Tag Archives: turquoise mountain

Meet our Volunteer: Michael Ruddell

Bottle; Korea, late 18th–19th century; Bunwon ware; porcelain with transparent, pale blue glaze; Gift of Graenum and Emma Berger and Elizabeth Lee Berger in memory of Ambassador Samuel D. Berger; F1980.188

Bottle; Korea, late 18th–19th century; Bunwon ware; porcelain with transparent, pale blue glaze; Gift of Graenum and Emma Berger and Elizabeth Lee Berger in memory of Ambassador Samuel D. Berger; F1980.188

Michael Ruddell has volunteered at the Freer|Sackler since 2016 as a Visitor Information Specialist (VIS). VIS provide essential services to the Smithsonian by offering a warm welcome and useful information to our visitors about exhibitions, activities, services, and more. I recently asked him a few questions about his work at the museum.

What drew you to the Freer|Sackler?

I’ve volunteered at Freer|Sackler for a year this month. For as long as I have lived in the DC area, I have been wandering through the Smithsonian museums. This has been a great opportunity for me to get more involved and to learn about art, history, and the people who value and create it.

What’s the most satisfying experience about volunteering for the museum?

As a Volunteer Information Specialist, I get to serve as an ambassador and public face of the Smithsonian Institution, which is very exciting. I really enjoy witnessing how our visitors experience the museum. It’s a lot of fun and very rewarding to hear their perspectives on the art and to learn from the many kinds of people who come to visit.

Can you share a memorable interaction with a visitor you have had?

Throughout the course of the Turquoise Mountain exhibition [on view through October 29, 2017], I [have been] lucky enough to meet some of the artisans from Afghanistan who came to demonstrate their skills in calligraphy, ceramics, and other arts for us at the museum. They were incredibly kind and extraordinarily talented. I watched them working and got to listen in on their conversations with the visitors.

I particularly remember watching Abdul Matin Malekzadah create a beautiful and intricate clay teapot in a matter of minutes (lid, handle, spout, and all) with a traditional potter’s wheel in the gallery, to the amazement of the visitors watching. When he had finished a piece, he would unceremoniously lump it all together and begin again on something different. The visitors’ reactions were priceless.

What’s your favorite artwork in the collection?

I’ve come to love the ceramics in the collection since I started volunteering, especially the Korean pieces. I like to think about the people who molded these shapes and worked so hard to produced these colors. I’m sure [museum founder Charles Lang] Freer would have loved a bottle like this one—it’s gorgeous.

Rediscovering Afghan Designs


I opened up the package and gave a yelp. Inside was a small book of about one hundred pages stapled together, featuring text in Dari—one of the languages of Afghanistan—and floral and geometric motifs. The document was a little ripped and bleached with age, but otherwise looked in pretty good nick.

A small note revealed that the book had been sent to me by a ninety-something visitor named Leila Poullada. Two weeks before, I had given a curator’s tour of my exhibition Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan. This tiny, birdlike lady had concentrated intensely during my talk and asked me rounds of quick-fire questions afterward, in which she proved herself deeply knowledgeable and insightful. We sat chatting for forty minutes in the middle of the exhibition as she told me about her life and travels.

It turns out that Leila had lived in Afghanistan in the 1960s, moving with her husband, Leon Poullada, a US diplomat and scholar of Afghanistan. Poullada is a major name in the historiography of Afghanistan, having written one of the main accounts of the country in the early twentieth century. I knew his work well from my time as a PhD student of Afghan history.

US Ambassador Leon Poullada stands to the left of President John F. Kennedy. Image c/o Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

US Ambassador Leon Poullada stands to the left of President John F. Kennedy in this 1961 photograph. Image c/o Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Leon had died several decades ago, Leila told me, and she now lives in a condominium in St. Louis, Missouri. She still keeps in touch with friends from their Afghanistan days. Leila had been a great traveler in Afghanistan, visiting sites like the remote Minaret of Jam that are now extremely difficult for people to reach. She had seen more of the country than I had in all my years there.

The book Leila sent was one of many that she had collected during her time in Afghanistan. Titled Afghan Designs, it was printed in Kabul in 1967. It is a design book for teachers of art and craft skills, containing patterns found in buildings and sites across the country.

I recently spent a few years working with artisans in Afghanistan—woodworkers, calligraphers, jewelers, ceramicists—as part of the Turquoise Mountain organization. As explored in the Freer|Sackler exhibition, we focus on preserving and reviving techniques and designs that have fallen or were in danger of falling out of use. Here in Leila’s book were hundreds and hundreds of those designs, recorded and detailed by researchers in the 1960s. I recognized many from buildings that Turquoise Mountain has restored in the old city district of Murad Khani in Kabul, designs that were often carved into Himalayan cedar or wet clay up in the pottery village of Istalif.


Aside from the practical uses of the work for Turquoise Mountain students in Kabul, I was struck by the nature of the designs. From the several hundred varieties that the researchers had collected, more than three-quarters are plant and flower motifs. Only a few are purely geometric, and about a fifth are a mix of geometric and floral. In a country with such a rich appreciation of flowers and gardening, it is interesting to see how this focus has played out historically in designs that artisans use in their work. It also challenges the common misapprehension that geometric design is the overwhelming mode used in the decorative arts of the Islamic world.

I’ll be taking the book back to where it belongs—Kabul—on my next trip over. I’m very grateful to Leila Poullada for sharing it with me.

Afghan Arts and PechaKucha

Our speakers at tomorrow's open house. Clockwise from top right: Dawa Drolma, Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo, Brendan Groves, Peggy Clark, and Annie Waterman.

Our speakers at tomorrow’s open house. Clockwise from top right: Dawa Drolma, Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo, Brendan Groves, Peggy Clark, and Annie Waterman.

Tomorrow afternoon, we celebrate Afghan Independence Day and Afghan arts at our third and final open house of the summer season. This six-hour event is an opportunity for making art, tasting Afghan food, hearing from artisans, watching musical performances, listening to traditional stories read by ARCH International, and exploring the arts of Afghanistan, as seen in our Turquoise Mountain exhibition.

The day concludes with PechaKucha-style presentations—a talk given alongside twenty images, each shown for twenty seconds—by social entrepreneurs working with artisans in Asia and beyond, who will share how they got involved and the lives they’ve seen changed. Read their stories below, and meet them tomorrow at 5 pm.


Dawa Drolma was born and raised in Kham Dege, Tibet. Fluent in Chinese, English, and Tibetan, she is passionate about Tibetan culture and traditions and has focused on cultural preservation and folklore studies since 2009. Her documentary films and photos about Tibetan culture have won several international awards, and her first book about Tibetan folksongs, Silence in the Valley of Song, was published in 2012. Drolma also is the brand director of Khyenle, a Tibetan bronze artwork business.

Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo is a Brooklyn-based Colombian artist, technologist, and educator. Her artwork, centered around themes of time and transience, has been internationally exhibited and performed, including at the Kitchen (NYC), UCLA Hammer Museum (LA), Point Éphémère (Paris), and the Museums of Modern Art in Bogotá and Medellín (Colombia). Since 2003, Jaramillo has worked at the New School in New York City, where she is currently associate professor of integrated design at Parsons School of Design and interim vice president for distributed and global education. Her published research is in the area of community-engaged and socially responsible design education. In 2013, Jaramillo was honored with a Fulbright Scholarship for the inaugural Higher Education Administrator’s Program in France.

Brendan Groves is a national security lawyer, a military veteran, and an experienced social entrepreneur. He has received the Bronze Star Medal, the NSA Director’s Award, and two awards from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, among other honors. Apart from his government service, Groves is the cofounder of Flying Scarfs, a veteran-run enterprise that empowers marginalized widows in Afghanistan and Kenya by selling handmade artisan items. He also founded the Wishing Well, a nonprofit that has funded more than one hundred water projects in the developing world.

Peggy Clark is vice president of policy programs and executive director of Aspen Global Health and Development at the Aspen Institute, as well as director of the Alliance for Artisan Enterprise. She has had a thirty-year career working on issues of poverty alleviation, global health, social enterprise, and development finance. Serving in founding and leadership roles at the Ford Foundation, Save the Children, and Realizing Rights, among others, Clark has been a leading figure in identifying and building industries, movements, and creative advocacy on key issues. She received a Presidential Award for Excellence in Microenterprise from President Bill Clinton, and she was instrumental in passing the WHO Global Code of Practice on the Ethical Recruitment of Health Workers.

Annie O. Waterman has more than a decade of experience within the global artisan sector. She is the founder of AOW Handmade, which works with wholesalers, designers, and retailers to create unique, high-quality artisan collections while sustaining craft traditions and creating market exposure for artisans worldwide. Waterman recently worked as a project manager for ByHand Consulting, for which she traveled extensively, identifying new artisan companies that qualified for exhibiting in the artisan resource market at NY NOW. She also was a contributing writer for HAND/EYE magazine, an online publication dedicated to global creativity and sustainable design.

Teen Council: A Conversation about Art in Afghanistan



One of our jobs as members of the 2016 Freer|Sackler Teen Council is to figure out the significance that art and museums hold for our generation. For exhibitions such as Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan, all twelve of us had to consider a question: Why should we be paying attention to this? First, we had to understand the context of Turquoise Mountain, an organization dedicated to reviving Afghanistan’s cultural legacy. My experience in the exhibition raised another question: Do we know what’s going on in the world?

When the Teen Council brainstormed about what we learned from the exhibition, I wrote down cultural significance. I realized that it’s difficult for Americans, and young people specifically, to understand how vulnerable a culture can be. In moments, chaos can destroy culture, even if it has a lengthy and colorful history. Culture seems like an abstract thing to us, but what Turquoise Mountain made me see is how dependent culture is on individuals and everyday people.

Turquoise Mountain artisan Abdul Matin Malekzadah (back row, third from left) with members of the ArtLab+ and Teen Council, which filmed the video in the exhibition.

Turquoise Mountain artisan Abdul Matin Malekzadah (back row, third from left) with members of the ArtLab+ and Teen Council, which filmed the video in the exhibition.

After we inspected the different Afghan crafts on display, we were left considering what we and other young people should do with this new information. We learned that we would make a video about Turquoise Mountain. It soon became clear that it would be important to emphasize our own perspective. Anyone could have made an informative video on the project and the exhibition, but it was our identities as filmmakers that made it different.

To produce the video, we collaborated with the Hirshhorn’s ARTLAB+ production team, made up of fellow high school students. Abdul Matin Malekzadah, a ceramicist who specializes in the style of pottery made in the village of Istalif, became the representative of Turquoise Mountain’s cultural revival for our video. Bilal, an Afghan American program manager at the Freer|Sackler, translated our conversations, enabling us to better understand Afghan culture on multiple levels.

Bilal, who works at the Freer|Sackler, is Afghan American. His perspective is important to hear.

Bilal, who works at the Freer|Sackler, is Afghan American. His perspective is important to hear.

We learned that Matin’s work is characteristic of ceramics from Istalif, a village near Kabul, which are distinguished by natural potash glazes of green and turquoise. An ancient proverb says, “He who has not seen Istalif has seen nothing.” As we learned about Istalif and its distinguished history, I was struck by how long the village has been known for its pottery, and how quickly the area suffered mass destruction due to its close proximity to Kabul. This made it all the more clear why Turquoise Mountain’s work matters. After spending time with Matin, I can better appreciate how and why he is returning an age-old craft to our modern and ever-changing world.


The Freer|Sackler Teen Council is a group of twelve creative and dedicated high school students who help make the museum more welcoming and engaging for young people. The Teen Council plans and hosts events that bring DC-area teens to the museum to hang out, make and design art, and have unique and exciting experiences. Plus, we have a lot of fun and build an incredible community together.

Take a look at some of our upcoming summer events, including our Teen Takeover on Thursday, August 4, 6–9 pm.

Turquoise Mountain: How Old is Afghanistan?


“How old is Afghanistan?” is a very difficult question to answer. The term “Afghanistan” was used as a geographic marker at least since the 1300s. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was a term used primarily by the Durrani Empire (1747–1826) to refer to the region around the Sulaiman Mountains, a range located east of present-day Afghanistan and western Pakistan. “Afghanistan” was thus a loosely defined geographic label for an area between “Hindustan” in the east, “Khurasan” in the west, and “Turkestan” in the north.

1771 Bonne Map of Persia (Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan). Geographicus Persia bonne 1771. Reproduced from www.antiquemaps-fair.com.

1771 Bonne Map of Persia (Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan). Geographicus Persia bonne 1771. Reproduced from www.antiquemaps-fair.com.

The first time that “Afghanistan” came to mean anything like our contemporary conception of the nation-state was in Soltan Mohammad Kales’s book Tarikh-e Soltani, which he began in 1865 but didn’t publish until 1880. During the period between when he wrote the work and when it was published, Afghanistan was beset by disputed claims to the throne of an area without defined borders. This would change with the rise of Amir Abd al-Rahman Khan (r. 1880–1901) and—most importantly—with the recognition by the British government of his suzerainty over “Afghanistan” in the aftermath of the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1879–1880). For the first time, Afghanistan was officially recognized as a territorial and political entity, largely as we currently understand it. Over the following fifteen years (through further border agreements made in 1887, 1893, and the controversial Durand Line demarcations of 1894–96), Afghanistan’s borders became fixed in the manner that they are portrayed on maps today.

Learn more about the history of Afghanistan and the traditions it’s reviving today in Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan, now on view.

Turquoise Mountain Artisans: Meet Matin


A descendant of generations of potters, Turquoise Mountain artisan Abdul Matin Malekzadah has joined us from Afghanistan to demonstrate his crafts. Watch his work, hear his story, and come in to meet him.

Malekzadah was born in Istalif, a village in rural Afghanistan. For four hundred years, Istalif was famed for its turquoise glazed ceramics, made using a natural potash glaze known as ishkar. In 1999, the Taliban destroyed many of Istalif’s pottery workshops, as well as knowledge of the distinctive ishkar glaze. Today, Malekzadah, head of the Turquoise Mountain Institute’s ceramics department and the director of Afghan Traditional Pottery, is one of the leading figures in the revival of Istalifi pottery, through which he is reintroducing the use of natural glazes.

Turquoise Mountain Artisans: Meet Saeeda

A look at Saeeda Etebari's jewelry designs.

A look at Saeeda Etebari’s jewelry designs.

Throughout the run of Turquoise Mountain, artisans will visit us from Afghanistan to demonstrate the materials and techniques of their crafts. Meet the artisan who is currently in DC by visiting the exhibition this Thursday and over the weekend.

Saeeda Etebari was born into the miserable conditions of a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1984. She became seriously ill during the first week of her life and was diagnosed with cerebral meningitis. Due to the illness, she did not walk for three years, and she lost her hearing. Her parents tried to find a cure for her loss of hearing, but nothing worked.

After the fall of the Taliban, Saeeda’s family returned to Kabul. She finished high school and even taught at the same school, but she did not find teaching as rewarding as she had hoped. When her brother suggested she study a craft instead, Saeeda enrolled in the Turquoise Mountain Institute.

“I chose jewelry because I love the focus and skill that making jewelry requires,” she says. “You need to be really precise and really patient. I can lose myself for hours when I’m working on a delicate piece. The more intricate the work, the more I enjoy it.” When asked how it feels to sell her works to others, she replies, “Designing a piece that somebody will buy and wear is a special experience for me. I love making a connection with someone through a shared sense of beauty.”


Turquoise Mountain: Jali Woodwork

Scenes from Turquoise Mountain, Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, September 30, 2013. Photo © by Tina Hager fro TFBSO.

Scenes from Turquoise Mountain, Kabul, Afghanistan, September 30, 2013. Photo © by Tina Hager fro TFBSO.

Jali is the term for a latticed screen, which can be made of wood or stone. This screen usually has an ornamental pattern based on geometric designs. It is a style of work found across the Islamic world. In Morocco and much of the Middle East, this style of work is known as mashrabiyya, while in Afghanistan and South Asia it is known as jali.

Jali screens were used in many elements of traditional domestic and public architecture in Kabul. Areas such as Murad Khani and Asheqan-o-Arefan (restored by the Afgha Khan Trust for Culture) have excellent surviving examples of this work.

Scenes from Turquoise Mountain, Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, September 30, 2013. Photo © by Tina Hager fro TFBSO.

Scenes from Turquoise Mountain, Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, September 30, 2013. Photo © by Tina Hager fro TFBSO.

To make jali, a woodworker traces a geometric design onto paper, then cuts thin slivers of walnut or cedar wood with a fine saw. These pieces are matched to the tracing paper to ensure exact sizing before being fixed together with wood glue. The whole piece is then clamped to ensure a strong fit.

Turquoise Mountain has created large-scale jali works for international commissions, including the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, the Connaught Hotel in London, and a private house in upstate New York. In Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan, master woodworker Nasser Mansouri has his own pieces on display. He explains in the exhibition text, “I started working on the restoration of historic buildings in Murad Khani in 2006. I learned so much by studying those buildings: the beautiful cedar wood carving on window frames; the latticework known as jali above doorways; the subtle method by which joints were put together without a nail in sight. The buildings became my teachers.”

Nasser Mansouri © by Tina Hager for TFBSO.

Nasser Mansouri © by Tina Hager for TFBSO.

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.












#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.


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.