Working with ceramics and creating well designed pots is an art form that is not exclusive to Western Europe, but sees a large production in places such as Kabul, Afghanistan. Unusual as it may seem to see this country as a potential place for exquisite pottery, this is something that has been practised for many years despite its war torn history. Whilst many of its land remain damaged, many more of its areas are currently under reconstruction, constructing taller buildings and the struggle for restoring its infrastructure still continues on.
Refugees returning to their homeland arrive to a city struggling to keep pace, water and electricity is hard to come by and many areas lack sufficient plans for a decent sewage system. Areas surrounding and outside of Kabul are moving at an even slower pace, with much of this country suffering from great poverty, thirst, hunger and health problems. Up North of Kabul is a little known town called Istalif is amongst one of the areas that struggle to reconstruct themselves after the war.
However, the Afghan people have not lost their spirit. Istalif holds many secrets and one of them is the secret of housing talented potters. Many people have had to find their own method for economic development and one of these ways has been for people to back to their crafts, rebuilding their kilns and using pottery as a means to live on. These methods for producing their own fine pots are not new and have been passed down many generations from father to son.
The town of Istalif has been known for its splendid gardens and local crafts. Prior to the Soviet invasion this town was a popular tourism sport with many people travelling from Kabul for weekend trips. Unfortunately during the 25 year war in Afghanistan this was also a prime target for military strikes, where the Taliban had seen Istalif as a threat to Kabul. The Taliban had taken over the town giving residents only a few hours warning before slowly taken over every building. Many of the original potters fled from their homes, some of them travelling on foot for a month carrying their pottery tools and remaining in Kabul with relative until the Taliban fall.
Istalif potters slowly gathered confidence in practising the art of pottery again, producing some of the best pots even though their homes and possessions were destroyed. Despite the bloodshed and war, the Istalif locals continued on with using traditional and more updated methods for producing pots. Using a mixture collected from the mountains, they used a donkey to bring the earthenware clay back to their workshops. They add a plant fibre called gul-e-loch making it easier to work with the clay, without any measuring instrument and then mixing it all together by stamping it with their feet. The mixing process would normally take between two to four hours.
The pots are then placed in a white slip containing ground quartz and a white clay. These are then given three different glazes with the most popular glaze being a highly toxic lead based substance known as Sundur. However, with the help of a notable charity, the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, and other organisations the potters became aware of the dangers of using Sundur and therefore this is now used less and less.
The pots are fired in traditional kilns made from house bricks and clay, which are normally fired between five to seven hours and are packed with over a thousand pounds of wood. They use tripod stilts to allow for a large number of pots to be fired at once, hanging them upside down and only leaving three small scars. Unfortunately because the kilns use wood to fire the kilns, they do not reach to high enough temperature therefore the pots are more brittle and cannot be transferred abroad. The Turquoise Mountain Foundation assist potters in teaching them how to use gas fired kilns and eventually allow them to build their own environmentally friendly kilns.
Seems like such a long and daunting process just to produce a few pots, however the people of Istalif can produce up to 50 bowls an hour when rushed or pressured for time. They have also mastered the techniques of using the kick wheel and creating an impressive variety of plates and bowls. Istalif also hides many other talents, as the 1970s will reveal an abundance of candlesticks and other decorative items being produced, with keen interests from people around the world.
Pottery in our Western world is still a popular and long running craft amongst adults and children. People around the world are in some way shape or form directly in contact with a potters work, whether it is their favourite dinner plate or when drinking out of a coffee mug, we all have a connection with this making this an art that will continue to thrive.
Anna Stenning loves pottery and purchasing ceramic goods from around the world.