Afghan potter brings nearly lost traditional technique to Philly craft show

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Featuring about 1,000 artisans and their wares, the Philadelphia Museum of Art Craft Show runs through Sunday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

Visitors will have the opportunity to see a potter from Afghanistan who is keeping alive a traditional ceramic technique that was nearly wiped out by the Taliban.

Afghanistan is the only place in the world that can produce pottery with a particular turquoise color. Ishkar, a native desert plant, has unique chemical properties that are part of the formula for giving pots and bowls a certain earthy green color.

For centuries, the people of the Istalif region have gathered the ishkar plant, burned it to ash, mixed the ash with metals into a black sludge that, when fired, turns pottery a vibrant green.

Those artisans of Istalif had to bury their tools and flee when the Taliban pillaged their village in the 1990s.

“There was no sign of life in the village when Taliban came and burned down the village,” said Abdul Matin Malekzada, a traditional ishkar potter, visiting Philadelphia for the craft show. “People left and there was no art. Even the trees were burned down, houses burned, there was nothing left.”

Although he survived the sacking of his village, Malekzada said the centuries-old tradition of ishkar pottery pretty much halted. He lived with relatives in Kabul, making what pottery he could.

“I was feeling a failure,” he said through a translator. “I continued to make pots, but it was hard to sell them and bring them to market.”

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, craftwork has started to revive with help from non-governmental organizations such as Turquoise Mountain, which trains and promotes traditional Afghanistan artisans. Malekzada has returned to Istalif, where he maintains a picturesque mountaintop studio.

Bilal Askaryar of Turquoise Mountain said it is as crucial now to promote Afghanistan as it was 15 years ago.

“Especially today, after this election, where the roles of Muslims and immigrants are put into question,” said Askaryar. “We want to show Afghans and people of the Muslim world are capable of making beautiful things, not just known for terrorism and war.”

Malekzada will be at the Philadelphia Craft Show all weekend giving demonstrations of his thrown-pottery technique.

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