THE BLOG
11/11/2013 13:02 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Jewels of Afghan Culture

Just after dawn on 19 August 2011, the British Council was subject to the most violent attack in its 79-year history when our office in Kabul was destroyed by the Taliban. It took seven hours of fighting to secure our two staff who were trapped inside the building. Eight members of the security forces died defending the premises; our office was destroyed. And yet, a week later, we re-opened our operations from a new location. With this same mind set, we will continue our cultural relations work well beyond the planned withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan next year; because we firmly believe that, along with the promotion of governance, security and development, the promotion of culture is a critical fourth foundation of Afghanistan's future.

This is reflected in recent developments including two major agreements signed last week between President Karzai of Afghanistan and the British Council. The first will see the British Council work with the Afghan Ministry of Education to train 16,500 of Afghanistan's estimated 45,000 English teachers; the second will see the British Council work with the Afghan Ministry of Higher Education to support the transition of Kabul's public universities towards teaching in English. We are also fully committed to continuing our arts work there.

The arts are not a universal panacea, far from it, but our experience of working in post-conflict countries around the world since the 1930s has taught us that any nation, and especially a nation emerging from conflict, must first know itself. It must be comfortable in discussing itself, with all its diversity, before it can successfully govern itself, protect itself and prosper. The arts provide a platform for these discussions and the British Council adds an international dimension to those conversations.

Murad Khane, a district in the heart of historical Kabul, is the centre of our collaboration with Turquoise Mountain, the only training institution for Afghan Architecture and Traditional Arts in Afghanistan. The Institute, based in centuries-old traditional premises, has been providing training to many young Afghan artists, male and female, in the areas of calligraphy and miniature painting, jewellery-making and gem-cutting, woodwork and ceramics for several years now. The facilities and support available - besides providing professional development - aims to provide new international opportunities for local artisans. The skills that the artists obtain at Turquoise Mountain enable them to better run their small businesses and train other artists - a system which, we hope , will ultimately help support the country's economy.

It is in the jewellery produced by Turquoise Mountain artisans that the use of Afghan materials is most clearly visible: lapis lazuli sourced from the mines of Badakhshan in the north of the country, chrysocolla from the heartlands of central Bamiyan, emeralds from the Panjshir valley, rubies from eastern Jagdalak. Gems have been mined in the country for centuries - indeed, the lapis lazuli in the funeral mask of Tutankhamen was mined in Afghanistan. Some of these gems - and the fruits of our collaboration with Turquoise Mountain - are currently on display at the British Council's London headquarters in the exhibition Gem: Contemporary Jewellery and Gemstones from Afghanistan. On display is specially commissioned jewellery created by Turquoise Mountain artisans alongside pieces of contemporary jewellery design by UK designers.

We hope that by supporting Afghanistan to project its heritage in this way, the Afghan people can re-assert their identity through the reclamation of centuries-old traditions in craftsmanship and work towards a new future where these aspects of their indigenous culture are celebrated on an international stage. As well as providing a skilled livelihood to individuals, the benefits of our collaboration with Turquoise Mountain are far-reaching: to help Afghanistan once again take its rightful place on the world's stage and to contribute to the rebuilding of a more harmonious and stable state.

Gem: Contemporary Jewellery and Gemstones from Afghanistan

British Council, 10 Spring Gardens, London, SW1A 2BN

8 October - 29 November

10am - 4pm Monday to Friday