Sughra Hussainy makes her own watercolors — which she uses to paint intricate miniatures in the traditional Persian and Afghan styles. Her favorite hue is blue — made from powdered lapis lazuli gemstones.
“Blue — because the sky is blue,” she says. “I just look at it and it makes me feel calm and good. It’s not like red — red is a dangerous color. If people look at it too much it makes them crazy!”
Hussainy, 27, is one of 18 artisans from Afghanistan featured in the Smithsonian Institution’s exhibition “Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan.” The exhibit, which opened at the Sackler Gallery in March and is running till January 2017, features the work of artists who trained with Turquoise Mountain, a nonprofit founded in 2006 that aims to revive Afghanistan’s traditional crafts and help budding artisans break into the international art scene.
Miniature painting and calligraphy — Hussainy’s specialty — originated in Persia in the 13th century. Her work stays faithful to the tradition while incorporating modern flourishes. One painting, for instance, features a woman portrayed in very traditional garb — her face obscured with a giant zip-mouthed emoji.
“In school, I found I was really very good at drawing and art,” Hussainy says. That’s when she heard about Turquoise Mountain and its arts school. “So I enrolled and began studying calligraphy and painting.”
For her, the painstaking process of planning, sketching and finally coloring in a miniature is meditative. “Sometimes I start working, and next thing I notice the whole day is passed,” she says. “I just love it.”
Hussainy, now a university student, says she never imagined being an artist, showing her work in cities all over the world. When she was a kid, the Taliban was in charge. Women were barred from schools all together. And the Taliban weren’t big fans of art — making and enjoying artwork.
And the destruction of Kabul’s historic arts district, Murad Khane — which began during the USSR’s invasion — was seen to completion under Taliban rule. They reduced masterfully designed buildings with intricately carved wood and plaster embellishments to rubble. The whole area was turned into a giant waste heap — much of the city was buried under several feet of trash.
Which is all to say — this was not a fertile environment for aspiring artists. Still, Hussainy grew up creating and crafting, because she loved to and because she had to. Her father — a laborer who was the family breadwinner — died when she was 9 (he was caught in the crossfire of a shootout — though Hussainy isn’t sure how, exactly). Hussainy, her two older sisters and her older brother took up carpet-weaving to help pay the bills.
“Then my mother died five years after that,” she says. “It was difficult for me — my situation was not good — I was sad and crying all the time. So my brother found another, higher-paying artisan job and we stopped making carpets.”
The Taliban fell around the same time, so Hussainy was free to attend high school. “We hear the older people talk about how they didn’t have such opportunities,” she says. “So I am very, very grateful.”
Over the past few years, the Afghan government and groups like Turquoise Mountain have since helped clean up and rebuild Kabul’s old city — though it still isn’t the cultural center it once was.
There isn’t much of a market for fine art in Afghanistan — but with Turquoise Mountain’s help she’s been able to promote and sell some of her work to collectors in Europe and the United Arab Emirates. And she’s collaborated with British jewelry designer Alice Cicolini to create a collection of hand-painted rings and necklaces.
And while she does make some money through her art, it’s not enough to make a living. She hopes the trip to the U.S. and her work with the Smithsonian will help her find more clients so she can support herself with her art.
“Now I just want to work hard at this,” Hussainy says, adding with a chuckle — “And of course, become world-famous.”
The Smithsonian’s Turquoise Mountain exhibit runs until January 2017. This month, the museum is featuring the pottery of Afghan artist Abdul Matin Malekzadah.