By Daud Rasool

14 October 2013 - 17:10

Using a torch to solder a pendant on the hearth at the Turquoise Mountain institute
Using a torch to solder a pendant on the hearth at the Turquoise Mountain institute ©

British Council

As the 'Gem: Contemporary Jewellery and Gemstones from Afghanistan' exhibition is on display at our London headquarters, the British Council's Daud Rasool explains how Afghanistan's traditional creative industries are being rebuilt after years of war.

Afghanistan's arts industry was damaged by years of war

The Afghan arts and crafts industry, once a source of great pride and a respected way of earning a living, has been severely endangered by decades of conflict and displacement. Skills once handed down through families have been lost, materials are scarce and of poor quality, and artisans lack access to local or international markets.

During the Taliban rule, some fields of art such as painting, miniatures, music, film and theatre were banned or restricted. Art forms such as calligraphy, ceramic and woodwork were generally allowed, but the bigger challenge for Afghan craftsmen and women was finding a market for their products. Locally, 'Chicken Street', the most popular market in Kabul for jewellery, antiques and other Afghan handicrafts, was the only hope for Afghan artisans looking to sell their work. The second option was the Pakistani market, which mainly channelled the export of Afghan handicrafts and jewellery to other countries.

Cultural organisations and international trade

Despite these challenges, Afghans have come together to revive their culture and artistic traditions. In the past few years, cultural organisations have made efforts to equip a new generation of Afghan artists with knowledge and experience, so they can learn both traditional and contemporary art forms.

For example, Turquoise Mountain, a Kabul-based non-governmental organisation we work with, was established in 2006 under the patronage of the Prince of Wales and the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, to revive traditional Afghan arts, crafts and architecture. The organisation founded an institute of traditional Afghan arts and architecture with four craft schools – calligraphy and miniature painting, woodwork, jewellery, and ceramics. It's also undertaken a major urban regeneration project in Murad Khane, the centre of the old city in Kabul.

The organisation provides education and employment for more than 400 students, teachers, engineers, architects, and construction workers. It also ensures the future livelihoods of its students by connecting them to international markets where they can sell their work. In fact, 80% of the artists’ products are sold internationally, mainly in the US, Canada and Europe.

New techniques and training to market traditional arts

Last winter, two Indian inlay experts from Jaipur visited the institute for two months to train the Afghan jewellery teachers and students in the use of new gem cutting and jewellery equipment. There were similarities between the designs and techniques used by both the Indian and Afghan jewellers, but the equipment used in Afghanistan by jewellers is mostly traditional, whereas the equipment used in Jaipur is semi-modern.

These exchanges between Kabul and Jaipur have resulted in new skills, designs, and commissions for the Afghan artisans. The quality of work they produced and inspired is manifest both in recent commissions of students’ inlay work by private international clients, and in the 14 pieces being exhibited at the current British Council exhibition in London, which focuses on Afghan jewellery, its history, techniques, and future. All the pieces on show were designed and produced by Afghan artisans in collaboration with UK jewellery designers. Every piece is handmade, and looks fantastic.

Gem: Contemporary Jewellery and Gemstones from Afghanistan is on show at the British Council Spring Gardens office until 29 November 2013.

The British Council has been working with Turquoise Mountain since 2008. Last year, the British Council provided funds to develop enterprise, retailing and marketing skills among Turquoise Mountain artists, especially those working with jewellery and gemstones. The exhibition provides an opportunity to raise the profile of Afghan artisans in the UK and showcase their products to new markets.

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