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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

How Naseer Yasna is working to preserve an Afghan woodcarving tradition

From a studio on the banks of the Thames a gifted craftsman is keeping the 1,400-year-old Islamic art of woodwork alive

Originally from Afghanistan, the then teenage Naseer Yasna learned his beloved craft, in Iran, from an Iraqi master woodcarver.

Regarded as one of the most accomplished woodworkers of the Islamic world today, his work appears at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the Smithsonian museums in the United States and Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art.

Preserving the Nurestani carving tradition

He is now turning his talents to help save the Nurestani carving tradition from extinction. His hand glides over a woodworking bench smothered in chisels. It hovers for a moment, then moves on, still searching for the perfect tool with which to make his mark – like a surgeon choosing a scalpel.

At last the perfect tool makes itself known and Yasna clasps it and sets to work. The noise of mallet on chisel is, at first, deafening as he takes big chunks from a plank of American walnut. A change of tool is followed by a change of pace in carving, which is now rhythmic, measured and precise, and a tall skinny figure starts to emerge.

Gentle woodpecker-like taps see the geometric man take further shape. Designed with straight lines and primitive looking, this sculpture is inspired by the chip-carved images of pagan gods found in remote villages in Nurestan, eastern Afghanistan. Its straight lines lend it a distinctly primitive appearance.

These statuesque figures, hewn using simple tools and timber from surrounding forests, decorated the homes of the ancient tribespeople who made them. “These figures were often decorative or symbolic and used to identify key people in the village, such as the baker or chief,” explains 41-year-old Yasna, who is also known by the name Mansouri in his native Afghanistan.

“But these Nurestani traditions are being forgotten and knowledge of how to do this kind of carving is getting lost.” In a bid to stop this tradition from disappearing altogether, Yasna has created exquisite modern interpretations of these effigies in a new collection that includes freestanding clan statues as art pieces as well as side tables that turn into chess and backgammon sets.

Setting up Lazo Studios, in London, is the latest chapter in Yasna’s career, which has taken him from the streets of war-torn Kabul and life as a refugee in Iran to Buckingham Palace and world-class museums.

At just 13, he became the protege of renowned woodcarver Hassan Khondani and spent six years under his tutelage in Tehran. “Hassan was a very quiet, hardworking, but strict man, and many apprentices didn’t last,” Yasna says. “His work was impeccable and I had the best training possible. I learned to design and draw freehand on timber. Hassan detected I had a talent for woodcarving and encouraged me until I became his right-hand man.”

Learning more about Afghan heritage

When the master had nothing left to teach his student, Yasna spread his wings, setting up his own business in the Iranian capital, producing the highest-quality artisan furniture – ranging from dining sets to doors and panelling to pagodas – with expertly carved, intricate detailing.

With the fall of the Taliban in 2001 Yasna’s father was able to fulfil his dream of taking his family back to their homeland. He returned, albeit with a heavy heart, to a Kabul with destroyed buildings and shattered infrastructure and started all over again from a roadside workshop. From there, he embarked on a journey of discovery with maverick expeditions to many of the old city’s buildings destroyed by 30 years of war. He clambered over walls and cleared rubble by hand, often discovering 250 to 300-year-old wood carvings.

Driven by professional curiosity and a desire to learn from, be inspired by and preserve these relics, Yasna travelled across Afghanistan drinking in the artistry he found.

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Read more:

Rare silk Quran helps preserve Afghanistan's cultural heritage

Steve McCurry discusses living on the edge of Afghanistan

Voices on Afghanistan: Preserving moments lost amid conflict

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“I knew very little about Afghan traditional and historic designs up until then,” he says. “I remember discovering a piece of woodcarving, the likes of which I’d never seen before, and which demonstrated a level of mastery I had not expected. I found it in a dilapidated building called Peacock House in the old city, which had become a slum.

“In the midst of all that ugliness, I discovered this gem. It was a pivotal moment because it motivated me to find out more about Afghan heritage and inspired me to emulate the excellence of the work by old Afghan masters.”

'My aim is to connect to this wonderful woodcarving heritage'

Yasna got to put what he’d seen and learnt into practice when he was headhunted by Turquoise Mountain, a charity set up at the behest of Prince Charles in the United Kingdom. Its mission is to restore Afghanistan’s arts and architecture, which were once the pride of Asia.

Master carver Yasna and his counterparts in ceramics, calligraphy and jewellery, have since trained hundreds of artisans, creating a new generation of craftspeople capable of restoring Kabul’s old city and ensuring the survival of these skills for the future. It was during this time that Yasna’s work gained a prestigious new audience with commissions from The Connaught Hotel in London, Unesco and the Afghan embassy in Tokyo.

In 2013, Yasna and some of his apprentices travelled to the Museum of Islamic Art, to explore the treasures in their vaults and use them as a springboard for fresh artwork. Their new interpretation of ancient Islamic woodwork resulted in a wall-mounted bookcase inspired by the intricate Islamic sunburst design, Shamsa. They also designed jali balls, which reinterpret the traditional flat window screens found in Islamic culture, into a geodesic spherical sculpture. The geometric lattice design was created from hundreds of individual pieces of wood joined by hand. This work formed part of an exhibition which then travelled to Leighton House, in London.

By 2016, the security situation in Kabul had deteriorated, prompting Yasna to relocate to London and launch his own business. The distinctive jali balls soon followed him when they appeared in the Prince and Patron exhibition at Buckingham Palace to celebrate Prince Charles’s 70th birthday this year. They were displayed alongside an intricately carved cedar wood pavilion made by Yasna and Turquoise Mountain colleagues.

While he still counts presidents as clients and princes as champions, the new Lazo Studios venture widens Yasna’s customer base by opening his work up to the general public with artwork, bespoke commissions and a new line of furniture, interior design pieces and homeware

The latest collection showcases Yasna’s mastery as a carver, designer and joiner and is on show at a pop-up shop, in Mayfair, and a private exhibition, in Kensington, and for everyone to see via Lazo Studio’s Instagram feed.

“My aim is to connect to this wonderful woodcarving heritage and add to its lineage,” he concludes. “I’m pushing myself to generate work that is rooted in tradition yet clearly of our own time.

“Ultimately, I want my work to exhibit the beauty of Afghanistan to the rest of the world.”