Written by Kristin Morales, CNN
In the early 2000s, a young Afghan architect named Ebrahim Abudar placed a shop selling tiles on the bustling street in front of his new practice’s headquarters in Kabul.
It was the beginning of a 20-year love affair with tiles.
“[The] total historical value of the pieces on display was not estimated until I arrived in the 1990s and joined the company, Profound Art Tile,” he says. “The value of the rare traditional tiles were estimated around $1 million, while the mass-produced tiles were valued at around $5,000 a piece.”
At the time, Afghanistan was experiencing a remarkable boom in the tile industry, sparked by massive international aid after the Soviet invasion. As Abudar explains, “arts and crafts” were among the first goods that big Western and commercial banks loaned money to foreign aid organizations to help purchase.
By 2003, Abudar had commissioned a custom tile floor for his office space, which required him to buy 24,000 tiles to begin assembling them into the work.
30-years of the Quattro Forma tile. Credit: Courtesy Profound Art Tile
“Unlike modern constructivism, traditional tiles produced in Afghanistan are built from ancient Tibetan knots of sand,” he explains. “The rare tiles produced in Afghanistan were routinely exported to Europe and the US, mainly to Los Angeles, New York, Florida, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco.”
Although he was successful in selling tiles in London and New York, Abudar always felt he was at a disadvantage in other countries, because his tiny business was kept off-limits to the art world. He needed to be able to show his creations to thousands of potential customers to attract more buyers.
“While the patron has control of the collection, [the establishment] is left to be its own curator,” he explains. “Art dealers are always free to show any works they like and sell only what is feasible.”
He formed Profound Art Tile in order to address this legal restriction.
The company was registered as a new entity in March 2001, only three months after the Taliban’s fall. Afghanistan’s newfound freedoms soon opened up its many potential markets.
But since then, the democratic space has been made incrementally more restrictive.
As the US withdraws its troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban has declared a new era of intimidation that it hopes will dissuade residents from using publicly accessible artworks — which could therefore threaten its own business development.
Overseas collectors and institutions are still pouring money into the country’s growing market — but if the Taliban gains further power, they say, it’s all of a sudden less accessible.
“Before 2001, I was one of the first persons to open a gallery [in Kabul] that showed Afghan artists and craftspeople,” says Mahmoud Rasoul, an artist and curator in Kabul. “I do not think there will be a similar art gallery gallery until Afghan artists are allowed to travel and participate in international art fairs without the fear of danger.”
After the Taliban fell, Abudar also became the first designer to join Sofia Sarraj’s Merak Gallery, and since then, many of Afghanistan’s leading designers have appeared on the international art scene.
“Kabul’s reputation as an art market grew with the ability to travel freely,” he explains. “The ‘Taliban-Talibanized’ areas of Kabul are now entering the tourism market, as people seeking peace move to these remote regions.”
For art collectors that worked in or bought directly from European art dealers, Abudar is a rare image of a country opening up.
Some agents have offered traditional Afghan tile makers greater access to the market, but Abudar says many are hesitant to trade their traditional skills for untested international equipment. And while some orders have been secured with credit, he says the average creditworthiness of a tile manufacturer in Afghanistan is too low for many in the international art industry to trust.
“I am glad to see European galleries are continuing to exhibit Afghan artists and arts,” he says. “It was a difficult decision but only if we support the Afghan market by showcasing and giving young Afghan designers a chance to better themselves internationally.”