In mid-December, I travelled with renowned Afghan woodworker Naseer Mansouri to Meiringen in central Switzerland. From Luzern, we took a small train east. It climbed through steep, snow-covered mountainsides, passed lakes as flat as mirrors, and descended into silent valleys. Only the glowing lights from chalet windows showed life and warmth.
We were to visit Franziska Frütiger, a Swiss woodcarver with a small workshop in Meiringen. Our trip was on behalf of the World Economic Forum’s Arts & Culture team; the Smithsonian (where I work); and Turquoise Mountain, an arts charity working with makers like Naseer in different parts of the world. It was in preparation for ‘Masterworks’, an upcoming collaborative exhibition at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Exhibition is perhaps too grand a term for what will really be a makers’ workshop. We will set up workbenches and potters’ wheels for a team of master artisans, artists and designers from across the world, including the Middle East, Europe, the US, Myanmar and Afghanistan.
'Masterworks' is designed less as a display than as a conversation. It will address artistic process, creativity, collaboration, beauty, tradition and the value of making by hand in an age of automation. It is a story of artists, not artworks; of process, not product; of collaboration rather than working alone. Why would we at the Smithsonian take such an approach?
We want to get people thinking differently about art, artistic production and the value of making. Working in art museums, commercial galleries and university art history departments, we tend to focus our attention on the finished product. We consider its relation to other artworks and its art historical value.
But for this exhibition, we wanted to think about different forms of value, such as the psychological and social value of making, for individuals and societies. By focusing on the artist behind the artwork, we want visitors to engage with personal motivation and the meaning of making art.
By focusing on process, we want people to understand artworks not as pieces springing ex nihilo from the artist’s mind, nor as the rote playing out of tradition, but rather as the final instantiation of a complex and ever-changing set of personal, social, and physical considerations.
This approach was inspired by a recent exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries of Asian art in Washington D.C., called ‘Turquoise Mountain: Artists Transforming Afghanistan’. The exhibition told the story of Turquoise Mountain’s work in Afghanistan, through the voices and artworks of a number of Afghan artists and artisans, including Naseer Mansouri.
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The exhibition was experimental and took a number of risks. It eschewed the usual museum approach of objects in glass cases, and allowed visitors to touch the items in the exhibition (fortunately, remarkably few of the ceramic bowls got broken...). The Afghan artists wrote their own labels. The objects they created were paired with videos that illustrated how and why the objects were made.
We were nervous about how the public would respond to the exhibition, given it was lacking in well-known artworks, historical works, or art historical interpretations by scholars. Consequently, we were astonished and moved by the reaction from visitors, 400,000 of whom came. They responded with enthusiasm and emotion.
The exhibition seemed to touch a nerve. Perhaps it was a collective realization that the Western view of Afghanistan is an essentially dehumanized vision, shaped by war, of desert and destruction. The exhibition, in its own small way, presented a different, human-centred side of the country. As was made clear in the 12 visitor books full of comments, people were moved to recognize and confront their own ignorance and bias.
The exhibition illustrated the power of museums to foster empathy for those unlike us, and to create connections between people from different cultures. Its focus on a shared humanity and a shared conception of beauty and excellence created points of contact for visitors. They saw the artists as individuals, not as distant people to patronize or pity. And the artists simply presented themselves as they are: highly skilled, world-class, distinctly aware of their place in local, national and global circuits of value and exchange.
We are now bringing this sense of humanity, of shared conceptions of beauty and excellence, to the World Economic Forum in Davos. For one week, artists will work together in collaborative projects. They will find similarities, explore differences, learn new techniques from each other to enrich their own practices, and take part in panel discussions. Even on our brief trip to Meiringen, it was fascinating to see how Naseer and Franziska found points of contact in technique and design.
Naseer’s ‘classic’ carving technique, used for decorating mud and timber buildings in the old city of Kabul, was very similar to Franziska’s own carving technique, as were the various floral motifs that they both use in their work. Over a meal of älplermagronen, they discussed the similarities and differences of their respective training in woodcarving, their philosophies of restoration work - be it a Swiss medieval church or a 19th-century Afghan caravanserai - and the economics of running a woodwork business in the 21st century.
These encounters and collaborations, from Washington to Kabul to Meiringen, point to the larger value of ‘making’ and ‘makers’ in our shared present and future. In an age of automation, making by hand offers connection to other people and to the physical world. In an age of distraction, it offers quiet, stillness and focus. In an age of forced migration and alienation, it offers a sense of rootedness. In an age of division, it can provide points of connection and recognition.
It would be ludicrous to suggest that making things by hand is a panacea for the world’s problems. But it does offer a small, modest way for us to hold on, physically and metaphorically, to things important to us.