A Bright Future for Afghan Art – Spotlight on 6 Talented Artists

Afghanistan’s artistic landscape is undergoing a profound transformation. After decades of conflict, during which the majority of artistic activities were repressed or banned, Afghan artists in all disciplines are reconnecting with their craft once again. Today, thanks to renewed local interest in arts and culture as well as greater international financial support for these activities, Afghanistan is home to both an exciting contemporary art scene and a reinvigorated traditional arts and crafts practice. Read on to learn more about six artists and artisans who are changing the rules of the game and showing the world the best of Afghan art.

Azim Fakhri

Having spent most of his childhood and youth outside of Afghanistan, Azim Fakhri returned to the country in 2002 with a passionate commitment to helping develop his country and represent his generation through the arts. His works, which he creates under the name Kabul Knights, span a variety of disciplines, including painting, stenciling, sculpture, and graffiti. Often compared with artists like the controversial street artist Banksy, Fakhri creates art that is playful and political at the same time, using surprising visual substitutions—like replacing grenades with pineapples or tank guns with clarinets—to puzzle and provoke his viewers. Once of Fakhri’s most recent projects is “Street Angels,” a photo series dedicated to Afghan children, which he discussed when he was a featured speaker at the TEDx talk series in Berlin.

Akram Ati

Based in Herat and a graduate of the Fine Arts Faculty of that city’s university, Akram Ati mixes traditional subjects with non-traditional materials and techniques to create paintings that are both stunning and subtle. Instead of using conventional, store-bought paints, Ati creates his own paints from natural materials like mud, dust, stones, and brick, which he grinds down and mixes with a type of homemade glue. According to Ati, these natural paints are not only more durable and less dull than artificial paints, they also represent and reflect the true essence of Afghanistan’s character and struggles. The subjects he captures in his monochromatic works are traditional scenes of everyday life in Afghanistan, including villages and country landscapes, the national game of buzkashi, and traditional dances and celebrations.

Mohsen Hossaini

Born and based in Kabul, Mohsen Hossaini draws the inspiration for his challenging works from everyday life in modern Kabul, which he describes as being difficult for ordinary people. His paintings use dark colors like black and dark green contrasted with stark red to represent what Hossaini views as the alienation of the individual in contemporary society, and the effect that solitude and lack of relationships can have on modern Afghans. In addition to painting, Hossaini is a director and an animator; his short film “Shelter,” a paper animation, was an official selection at a number of international film festivals.

Arif Bahaduri

Arif Bahaduri’s work stands out, literally, due to its three-dimensional texture. Bahaduri works with materials like bandages and crumpled paper to bring a sense of unevenness and tactility to his pieces, which typically represent abstract images of familiar things, like homes or tombstones. According to Bahaduri, his use of bandages and plasters is a specific choice, made to represent the pain and unhealed wounds that he explores through his art. In addition to his larger works, Bahaduri is a skilled sketch artist. His sketches of street life in contemporary Afghanistan are striking snapshots of a particular political and cultural moment.

Nasser Mansouri

In contrast to the artists above, Nasser Mansouri reaches back into the past for inspiration. As an artisan affiliated with the Turquoise Mountain Institute, master woodworker Mansouri is one of many traditional arts and crafts specialists working to restore Afghanistan’s artisanal legacy and rich crafting heritage. And while Mansouri may talk about being unsure of how to describe his own practice—artist, woodworker, carver, teacher, and businessman are all terms he uses—there’s little question as to the beauty and artistic value of his work. Through extensive study of historic Afghan buildings, Mansouri replicates and recreates intricate carvings and latticework, building beautiful, interlocking designs that are put together without nails. Recently, some of Mansouri’s work was featured in the exhibit “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan” at the Freer Sackler gallery in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

Abdul Matin Malekzadah

Another teacher at the Turquoise Mountain Institute (and also featured in the same Smithsonian exhibition as Nasser Mansouri), Abdul Matin Malekzadah is the newest artisan in a line of potters that stretches back hundreds of years. Malekzadah is based in the village of Istalif in central Afghanistan, which has many rich seams of clay, natural materials for glazes, and wood for firing kilns. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that Istalif has become known as a village of potters. In recent decades, the village has been destroyed three times, but the villagers, including Malekzadah and his brothers, have always rebuilt their homes and workshops. Today, Malekzadah is proud to continue the artisanal legacy of his village, and to provide an important link between Afghanistan’s past and present.

5 Things You Need to Know About Turquoise Mountain

turquoise mountain logoEstablished in 2006 by Prince Charles in partnership with Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s former president, the non-profit, non-governmental organization Turquoise Mountain aims to preserve historical areas and revive traditional artisanal activities in Afghanistan. In just over a decade, the organization has already achieved remarkable success, garnering an international reputation and transforming the lives of thousands of Afghans. Read on for the five things you need to know about this unique organization that are helping to revitalize a cultural industry and rebuild a country.

  1. Turquoise Mountain is bringing traditional Afghan arts and crafts back to life.

Due to decades of civil conflict and political instability in Afghanistan, many traditional arts and crafts practices were, until recently, all but abandoned. Turquoise Mountain is helping to bring these activities back to life at the Turquoise Mountain Institute, Afghanistan’s premier vocational training institution for arts and crafts. Students receive a world-class education in some of Afghanistan’s most culturally rich crafts. They can select from disciplines such as woodwork, jewelry and gem cutting, ceramics, calligraphy, or miniature painting. Around 15 artisans are selected for each craft every year. The students learn from some of Afghanistan’s most renowned and skilled master craftsmen, thus reviving the traditional practice of knowledge transmission from master to pupil. At the end of three intensive years of training, students at the institute graduate with a City & Guilds accreditation that is internationally recognized.

  1. Turquoise Mountain completely revitalized an at-risk historic district.

Looking now at the magnificent setting of the Turquoise Mountain Institute in Kabul’s historic Murad Khani district—once an ancient silver bazaar—it’s hard to imagine that just a few short years ago the entire area was buried under several meters of accumulated garbage. (Not surprisingly, the district was featured on the World Monuments Fund Watch List, which keeps track of the world’s most endangered historic sites). Turquoise Mountain worked to completely restore Murad Khani, digging through the garbage to reveal the beautiful centuries-old structures and courtyards below. The process was also a learning opportunity for artisans, focusing on the traditional skills of architectural woodwork and mud-plastering. Today, the beautifully restored old city is a vibrant artistic and economic hub.

  1. Turquoise Mountain plays an important community role.

The Murad Khani district is not only the home of the Turquoise Mountain Institute, it’s also an established community of long-term residents. Community development was an integral part of Turquoise Mountain’s restoration activities in the area. In partnership with the Murad Khani community, Turquoise Mountain has worked to provide employment, education, and healthcare programs to local residents, including a public school and an out-of-school education center that is free of charge. The Firuzkuh Family Health Center, which focuses on maternal and child health, welcomes thousands of patients every year. The center also hosts regular events and gatherings where the entire community can come together and celebrate their culture. Due to Turquoise Mountain’s work, and the active presence of the institute, residents of Murad Khani are feeling a renewed sense of pride in their district and their community.

  1. Work from Turquoise Mountain has been exhibited internationally.

One of Turquoise Mountain’s main goals is to train artists in Afghanistan and revitalize the country’s arts and crafts industry. The organization also believes in the importance of international connections. As a result, Turquoise Mountain works hard to showcase the work of its students and artisans not only at home, but also on the global stage. The work of Turquoise Mountain artisans has been exhibited in Bahrain, Qatar, Italy, the UK, and, most recently at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC. In addition, Turquoise Mountain works to find international buyers and retailers for its artisans’ work. Some of the individuals and organizations that Turquoise Mountain has partnered with include Kate Spade Fifth Avenue and London’s five-star Connaught Hotel.

  1. Turquoise Mountain by the numbers.

Some of the most important statistics associated with Turquoise Mountain are:

  • 112—The number of historic buildings, such as those in Murad Khani, that Turquoise Mountain has restored worldwide. (Turquoise Mountain operates in Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan.)
  • 36,000—The number of cubic meters of garbage that were excavated from the Murad Khani district during the old city restoration project.
  • $5 million—The dollar value of traditional crafts that have been sold through Turquoise Mountain to international markets and customers.
  • 1,100—The number of artisans who have received training in the restoration of heritage buildings (including activities such as traditional architectural woodworking) through working on Turquoise Mountain restoration projects.
  • 80%—The percentage of Turquoise Mountain Institute graduates who go on to own their own businesses (entrepreneurship and business training are an important part of the Turquoise Mountain curriculum, in addition to craft work).
  • 17,000—The number of patients who obtain primary health care annually through Turquoise Mountain’s community development projects and health care initiatives.
  • 10,000—The number of artisans whose lives that Turquoise Mountain aims to transform over the next decade.

What You Need to Prepare Afghan Food at Home

While Afghanistan’s rich and flavorful cuisine is gradually becoming better known outside the country’s borders, it may still be some time before everyone is fortunate enough to have a delicious Afghan restaurant right around the corner from their home. However, if you’re a gourmand who doesn’t want to wait, don’t worry: many of Afghanistan’s tastiest dishes can be made at home with just a few extra additions to your regular shopping list. Read on for an overview of everything you’ll need to try your hand at making Afghan food at home.

  1. Herbs, spices, and flavorings

mintThe complex flavors of Afghan cuisine come from the liberal use of herbs, spices, and flavorings. These seasonings are often used in dishes that need to be cooked for long periods of time, allowing the flavors to blend and deepen. Some of the most important seasonings to have in your pantry include:

  • Cardamom—A relative of the ginger family, cardamom is available in green, brown, or black pods. Cardamom adds a distinctive flavor to rice and curries. If you don’t have a way to grind spices yourself at home, you can also find ground cardamom in the spice section of your grocery store.
  • Turmeric—Another member of the ginger family, turmeric is characterized by its deep, rich yellow color. Turmeric brings an earthy, peppery flavor to curry-style dishes.
  • Mint—One of the most popular herbs in Afghan cooking, dried mint is often added during cooking or sprinkled over the top of finished dishes as a garnish.
  • Rosewater—Distilled from rose petals, rosewater is commonly used to flavor many Middle Eastern dishes, especially desserts.

Other important herbs and spices that you probably already have on hand include cumin, cinnamon, pepper, ginger, and chilies.

  1. Pantry staples

  • Rice—The centerpiece of almost every Afghan meal is rice. Afghan cooks are very particular about the type of rice that should be used depending on the dish being prepared. Fragrant and delicately flavored basmati rice, which is probably the least processed variety you can find, is an absolute must-have for your pantry. If you have the space, you’ll also want an additional long-grain variety, as well as a short-grain type.
  • Legumes—Dried legumes such as chickpeas, lentils, and split peas are a very popular and versatile ingredient in Afghan cooking. They are often used to “fill out” meat dishes, as they are less expensive than fresh meat. In addition, they can be served fried and salted, as well as coated with sugar as a sweet accompaniment for tea.
  • Ghee—One of the most commonly used cooking fats in Afghan cuisine is ghee, or clarified butter. You can buy commercial ghee or you can make it yourself by simply melting a pound of unsalted butter over low heat in a saucepan and skimming away the milk solids as they separate. To ensure the ghee is as clear as possible, strain it through a cheesecloth before storing in a clean jar.
  • Besan—Also known as “gram flour,” it is made from ground chana dal, a type of small chickpea. It is often used to make traditional Afghan bread.
  1. Fresh ingredients

  • onionOnions—Some form of onion can be found in just about every savory Afghan dish. Most dishes rely on a cooked onion mixture known as piaz e surkh kada, in which onions are finely minced and then cooked in plenty of oil until they are a deep golden brown color. Some Afghan cooks make up big batches of piaz e surkh kada in advance so it’s ready to use whenever the cook needs it. Many recipes also call for leeks, scallions, or a type of onion called “gandana” that looks similar to a leek and can be found in specialty markets.
  • Yogurt—Afghan cuisine makes extensive use of thick, natural-style yogurt as a thickener for curries and stews, as a base for sauces and dips, and even as a drink. Plain-flavored Greek-style yogurt is a handy option to keep in your fridge.
  • Cilantro—Fresh cilantro—or coriander, as it’s also known—is used extensively in Afghan cooking, not only in cooked dishes, but also as a garnish or as a kind of chutney. It’s often referred to as “Afghan parsley”.
  1. Equipment

  • Sutak—Since rice is such an essential part of Afghan cuisine, it’s important to ensure that it’s properly cooked. A sutak is a thick cotton cover that’s placed either over a pot of just-cooked rice or between the pot and the lid during cooking. This helps to absorb excess steam and prevents the rice from sticking together or becoming gluey. One thick folded tea towel will work well as a substitute.
  • Seekh—Kebabs, a beloved Afghan dish often made with chunks of lamb, are cooked over a charcoal grill using seekhs—long flat skewers made of stainless steel.