I first encountered the phenomenon that is LEL at a gallery show in Karachi, Pakistan. It were as though I had per chance entered a time portal. On display were splendorous works in Pietra dura – or parchan kari as the craft of stone inlay is known in South Asia. The range and force of the work was such that I recalled author Elaine Scarry’s formulation of the “beautiful” – that which she refers to as “unceasing generation.” For her, that which is beautiful becomes in turn life-saving, life-affirming, life giving.
The artisan-designer collaboration at LEL evokes just such an inspiration. And indeed, the generative, jewel-like quality of stone inlay work is evident in its capacious mapping. Its earliest form (opus sectile) dates back to ancient Rome. Its revival and efflorescence occurred in 16th century Florence, where Pietra dura was conceived of as a kind of ornate painting in stone. Almost simultaneous to Europe, the craft of parchan kari (or “driven-in” work) emerged in exquisite Mughal architectural design. Tsarist Russia developed its own oeuvre of Pietra dura during the 18th century. In contemporary Pakistan, LEL draws upon these overlaying routes and passages for its visions in stone.
Founder of the organization Farhana Asad, and her daughter and creative director, Meherunnisa Asad, relish the singular, hand-made quality of their products. They reach back towards received knowledge while at the same time look forward towards innovation in design. In so doing, they share a compelling story about the organization’s genesis, its artisans and training cycles, and the region from which LEL (mountain in Persian) takes its exceptional aesthetic, intellectual, and moral force.
During the early 1980s, Farhana Asad was travelling through the antique bazaar of Peshawar’s Walled City. The market lanes teemed with all kinds of wares and they were also marked by Afghan refugees who had poured into the city in scores due to the Russian invasion and subsequent war in Afghanistan. A small box with a roughly hewn image of an American eagle caught Farhana’s eye at one of the stalls. Upon asking after its maker, she was guided to the home of an old Afghan man – to a tiny room laden with works in stone inlay. The craft, he acknowledged, had been passed down in his family through generations.
For the designer in Farhana, this was a transformative moment. The chance discovery of a graven box in Peshawar served as impetus for her to begin learning techniques of Pietra dura with a master artisan. This, until the Afghan’s departure home a decade later. Farhana continued to evolve her passion, and in the following years she set up a workshop where in turn she trained a community of local Pashtun craftsmen and Afghan artisans escaping conditions of war. Over two decades later Peshawar, one of the oldest living cities in Asia, is itself strife-ridden. “To create works of beauty, to conserve a centuries-old art, in extremely violent times, in perhaps one of the most insecure places in the world, is a healing experience,” acknowledges Meherunnisa.
With indomitable spirit over the years, and native hospitality, Farhana has cultivated a product line that ranges from ancient Florentine patterns, Iznik and Islamic motifs, to modern florals and geometrics. A second, contemporary line of inlaid dinettes and decorative surfaces, lamps, bowls, boxes, bookends, coasters and other designer objects are being developed by Meherunnisa under the label, Stone Soup. A vivid new energy is being drawn into the team’s practice, through collaboration with international designers and a wider presentation of their work.
Materials used by LEL and Stone Soup include semi-precious stones such as onyx, jasper, agate, lapis lazuli, turquoise, jade, malachite, serpentine, sandstone, and locally sourced colored marble such as Mardan pink and luminous Ziarat white. Time and again, both Farhana and Meherunnisa speak of building bridges between cultures and design sensibilities. And they return to savor the process of the work itself, the prodigious material and human resources of the region.
“Cutting and placing stone to the precision of a hair’s breadth is no simple task,” states Farhana. “Generally, a new artisan trains as an apprentice for a year. After a year or so, he is given simple designs to work with. And he grows from there… Such delicacy and instinct is required with Pietra dura techniques.” And she adds after some musing, “The gun is not the measure of their being. A rugged demeanor belies something else. LEL honors the feminine side of the Pashtun man...”
Walking through the show, I absorb the pain-staking labor and meticulous design sense – the stone, cool to touch and resplendent to the eyes. I marvel at the idea of transforming “hard stone” into works of art. I marvel at the give of mountains. And consider then “the gravity of our immense regard” for beauty, in times of peril. Each of LEL’s creations perhaps suggests this last.