothing short of stunning. We wouldn’t be surprised to see contemporary versions of these accessories accenting the updos at a fashion week sometime soon.

hair

Thanks, Mr. President!

Portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt; Gari Melchers (1860–1932); United States, 1908; oil on canvas; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1908.17a

Portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt; Gari Melchers (1860–1932); United States, 1908; oil on canvas; Gift of Charles Lang Freer, F1908.17a

Happy Presidents Day! Did you know that President Theodore Roosevelt was instrumental to the Freer|Sackler’s existence? In 1904, Charles Lang Freer offered the United States his collections of Asian and American art and funds for a museum to house them. Because of restrictions he placed on the gift, the Smithsonian hesitated to accept it until President Roosevelt intervened.

To show his appreciation, Freer commissioned artist Gari Melchers to paint this portrait. Roosevelt considered the painting the best that had ever been done of him, and Freer predicted that it would always be considered the one that captured the “dignity, force and character” of the president. “Art is a language,” he wrote to Melchers, “and your portrait will talk to the people through coming centuries.”