Hedvig Christine Alexander has an impressive resume: she spent seven years working in international development; established the Peace Dividend Trust in Afghanistan, whose goal was to stimulate the local economy; and she was the director of Turquoise Mountain, an non-profit that promotes education of traditional Afghan art and architecture. Since returning from Afghanistan and settling in Canada with her children and husband (the former Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan), Alexander has invested her knowledge of Central Asian art, handcrafts, traditions to launch Jali Designs, an online boutique that features contemporary fashion accessories and housewares that come from the region.
Alexander writes in the company’s blog that creating contemporary pieces of design and making them accessible to global markets is the company’s way to support “artisan communities with product development, design advice, and quality control to raise the quality of existing production. I believe that this is the most effective way of connecting artisans to the global economy, and helping them towards a more prosperous life; while at the same time giving international buyers access to a world of unique and beautiful products from across the world.”
Alexander works alongside the company’s creative director Jemima Montagu, formerly an independent curator and writer who worked for the Tate Gallery and the Arts Council in London before joining Turquoise Mountain in Afghanistan in 2006. Montagu works closely with current partner artisans, designers and producers on product development, as well as identifying new product lines from artisans and producers across the region.
The organizations that have teamed with Jali Designs include the Turquoise Mountain Institute for Art and Architecture where you can find woodworker Basira Raoufi, a young woman from Kabul and a Jali Design artisan. Basira joined Turquoise Mountain after the fall of the Taliban and learned woodwork—a rare profession among women. Basira carves jail and Nuristani--a decorative woodwork tradition from North East Afghanistan.
Anjum Rana, interior designer and founder of Tribal Truck Art, preserves the ornate and colorful folk art of Pakistan. The tradition of fantastically painted trucks and buses started when bus companies painted sought to lure passengers. Truck drivers soon started to commission artists to paint imagery—eyes of a loved one, animals, exotic flowers —to comfort them on long highway trips. The project directs the artists, whose medium is typically the metal surfaces of Pakistani trucks, to everyday objects such as lamps, kettles, boxes, watering cans, or buckets.
Kabul-based Zardozi, (‘golden stitches’ in Persian) works with both Afghan and Pakistani tailors, weavers, and embroiderers who delicately stitch and weave every item by hand. The weavers have very little education and are mostly male. The proceeds of their trade go directly back into supporting their often extended families.
Alexander explains that Jali Designs offers through each of these partner groups, an alternative for buyers to wandering the bazaars of Kabul and Lahore. Her goal is to take them through the smithies, workshops and tanneries of Samarkand, Mazar-i-Sharif and Peshawar, and the streets of Bangalore and Heart, and enable them—remotely—to have the same opportunities of “soaking up the exotic wares and trades just as I have!”
For more information about Jali Designs partners, projects, and artisans, please visit www.jalidesigns.com