Thursday 3 October 2013

What’s Pashto for ‘fabulous?’ A new contemporary jewellery exhibition showcases the work of Afghan artisans

Turquoise Mountain Institute, polishing
Even when the international news about Afghanistan tends to look like this and an ordinary person like me yearns to kiss off the English glass ceiling and join the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan to fight for emancipation, sometimes all it takes is a bit of bling to dazzle me back to centre. No need to fight the Taliban face to face and go into politics or die trying – I can express my solidarity from here and clock some bejangle in the run-up to Christmas. 

If you want to feel that even in an uncertain world there’s still craft and joy and beauty, go to The British Council’s Gem: Contemporary Jewellery and Gemstones from Afghanistan, an exhibition of jewellery, gem-cutting and contemporary practices, which will go on show at the British Council’s London headquarters on 8th October.

Curated by Melanie Eddy, the show explores the process and traditions behind gem-cutting in Afghanistan and examines how these techniques are applied to contemporary jewellery. The display is the result of a long collaboration with Turquoise Mountain, an Afghanistan-based organisation which promotes Afghan craft and design worldwide. On display will be specially commissioned jewellery created by Afghan artisans alongside pieces of contemporary jewellery by UK designers including Pippa Small, Hattie Rickards, Vicki Sarge and Melanie Eddy.

Turquoise Mountain Institute, polishing lapis
Now I’m in the world of the great and the good (local community MBE, here we come), I have to give my official line on anything I write about, so let’s be clear. I’m pro the British Council, despite a great rumour someone told me once – “You know those white chaps in blue prinstripe suits are all MI6? It’s the way they can walk into any embassy in the world with absolute ease and no-one stops them.” I couldn’t possibly comment. I’m in favour of the British Council's cultural diplomacy, of cordial and creative international relations and in particular of long term, empowered and remunerated artistic collaboration which nurtures talent and supports careers. It's invaluable; the British Council has created meaningful international opportunities culturally, educationally and socially.

As John Mitchell, Director, British Council Afghanistan, says:
This exhibition shows how through residencies, skills development and the exchange of ideas, Afghan jewellery design and manufacture has been both restored and enriched. This has led sustainable economic development and improved prospects and livelihoods. Gem also illustrates how UK – Afghan collaboration has helped inform UK jewellery design. Internationally renowned British jewellers have been inspired by Afghan design, processes and gemstones to develop new, innovative products which reflect the best of our creative industries. 
The exhibition brings to life the personal stories of the jewellery makers and gem cutters, exploring, as the organisers say, “how arts and culture can contribute to the rebuilding of a post conflict country.”

Let’s say nothing wincingly over-specific about where that conflict came from and who supported it, because no euphemism could possibly cover it. But who cares about global military alliances, arrogant Western occupation, colonial notions of liberation and conquer, failed and expensive wars and special relationships turned rotten when you can admire the beautiful and exquisitely made things on display?

Oculus ring by Hattie Richards

Silver filigree earrings by Monawer Shah Qodusi
The exhibition will also feature gems in their uncut forms, maps of their origins in Afghanistan and tools of the gem-cutting trade as well as a short film by Afghan filmmaker Jawed Taiman which will document the making process.

...and, soldering
The exhibition is a flagship event of the British Council’s new UK-South Asia season, a programme which will be running throughout autumn 2013 to celebrate and explore the cultural relationship between the UK and South Asia. The season includes the premier of The Djinns of Eidgah, a new play by Abhishek Majumbar; a discussion about the role of press reporting on India/Pakistan; a celebration of Bengali literature; a discussion about Indian epic literature; a celebration of the inspiring cities of Kolkata, Mumbai and Karachi and more.

...and shellac
While I love the range of issues up for discussion and the intelligent and engaged approach, looking at the participants namechecked in the speaking events which are not invitation-only, they are more than 80% male. Now you know and I know that the audiences, the producers, the PRs, the supporters and the administrators are 70% female, so all the labour and investment is going one way and all the benefits are going the other way. This is happening in the same month that the publishers Frances Lincoln produced an anthology spanning 244 British writers, 500 years and 600 pages, curated by two young English chaps who kept women at 19.5%, proving that sexist discrimination really is colourblind.

In the British Council's invite-only events roster there is one gender panel where they stick some women. The session's called 'The changing shape of gender equality in South Asia; shifts, challenges and a new global partnership.' So far, the season organisers have stuck very faithfully to the 'gender shape' that's always been there and have not challenged it or shifted it in any way, but have patriarchally done what has always been done, by massively marginalising women and keeping us at 22% or less.

Anyway, the gem exhibition looks fantastic and the design work has integrity (hipsterspeak for it's not just tat). What an irony - and yet how typical - that the majority of the Afghan makers shown straining their eyes and fingers to create something very beautiful for not that much money are women, yet when it comes to kicking back, being invited onto a lovely discussion panel, being worshipped as an intellectual and talking about broad issues, cultural shifts, global relations and creative challenges women are pushed to the margins and dropped off the edge. But we can wear lovely necklaces as we fall.

Turquoise Mountain Institute
Works in progress
Gem: Contemporary Jewellery and Gemstones from Afghanistan:
  • 8th October – 29th November 2013
  • 10am – 4pm Monday to Saturday
  • British Council, 10 Spring Gardens, London, SW1A 2BN
For more information about the exhibition or the British Council’s South Asia season click right here or right here.

All photos and press release text (c) British Council except my obvious interjections.