Contemporary Art: Afghan War Rugs

May 11, 2014
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Afghan War Rugs: The Contemporary Art of Central Asia

Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, Milwaukee, Wisconsin: From now until May 31, 2014

Boca Museum of Art, Boca Raton, Florida: June 7 to September 31, 2014

A visit to Milwaukee is always great in the food and beer stakes, but I was lucky enough to catch this show before it leaves town. Eventually it will be touring all of North America if the curator’s fund-raising plans go through. This is a very unique take on war. After over 50 years of conflict and military intervention in Afghanistan, there has emerged a surprising textile phenomenon: war rugs. A mash-up of centuries-old techniques and modern symbols of war that include AK-47 assault rifles, artillery and tanks, these complex hand-woven masterpieces are woven by Afghan women with a view toward sales to visiting troops. Curated by Annemarie Sawkins and Enrico Mascelloni, it’s one of the most powerful condemnations of war I’ve ever seen.

afghan war rugs

Various vegetable and other natural dyes are used to produce the rich colors. Throughout history, the Afghans have dyed their textiles using common, locally available materials. There are however often rare colors, and dyestuffs that produced brilliant and permanent colors such as the natural invertebrate dyes that form Tyrian purple. Indeed, Tyrian purple and crimson kermis, are highly prized luxury items. Plant-based dyes such as woad (osiris tinctoria), indigo, saffron, madder, cochineal and log are grown in the area and used to great affect in the rugs.

While the exact origin of Afghan war rugs is unknown, many historians trace the tradition to the mid-20th century, after the 1947 invention of the Kalashnikov assault rifle, or AK-47. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Afghan weavers found that combat-inspired rugs were marketable to Russian troops, and, later, beginning in 2001, to American troops. Purchased as gifts by hard-butted foreign correspondents like Christiane Amanpour of CNN and John Burns of the New York Times, the rugs made their way into more mainstream markets and are now collected by buyers around the world.

afghan war rugs

The Soviet and American tanks portrayed are no match for the Afghan warrior tradition, represented by the men on horseback, and the barehanded mujahideen who walk and ride horses have bravely set the tanks on fire. And although such visual culture is definitely subject to the dictates of the Taliban, under whose rule no man can walk clean-shaven, many of the tribe elders throughout the country have defended the relevancy of these beautiful rugs in a way they never would over, say, dance music.

Guns and other weapons were likely the impetus for the creation of war rugs, but other motifs like maps, local landmarks, and portraits are also popular among weavers and buyers. The jewel-toned Portrait Rug, Amānullāh Khan (1985), depicts Amanullah, the leader who ruled Afghanistan from 1919 to 1929.  Although he was a brutal man and something of a despot, he led his country to independence from Britain, and is thought of, in a manner similar to Kamal Ataturk in Turkey, as a man more modern than the current ruling class or its Taliban predecessors.

When I asked a couple of Afghan guests about the identity of the weaver(s), the anonymous artist, I was told, had been publicly beheaded by the Taliban, who oppose such art and have banned it as idolatry.

Inspired by postcards, photographs, and propaganda posters, Afghanistan’s nomadic and semi-nomadic weavers also depict feats of architecture and civil engineering. One rug in this show features one of Afghanistan’s major engineering projects, the Naghlu Dam. The dam, which supports Afghanistan’s largest power plant, is a symbol of progress.

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