When she was 9 years old, Sughra Hussainy found solace in art when her father had been killed in the crossfire of a shootout in Kabul. Today, Hussainy is one of Afghanistan’s most promising young artists, showcasing her calligraphy and intricate miniature paintings in cities all over the world.
“Making art is a link for me with my past — with my family and with those who went before me,” says Hussainy, who in 2014 teamed up with the British jeweler Alice Cicolini to create a collection of hand-painted jewelry.
Hussainy credits her success to studying three years at the Turquoise Mountain Institute, a British charity founded in 2006 with U.S. support that has trained hundreds of Afghan artisans and architects in traditional crafts, such as woodworking, ceramics and rug-making. (Turquoise Mountain is named for a lost 12th-century city in Afghanistan. The charity was founded at the request of Prince Charles.)
At the institute, Hussainy also learned how to make her own paints, paper, even brushes. “It’s important that I can do everything by myself,” she says.
Hussainy is among several artisans from Afghanistan featured in the Smithsonian Institution’s exhibition Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan, which runs through October.
“Art is like a mirror. I want to show, by this kind of art, my culture and my story that we have in Afghanistan,” she said while she was visiting Washington, demonstrating her work to Smithsonian visitors.
Hussainy says the situation in Afghanistan today is much better than during the Taliban days, when women couldn’t go out of the house or get an education.
Afghanistan played a critical role in the ancient Silk Road, which stretched from Europe to China. As a result, the country has traditions from India, Persia and Central Asia.
These traditions are displayed at the Smithsonian exhibition, which is designed to resemble Murad Khani, the district of the old city in Kabul that is home to the Turquoise Mountain Institute.
The Smithsonian exhibition includes a “caravanserai,” a courtyard that served as a gathering and resting place for Silk Road travelers. Visitors can sit on toshaks, Afghan cushions, and take in artisans‘ pottery, jewelry and carpets made by hand with natural dyes and wool from local sheep. But high-tech touches are evident too: An interactive touchscreen map of Afghanistan allows visitors to explore the history of the region and its artistic traditions. A social-media wall has current visitor feedback and changing content.
Hussainy says her artwork is her life. “I want to do this and not anything else. … I want to make our story through my miniature painting and show other countries my art story and culture.”