How a homage to Afghanistan’s hidden art tradition won The Drum Design Awards Grand Prix

Detail from WMH's commemorative rug, created for Orchestra St John's to mark Zohra's concerts in the UK

Williams Murray Hamm’s pro bono project for the Orchestra St John helped to celebrate a groundbreaking musical event and pay tribute to a hidden artistic tradition. We discover the story behind The Drum Design Awards’ Grand Prix-winner.

It’s been said before, but music can change lives. As a case in point, consider Zohra, the first ever all-female orchestra in Afghanistan. Formed six years ago, the orchestra is run by the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) and is named for an ancient Persian goddess of music, a nod beyond the country’s recent past to its rich musical traditions.

The orchestra is a rarity in Afghanistan where, under the rule of the Taliban, music was entirely banned between 1996 and 2001, and where women still face significant obstacles. And yet Zohra’s players, aged between 12 and 20, have gained attention around the world for their skill with traditional Afghan instruments, such as the dutar and the sarod. Last February, the group visited Britain on a remarkable tour coinciding with Women’s History Month.

The concerts took two years to organise, says Peter Cousins, chair of the Orchestra of St John’s (OSJ), the charity that funded and organised the tour. “The orchestra was formed to give Afghan girls the opportunity to pursue a different type of life. It offers a sanctuary to children and young women to express themselves through music.”

The OSJ was founded over 50 years ago and is dedicated to bringing the power of music to disadvantaged communities beyond concert halls and auditoriums. As well as its outreach work, it stages between 30 and 40 concerts a year for the general public.For the tour, it worked with the Foreign Office and the British Council, bringing together funding and support from foundations, individuals and Oxford University’s august colleges. It helped to develop the programme and the tour itself, bringing the orchestra to the Afghan community in Harrow as well as performances amid the antique finery of the British Museum and in Oxford’s 17th century Sheldonian Theatre.

“I know these words get used all the time, but it was actually groundbreaking,” says Cousins. Following the concerts, the OSJ wanted to mark the occasion creatively, to tell the story of the orchestra’s improbable journey to Oxford. Handily, the audience at the British Museum included Cousins’s daughter Holly Mattacott-Darrah, a designer at Farringdon-based Williams Murray Hamm (WMH).

“It was wonderful to watch them play,” she remembers. “I was absorbed by it all. It was magical, and it really caught the heart.“ When she discovered the OSJ wanted to find a way for the tour to live on, she went to WMH creative partner Garrick Hamm and suggested they take on the project.

“I thought it was such an important thing for them to able to stamp their stance on the world... I was blown away by their situation and by their bravery,” says Hamm. “It was an opportunity for us as an agency to do what we do well and put it to good use – to put something back.”

Music is not the only art form that was been drastically affected by Afghanistan’s decades of conflict. Its traditional weaving industry, once an artistic outlet for both men and women, was disrupted following the Soviet invasion in 1979. Afghan rugs became the preserve of women weavers, who would hide narratives of conflict among the complex patterns. Among images of AK-47s and tanks, bullet casings double as characters and aircraft silhouettes stand in for the weavers themselves.

Mattacott-Darrah had spotted how the ensemble laid out a huge Afghan rug before setting up their instruments, serving as a centrepiece for the stage. ”Everything formed around that one rug, it was such a central part of the orchestra,” she notes. So, the WMH team set out to create their own Afghan ‘war rug’, hoping to weave the story of Zohra’s successful British tour into the fabric of the work.

Hamm tells how Mattacott-Darrah shouldered much of the design work herself – working weekend shifts and evenings to finish it. The project was an opportunity for the agency to experiment with a new medium, too, never having worked on a textile project before.

“The beauty of our agency is that we get to work with lots different clients and different mediums. But this one was fascinating; we found out about a process that we didn't understand before,” he says.

Using the same palette and set of symbols as Afghan rugmakers, WMH’s rug narrates the orchestra’s – and Afghanistan's – journey from conflict to creativity. Tanks, hand grenades and attack helicopters, interspersed with parrots and Persian lions, give way to black cabs, string instruments and graduation caps.

According to Mattacott-Darrah, “There’s a lot of hardship but we wanted to tell the story of rebirth, of this orchestra and where it came from. The rug has to have a hint of the past, but also the prosperity of the orchestra and where they’re going now.”

Going the extra mile, Hamm describes how the agency commissioned Turquoise Mountain, a Scottish charity that focuses on traditional crafts in Afghanistan, Myanmar and the Middle East, to produce the rug by hand. The painstaking production took three months. “We were absolutely adamant that we needed to get it made like the real thing. All the weavers are female... the soul of it is female. Actually receiving that rug and unwrapping it was, to be honest, one of the joyous moments of this year.”

While the posters were printed in A1, the original rug is twice that size; Hamm says it will hang in WMH’s lobby when the team returns from lockdown. “There’s so much charm in the actual rug itself. In a graphic design world everything is sharp and perfect, but here you have character,” he says. “I love it, I really do.”

Cousins, too, is full of praise for the agency’s work. “What I found very persuasive was their approach in identifying another instance of women in a difficult environment, expressing themselves and expressing their voice. The simile between the expression through weaving and the expression through music, creating a voice, was quite persuasive.”

The OSJ’s work with Afghanistan’s first all-female orchestra has continued since their performances in London and Oxford. The charity has been running remote masterclasses for the ensemble’s musicians, helping them continue to develop as performers. After all, 3,600 miles isn’t much against the power of song.

You can see the rest of the winning and commended work in The Drum Design Awards here.

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