Design workshop – Looking to the Turkmen style

Yuria's ring template

I have had a great time carrying out some design workshops and technical exercises with the students. I’ll be posting some of the highlights of these over the next few days.

Work in Progress - My ring design from the Design Workshop

The students had asked me to design something for them to fabricate but I thought they would benefit being more involved in the design process so I developed a design exercise for them instead. A handout was prepared with some instructions and visual references and signed a book out from the library on Turkmen jewellery to get them started. The students are already familiar with Turkmen jewellery forms and the techniques particular to this style of work, most of their 2nd year is spent studying and making in the Turkmen style. The idea was for the 3rd year students to look at Turkmen jewellery for inspiration but design a contemporary piece that relates to one element of Turkmen design, either the form or a technique or style of decoration particular to Turkmen jewellery. To focus on one part of a larger traditional design and to use that in their piece. To change the form of the design – a traditional pendant design into a ring or to use a contemporary form but use Turkmen style decoration, detail or piercing in an unexpected way or in an unexpected place. This workshop followed on from them making a traditional Turkmen style ring with the Turkmen Ustad earlier in the week.

Salem's ring design

I had intended it to be a design exercise but the students were very keen to make so Ustad Javed (who teaches modern jewellery making) and I adapted it to a technical exercise of making a Turkmen ring, inspired by a traditional Turkmen pendant design.  

Nasir's ring design

They were reluctant to get started coming up with their own individual versions but I carried out the exercise along with them and they soon got going and came up with some really interesting templates for the rings. All coming up with really different designs in the end which was great.

Following on from this exercise one of the students has completely taken the concept and run with it. He has designed a series of gem-set earrings using variations of the same forms, fantastic!

Sayeer working on his earring design.

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Technical Difficulties

Hiking in Istalif

Sorry for my delay in having new posts up about my time here. On top of a very hectic schedule I have unfortunately been experiencing some technical difficulties.

Namely that my computer, after a few intense days and evenings of preparing a series of lectures and exercises on research methodology for the 3rd year students, has called it quits, I hope just temporarily! Luckily for me it was polite enough to go on strike precisely fifteen minutes after I finished up all my work related to the lectures…very considerate really! Good thing for external hard drives, mine saved the day!

Gem-cutting student at work

Keeping up to date with internet correspondence here is not a case of simply popping to your local internet cafe. I am going to be lent a computer in the next day or two while my lovely Mac is off sick… (Macs are great, but it turns out not so great or practical in Afghanistan as there are few technicians here who know how to work on Mac operating systems! If anyone reading this knows of a Mac technician here in Kabul please drop me a line!!)

So, computer permitting, check back soon for more posts about the earthquake I experienced here, about my hiking trip to the valleys surrounding the mountain village of Istalif and about my time with the jewellery and gem cutting students as they prepare for an exhibition showcasing their works this Friday!

This post is courtesy of the lovely Faisal from the Finance Team here at Turquoise Mountain who has kindly lent me the use of his computer to post this. Yay Faisal!

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Murad Khane

Murad Khane - One of the Courtyards of the Great Serai

Before I even arrived in Afghanistan I had read about Turquoise Mountain’s regeneration project in Murad Khane, which is in the heart of Kabul’s old city, a historic quarter of Kabul on the banks of the Kabul River. It is home to a multi-ethnic community and a thriving bazaar that attracts 100,000 visitors a week. Before Turquoise Mountain began its work, the area was buried under two metres of rubbish, it had no running water, drainage or electricity, and the community’s homes were collapsing. Now historic buildings are being restored and infrastructure is being installed as part of a comprehensive regeneration programme in collaboration with the local community and the Ministry of Education, creating an educational complex of international standing for Afghanistan. The heart of this complex will be the three courtyards of the Great Serai, once home to Afghanistan’s first school.

During my first few days here I had spoken over meals, and on my journey from the airport, with engineers and architects that had travelled to Afghanistan to work on this project. So when I heard that some teachers and staff from the Institute were taking a trip there I jumped at the chance to go. I must have had about 20 to 30 minutes to speak with the Chief Operating Officer to ask his permission to go and to clear my travel with security. Luckily for me he allowed me to go with the caveat that I was to remain close to the Head and Deputy Head of the Institute. Off I went in the bus with 8 teachers and staff from the Institute, all Afghan. I have been told that in some ways I am lucky because once I have my headscarf on I am not so obviously foreign, i.e. I could ‘pass’ as an Afghan. (The downside of this is that there is a higher likelihood of being kidnapped as an Afghan woman then as a foreign international woman here…) On the journey there I chatted with the business studies teacher, Maria, who was the other female on the trip and she pointed out places of interest along the way. We had met previously to discuss the business studies curriculum here, so I could learn about what the students were covering in terms of business skills and for me to get some information about how it is for the jewellery students to start their own business here.

Peacock House

I had high expectations for Murad Khane after hearing such great things about it and Murad Khane exceeded these by leaps and bounds. It was great to see this amazing development and how it is integrated into the local community there. The architectural conservation project encompasses where the Institute will be moving early next year, a primary school, a medical clinic for the community and places for meeting for example a women’s courtyard and Peacock house where elders from the community meet to discuss issues and living quarters for students from the regions who want to study at the Institute. While I was there I visited the Ceramics dept., which has been located there since Feb. 2009, and I met with the Ustad who teaches tile making. A fascinating feature of this department is that they have adapted a traditional underfloor heating system for the use of firing ceramics. Fab!

New Assembly Hall/Exhibition space

It was very interesting to see the conservation process and how contemporary buildings using traditional methods of construction are integrated effectively with restored buildings in this area. It was explained to me how the students would be using the facilities, how careful consideration was made in using traditional approaches to architecture, finishing, and colour palettes for decoration, and that where decoration was new older examples were used as a reference. I heard how students would be involved in projects to provide plaques, murals and tile decoration throughout the Institute. Some projects in particular were designed to be interdisciplinary; to bring the different disciplines together to work on a singular design and follow through to the finished piece.

To me it is just a fantastic, almost magical place and I am sure the students will find it an inspirational place to carry out their studies.

Traditional Staircase leading to new Jewellery Workshop

After the tour, as we were about to leave to head back to the Institute, Maria invited me to her home as she lived nearby. As touched as I was by the gesture unfortunately I had to politely decline…. I could just imagine what the COO and security would say if I didn’t return back with the rest of the group on my first trip away from Turquoise Mountain’s premises! I would probably not be trusted out again!! It is very awkward and often you feel rude or ungrateful to decline such offers but you also don’t want to put someone who lives here and will be here long after you are gone at risk. Just as I was feeling uneasy about having to decline Maria’s offer, Hedi, one of the Architects working in Murad Khane appeared, she was hoping to catch a ride back to Turquoise Mountain and as we were chatting about her day and preparing to get into the bus to head back the Deputy Head arrived with some chocolate coated ice cream bars (similar to a Magnum ice cream bar but from Herat!). Now if that isn’t a pick me up on a hot day in Kabul, I don’t know what is! So we all enjoyed a very tasty, and well-timed ice cream on the bus ride back! Nice!

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Islamic Pattern 101

Melanie's Geometric Construction from the Islamic Pattern Making Class

I decided to spend most of my first week familiarizing myself with the other disciplines here besides jewellery: gem-cutting, woodworking, calligraphy, and to some extent ceramics as I have been asked to provide supplementary lectures on research methodology across the disciplines and I wanted to get acquainted with their work prior to that.

The highlights of this time were participating in an Islamic pattern making class and the time I spent with the second year calligraphy class.

I jumped at the opportunity to observe a class in Islamic Pattern making as I am fascinated by the complex geometric decorative design that is so distinctive to Islamic art. My own work has a strong base in geometry and I use geometric constructions, often in layers, in my design practice. Ah. Fawad, the teacher of this particular class, currently a teacher’s assistant training to be a Ustad (teacher in Dari), gave me a book on Islamic pattern making to introduce me to the concepts prior to the class. Whilst I was browsing through the book he was working on the most elaborate arabesque calligraphic design. It was mind-blowing in its detail and complexity.

The class was Islamic Pattern for the first years across the Institute, so the class was a mixture of students from ceramics, woodworking, etc.  The students were all extremely polite, if somewhat shy to have me sit in their class but managed to strike up the courage to ask me if I would like a chai (tea) and proffered a hot cuppa just before the lesson started (it turned out to be all male students in this particular class group but I should clarify that classes are generally co-ed.). I was invited to participate in the class and the students quickly got together the implements necessary for me to take part: ruler, compass, pen, pencil and paper. One would think that my not speaking Dari would be a barrier but the instructions were so clear and methodical that I was able to follow the class and successfully participate. There is strength to the argument of the universality of the visual language of art and design.

Melanie's newly hennaed palm.

I really enjoyed my time with the young women in the second year calligraphy class, their teacher was away in Herat for his wedding and they were carrying out the assignments he had left for them. They were working on two styles of calligraphy and Islamic pattern making, and I spent time with them, watching them work and talking to them about the traditional calligraphy styles that they are studying here at the Institute. I was spoiled with tea, nougat and biscuits during their break! The head of the Dept. would pop in periodically to check on their progress and to spend some time going over their work with them. Whilst speaking with one of the students who was pretty fluent in English I asked her why she had decided to study calligraphy. She explained that she appreciated the beauty of the patterns and script in Calligraphy and following travel to India and Pakistan with her Aunt working in Henna design that her Aunt had recommended and encouraged her to come to Turquoise Mountain to study calligraphy and pattern work. The entrance exams were taken and passed and here she was. She offered to demonstrate a henna decoration on my hand. I could not pass this opportunity up so I had the palm of my hand covered in a henna decoration. The students found it especially amusing my trying to balance my notebook on my knee with the back of my left hand as the henna preparation dried whilst continuing to take notes with my right.

It is great to see an arts college environment operating here in Afghanistan, and to see the various traditional styles of craftsmanship being passed from the experienced Ustads to the young men and women studying here at the Institute.

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Welcome to Afghanistan!

As I stepped onto the landing of the stairs to disembark I realized it was raining! That was honestly the last thing I was expecting, figuring to leave the rain back in London! (Seriously, the average wet days for autumn here are 3-4 days over a three month period!) I hadn’t thought to pack an umbrella, so I was very glad to have my head covered to keep dry.

The Immigration officer, whilst official, was courteous and one could say approaching friendly (as friendly as you can be as an Immigration officer…). Apart from his more pressing duties he managed to enquire whether this was my first time in Afghanistan and asked my impressions of his country. I didn’t say that it was a little early for me to give my impressions having only just arrived and gotten as far as immigration; but I spoke briefly of the beauty of the landscape as viewed from my window seat on the flight into Kabul. Then with a smile he welcomed me to Afghanistan and sent me on my way.

Locating my contact for pickup proved daunting as there are different areas for pickup and locating the correct one (parking ‘C’) was far from straightforward.  Part way through my trek (I’m not exaggerating, the correct zone seemed an alarming distance from the airport terminal!), upon arriving at what I was hoping was the correct parking zone only to find no cars or parking spaces visible I enquired from an armed guard if I was in the right place, luckily I was on the right track as I found out when he responded in perfect crisp English that I was at the beginning of said parking zone and directed me to continue on. Ringing my contact proved fruitless from my UK mobile, with what I understood as the correct International dialing code, all I seemed to get was a message in what I assumed was Dari (the Lingua Franca of Afghanistan) and saying what I can only assume was the Dari equivalent of “We are sorry your call cannot be completed as dialled…”. I pressed on through a building and came out onto a platform and Lo there were cars! I received confirmation from a western man also on the platform that I had indeed arrived in ‘C’ parking zone. When I asked for advice on dialing codes, he kindly offered to dial the number for me from his local mobile. He got through to my driver, I had two names and mobile numbers for both a pickup contact and driver, and said, “Hello, is this Ziya? I am calling on behalf of Ms. Melanie; she is here at ‘C’ parking. I am on the platform. Can you see me? Yes. Please come and collect her from here, Thank you.” Phew! Then just when all seems right in the world, disaster strikes (okay so maybe just the potential for a minor catastrophe), I realized that somehow my long skirt had become caught in the wheel of my luggage cart. I could not free it whilst holding onto my cart (on high, uneven platform) and I also couldn’t free it without my headscarf falling off. What to do? The western man, South African in fact, and an older Afghan gentleman came to the rescue. The Afghan gentleman held the cart; the South African gentleman helped me to free the skirt. Apart from some very puzzled looks from others nearby the crisis is averted but not without a casualty. My skirt has been ripped about 2 inches from the hem. Small price to pay really. Then just as I stood up the driver is there, “Hello Ms. Melanie? I am Ziya, driver from Turquoise Mountain please come this way to the car”. Sheer relief! He negotiates the cart down from the platform via an extremely steep ramp. I dread to think how I would have fared had I had to negotiate it alone, not well I reckon. It would have been a serious operation without assistance!

Just as we are putting the luggage into the car an Englishman appears, out of nowhere. He is also travelling to Turquoise Mountain, and I recognize him from the flight (would have been good to find this out a little earlier…). Then my contact also arrives, he had been trying to locate me as I was trying to locate him and had travelled to the terminal and back. As he hadn’t found me, or heard from me, he had begun to wonder if I had arrived and decided to fly straight back on the next flight!

Soon enough we were in the car and on our way. I was distracted on the drive by my conversation with my fellow traveller, which was good because traffic was pretty chaotic. How can I begin to describe what the driving and the roads are like in Kabul? Think a mix between city driving, rally driving and 4×4 off-roading along a triple lane dual carriage highway, except there are no discernible lanes and don’t even get me started on the roundabouts where vehicles, people and bikes converge at alarming angles and with no apparent, obvious order or right of way.

Then we arrived outside Turquoise Mountain’s premises and the car is swept (best not to think about what for…) and we were let inside and one word word came to mind, Tranquility!

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Flying into Kabul

Set off from Dubai on Safi Airways; the International Airline of Afghanistan. Excellent view was afforded from my window seat above the right wing. In fact this seat turned out to be especially advantageous as it seemed the plane banked right periodically since departing Dubai. After the desert and water surrounding Dubai we flew over a mixture of desert and grassland then after a period, mountains. And they went on and on, various shades of brown. Ribbons of Mountains. The view from my seat: mountains, clouds, mountains, clouds and mountains again in a continuous cycle.

In fact the feeling is not so dissimilar from flying into Bermuda (where I was born and raised and where the majority of my family are still based), where there is sea, endless unchanging sea, and then the island becomes clear almost instantly out of nowhere. I was wondering if this would be the case when we approached Kabul. Soon enough we flew over some dense clouds and not long after the captain announces that we are about to start our descent into Kabul and we slowly descended into the thick clouds a few bumps along the way (to put it mildly!) Good thing I have experienced some serious turbulence crossing the Atlantic before.

We are slowly struggling through the soupy grey clouds when the descent speeds up and before we know it we are quickly cutting through the clouds in a what I imagine one could consider a “whiteout”, with sustained turbulence. Ironic considering on departure in Dubai it was announced that conditions were good for the flight?

After we came out of the clouds, the mountains immediately reappeared under the right wing, remarkably close. Then the city sprawling along the valley floor. The experience visually was not so far removed from what I had wondered earlier when the mountains were passing beneath me like waves on an ocean. From above, Kabul was like an archipelago emerging in a sea of mountains. The city it seemed almost a series of spiders webs that interconnect along the valley floor, around smaller hills and mini mountains but as far as the eye can see. Then as the plane got closer to the ground; green! Assorted patches indicating irrigation, cultivation, gardens.

Taxiing along the runway my plane passed US Air force planes, hangars and helicopters; lots of helicopters. Then a banner on the airport terminal greets me with “Welcome to Afghanistan!”.

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Autumn in Kabul

I have been blessed with an extraordinary opportunity to spend two months this autumn at an inspiring organisation, Turquoise Mountain. This blog is my attempt to share my experiences of my residency at the Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture in Kabul.

I also hope that it will be an insight into a vibrant community that amongst restoration and regeneration projects, education initiatives, cultural activities and related business development is through their Institute passing the skills of traditional Afghan Arts and Architecture to a new generation of artisans. It is this element that I am privileged to observe and to engage with.

Interested to find out more? Watch this space…

This residency is supported by The British Council in partnership with Turquoise Mountain. For further information on these two organisations:

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