Renowned architect Tilak Samarawickrema recounts his exploits in Afghanistan
Renowned Sri Lankan architect Tilak Samarawickrema certainly is a mulit-talented individual, still a force to be reckoned with in the field of architecture, art and design since continuously making his own unique mark on the industry over the years.
By Cassandra Mascarenhas
Starting off with forms of line drawing which initially were mere doodles, this soon developed into a serious art form appreciated on a global platform and Tilak has had his work displayed at shows and galleries across the world and he himself lived in Milan, Rome and New York for a substantial period of time.
Not limiting his range of creativity, the architect has dabbled in various art forms over the years to much success; these include copper plate etchings, ola leaf manuscripts, the revival of traditional crafts with innovative improvements in technical aspects while sustaining the authentic and cultural facets of the craft. Tilak’s work with by the weavers Talagune Uda-Dumbara, the oldest weaving village in Sri Lanka where modern woven is art designed by him and woven the weavers of the village is yet another of his innovative projects.
One of Tilak’s latest ventures has been a very interesting one – to educate young Afghans in the new techniques of contemporary carpet design at a design school in Kabul. The architect shared his experiences in the Afghan capital which he visited in May this year in order to initiate the process of setting up operations there when speaking at a lecture at the American Centre earlier this month.
“We were not allowed to go anywhere without an escort when we were in Afghanistan. The only street we were able to wander about free was on Chicken Street, a focus amongst tourists in Afghanistan”, said Tilak.
Once there, Tilak started his search for a place to set up his design school through which he met with the Afghan Carpet Guild who conduct their part of their operations, have their showrooms and sales outlets all in one four storied building. A great disappointment the architect faced there was being unable to visit a single Afghan home due to restrictions imposed which in turn limited his ability to observe the long process of weaving the intricate carpets, one which can take up to six months to complete.
When questioned about the issue of child labour that has arisen time and time again by a member of the audience, Tilak explained that he was unable to comment on the rather sensitive issue as he was not able to visit households.
Atlas Carpets, one of the bigger carpet manufacturers in Kabul are one of the few to be equipped with their own computer lab and design studio, quite the luxury. Young boys barely out of school operate these computers and are to be Tilak’s future students. Although a few lucky manufacturers can afford new technology and mechanized units, they can’t always be used due to the frequent power shortages that occur in the area which results in the manufacturers having to go through the processes with human labour.
“There is a marked difference in the carpet designs according to the regions in which it is made with each region producing a particular type of carpet. We travelled from Kabul to Jalalabad in Eastern Afghanistan to meet with more carpet weavers there which allowed me to further observe these differences,” the architect said.
He explained that there is already a good market for carpets in Afghanistan but more for those with modern designs which is where he played a key role as he brought in to educate the weavers. He has planned to start with the history of weaving and traditional design and then slowly incorporate modern design into his lessons. Tilak was specifically chosen to implement this transition as it was felt that as a person from the same region, he would find it easier to work with the locals and in turn impart more knowledge to them.
Tilak’s visit to Kabul University, where he went to recruits more lecturers, was one that made a great impression on him, situated amidst lush greenery, the photos Tilak shared at the lecture painted a beautiful picture of the campus. He was very impressed by the dedication of the students who were all very keen and the thriving arts culture that the students maintained by hosting many theatrical performances, shows and lectures.
Although back in Sri Lanka after a very memorable two month stay in Afghanistan in the months on May and June of this year, Tilak has plans to return to start up the design school for which he already has many plans. Not only using it as a means of teaching keen carpet weavers about contemporary work, he intends to let it function as a cultural centre as well in order for the Afghan locals to receive the maximum benefits from the institution.