GEM: Celebrating Contemporary Afghan Craft and Design

Photo of Melanie Eddy
13 November 2015

GEM: Contemporary Jewellery and Gemstones from Afghanistan will be on show at the British Council’s London headquarters until the 29 November 2013. It is the result of the British Council’s collaboration with Turquoise Mountain, an organisation that promotes Afghan craft and design worldwide and highlights an aspect of Afghanistan that is not so often the focus of our attention, as Melanie Eddy reveals.

© Melanie Eddy

In Afghanistan the processes of transferring cultural practice and traditional knowledge, particularly in the decorative and applied arts, have been severely disrupted by conflict, migration patterns and the economic constraints of these realities. However, the rich artistic and cultural traditions of the country have persevered against all odds. What we are looking at now is developing an environment with the freedom and support to enable individuals to explore and expand upon these traditions and skills by developing a contemporary practice. A practice that will ensure resilience in a climate that demands flexibility and the opportunity to produce work suitable for a global market without compromising the artistic integrity and historical and cultural significance of their work.

© Melanie Eddy

Jewellery in Afghanistan has both historical and cultural resonances. GEM showcases the dynamic development of jewellery practice and gem-cutting at Turquoise Mountain over the past 6 years and features a new wave of talented individuals emerging from a community engaged in regenerating the arts and crafts traditions and in turn regenerating a historic area of old Kabul city. Straddling art and industry, jewellery runs the gamut from mechanized production for large-scale commercial brands to conceptual pieces as fleeting as an imprint or shadow on the skin. The flexibility of this industry means that it offers individuals incredible choice – to hone a craft, to seek a livelihood or to establish a business. The nurturing environment fostered by Turquoise Mountain in Murad Khane supports this new generation of craftsmen and women as they make these choices and is encouraging an approach to business and craft that emphasises the importance of both processes and materials. By championing the historic master and apprentice approach to learning and providing the opportunity to engage with international designers, the organisation has fuelled entrepreneurial spirit and encouraged the development of contemporary practice amongst individuals whose technical skills are rooted in tradition.

© The British Council

Turquoise Mountain was established in March 2006, at the request of HRH Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, and HE President Karzai, President of Afghanistan, with the aim of regenerating historic urban areas, renewing Afghan traditional arts and architecture, and spurring the sustainable development of the nation’s craft industry. Turquoise Mountain has focused much of its energies on promoting the use of Afghan materials and resources in its products and artworks; focusing on what Afghanistan has, rather than what it lacks.

© Agnese Sanvito

Afghanistan’s lapis mines are the earliest in recorded history at 6500 years old. Lapis Lazuli mined in the Hindu Kush since the Neolithic Period, was transported along the ancient trade routes to Mesopotamia, Ur, Egypt and India. Geological work has not been conducted over the entire country, however work on about 10% of Afghan territory has discovered numerous deposits. It is thought that there are over 120 gem occurrences in Afghanistan (80 types of precious and semi-precious stones). GEM highlights a selection of this gem spectrum with rough gemstones and minerals from Afghanistan on display alongside gem materials cut, polished and mounted into jewellery and objects by graduates, final year students and young teachers at Turquoise Mountain. We also have a miniature painted with pigments made from crushed gems and minerals – a historical tradition of painting in the region.

© Melanie Eddy

The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations – creating international opportunities for the people of the UK and other countries and building trust between them worldwide. They have been working with Turquoise Mountain since 2008, providing funds for training initiatives and opportunities for their artisans for further creative and professional development. The commissioned pieces for GEM spotlight Turquoise Mountain’s development of specialist skills in jewellery manufacture and present and interpret the skills of their Gem-cutting department allowing us to witness how students and graduates engage with aesthetic, historical and cultural movements in Afghanistan alongside their growth in technical prowess. A thread throughout the exhibition is a focus on materials and processes and certain pieces illustrate the students, graduates and young teachers’ spirit of experimentation in regards to pushing inherent materials and the contexts in which they are used; demonstrating how traditional materials and techniques are being applied in contemporary jewellery and gem-cutting practice in Afghanistan. Shown alongside this is the work of four internationally recognised UK designers who have collaborated with Turquoise Mountain – either taking the fine craft traditions of Afghanistan to a wider audience through high street collaborations or by developing educationally focused partnerships, which have resulted in new jewellery pieces.

© Melanie Eddy

Collaboration and partnership are key in terms of supporting Afghanistan’s emerging craftsmen and women. These individuals are talented, knowledgeable in their craft practices and have the motivation and dedication to develop businesses based around their skill sets. What they are looking for is a market for their work, a way to develop their product – whether it is to push the design, concept or technique, to try new approaches to traditional methods. Support locally is important in regards to a safe and enriching environment to work in but it is through international partnerships, collaborations, and sales that they can really transform their practices into resilient, sustainable businesses and craft practices. Practices that will not only enable them to have a livelihood, career and business but to reinvest back into the development and continuation of a community that is regenerating the artistic and cultural traditions of the past with a continued relevance to the domestic and international markets of today.

By Melanie Eddy

In the autumn of 2010, through the British Council, Melanie undertook a two-month applied arts creative residency at Turquoise Mountain’s Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture in Kabul, Afghanistan. She has continued work in Afghanistan maintaining a relationship with Turquoise Mountain by consulting on a voluntary basis and recently worked with Afghan NGO and UK charity, Future Brilliance, on a project taking jewellers and gem-cutters from Afghanistan to Jaipur, India for skills enhancement and apprenticeship style training. She was delighted to be asked to curate “GEM’ for the British Council and to be involved in bringing contemporary jewellery and gemstones from Afghanistan to the UK.

Gem: Contemporary Jewellery and Gemstones from Afghanistan is on show until 29 November 2013 at the British Council’s London Headquarters, 10 Spring Gardens, London, SW1A 2BN. 10am – 4pm Monday to Friday.

Ferozkoh: Tradition and Continuity in Afghan Art is also on show at Leighton House from 15 November 2013 until 23 February 2014 and features a selection of work from Turquoise Mountain done in response to objects from the collection of the Museum of Islamic Art.

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