Join the traveling exhibit of the Afghan War Rugs: The Modern Art of Central Asia. The exhibit started at the Villa Terrace Decorative Art Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the fall of 2013 and is currently on display at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London, CT.
This collection of war rugs dramatically demonstrates the creative nature of rug production in Afghanistan and provides a view of how rugs reflect changing times and markets The rugs are the latest in a long history o f traditional hand-woven works from Central Asia. Ethnic communities (such as the Baluch (Baloch), Turkmen, and Hazara, have been producing and trading rugs for centuries. Western interest in rugs from Afghanistan grew in the nineteenth century and has continued largely unabated despite civil wars, Soviet and US interventions. Following the recognition war rugs by non-traditional collectors, the presence of U.S. troops has spurred the market.
The collection itself introduces audiences to a unique genre of rugs that teaches a wealth about Afghanistan, foreign involvement in the country, and the evolution of design in rugs.
Start with an excellent example of how and why war rugs are arguably synonymous with the advent of modernism in Afghanistan is the War Rug with Helicopters. On first glance, this is a traditional rug in every respect. The central field consists of three decorative göls and a wide border of five frames of alternating geometric motifs with slight variations that recall the çengal or hook symbol thought to ward off the evil eye. Surrounding each göl (or gul) are elements that look like a droplet shaped motif known as a boteh, but on closer inspection, these are actually helicopters. Creative rug makers, like the Baluchi of western Afghanistan introduced this type of motif into their otherwise familiar patterns, and then sent them to town to test their market potential. A rug is a cross between a craft commissioned (by the marketplace) and an independent work of art
While defined as any carpet or rug, which contains a war motif, this definition misses the broader impact of the revolution in design that characterizes these rugs and reflects their incredible modernity. A unique product of Afghanistan and its rich history, war rugs—sold in Kabul, Herat, and Mazar-i Sharif, and in the bazaars of Peshawar and Islamabad in neighboring Pakistan—celebrate for many Afghans success and independence over the Soviet army. They are an economically sustaining craft for many.
War rugs, in particular, features world maps, political portraits, cityscapes and a plethora of Soviet armaments—tanks, helicopters and antiaircraft missile launchers—with the inscription U.S.S.R. leaving no doubt to the identity of the occupiers. After September 11, 2001, weavers expanded their repertoire using leaflets, photographs, and propaganda to include American military machines, dollar bills, images of planes hitting the Twin Towers, and doves with olive branches uniting nations, among other motifs.
EVOLUTION FROM GEISHA TO SOLDIER
Similarly we see the evolution of a pictorial rug into more dynamic contradictions as weavers make modifications in their designs. In the exhibition, this is best seen in two ‘geisha rugs’. The rug on the left featuring a band of geisha performing from the Islamic Art Galley, Arcadia, South Africa—while not the literal source for the next two—served as the model for a militarized version of the story.
These rugs while appearing pictorial are clearly war rugs. The shamisen (Japanese guitar) played by the geisha in an earlier image morphs into a machine gun while what appears to be an innocent walking stick becomes a bazooka, or anti-tank weapon.
Even facial features change from more realistic to geometrized and depersonalized, as geisha become soldiers. The pair also shows that weavers could use one rug as a model (or cartoon), or template, for another.
Geographic or (world) map rugs are also telling. Like a western mapmaker, Afghan weavers place their country front and center. And while not all of these rugs have explicit weaponry, many do and they speak to a heightened sense of the geo-political importance, and centrality of Afghanistan. For thousands of years, the country has been part to the famed Silk Road, a network trade routes connecting China to the Mediterranean.
At the crossroads of so many civilizations, Afghanistan has long lured travelers from around the world. It has been a nexus of ideas and trade between East and West. Powerful conquerors, from Alexander of Macedon (known to some as Alexander the Great) to Genghis Khan, have fought over the country, known to be relatively easy to invade but difficult to conquer. Some of us may know Afghanistan as the destination for hippie trips in the late 1960s and 70s, or as a place of modern war.
The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were punctuated by a series of Anglo-Afghan Wars, which led finally to independence from Great Britain, and then homegrown monarchical rule until 1973, after which time, the first war rugs were probably produced.
Capturing this history are the geographic rugs and rugs with maps of Afghanistan, which become distinctly modern because they reflect broader (modern) education and awareness of geopolitics. Which should provoke the question: “Why Afghanistan?”
A rug renaissance in the 1960s, and a subsequent carpet boom in the 70s, inspired many people, not previously involved in weaving, to work in the industry. Their ideas brought about changes and a new openness to the art of rug making. This, coupled with a long history of traders and invaders to the country, provoked some weavers to add novel motifs and then radically new images in the central panels, or fields of their rugs. Success also begets success. As noted by many rug buyers, as soon as there is commercial interest in a specific design, the dealers at the bazaars quickly find similar designs. Artists and artisans are equally cognizant of the market for their wares, and they respond by producing what they understand their audiences want most.
Although weavers began adding war motifs following the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, some scholars have found rugs with weapons “whose themes reasonably predate the Soviet occupation and the outbreak of war.” And in fact, the Soviet invasion has simply become a convenient, terminus a quo, for the appearance of war rugs. According to the Italian curator Enrico Mascelloni, who has studied war rugs in Afghanistan and throughout Central Asia, images of planes and/or weapons appeared earlier. The first war images were “confined to the rugs’ borders or arranged as small icons around a centerpiece image—often a world map, the portrait of a [tribal leader, or] khan (Amanullah, Zahir, Daoud, Amin, Taraki) or a high ranking guerrilla (Massoud, Adbullah Haq) after an outbreak of hostilities. Weaponry was either absent, or secondary, and often practically camouflaged by the concentration of other iconic designs. It was the modernity of their subjects that [has] guaranteed some cohesion with other truly ‘armed’ rugs.”
In this collection, the portrait rugs of Amanullah Khan from the 1980s are examples of the people’s admiration of a past leader during on era of reforms.
Perhaps it was the coup d’état led by the former prime minister of Afghanistan, Mohammed Daoud Khan, in 1973 that was an important watershed. It led to the abolition of the monarchy and the formation of the Republic of Afghanistan. Both nationalism and modernization of the country followed. Afghans began to reflect on the country’s past and emulate those who earlier had agendas similar to the current and new leadership. In an act of quasi-historical revisionism, the past was, and continues to be, used to help define the future.
Likely following Daoud’s coup, weavers began depicting King Amanullah Khan (1892–1960) precisely because he is regarded as the first modern leader of Afghanistan having introduced a written constitution, an independent judiciary, western practices, and education reforms. In this collection, the portrait rugs of Amanullah Khan from the 1980s are examples of the people’s admiration of a past leader during on era of reforms.
As a further reflection of contemporary politics and history, war rugs feature portraits of contemporary rulers many of whom become martyrs. A war rug capturing both is a memorial to Ahmad Shah Massoud, the military leader of Jamiat-i-Islami who was assassinated by Al-Qaeda in 2001. He is identified by the inscription in Farsi (Persian) as a shahif (martyr) and shown in the lower left hand corner in state.
A Tajik (a member of the ethnic group in northern and western Afghanistan), Massoud led campaigns against the Soviets and Taliban in the Panjshir Valley, northeast of Kabul. While the date, predates his actual death, this may be a prefiguration or an error, as the rug contains designs suggestive of the Tree of Life. Of note are the borders. The Caucasian zigzags seen in Baluchi type rugs here flank a border with çengal (hook) symbols believed to ward against evil though this failed to prevent his death
Massoud, Prof. Buranuddin Rabbani, an Afghan political leader of Tajik origin is also the subject of a rug with a somewhat traditional border. The founder and political chief of the Jamiat-i-Islami, a military organization that fought the Soviets in northern Afghanistan, he served as president of the Islamic State of Afghanistan from 1992 until 1996, and interim president in 2001 before Hamid Karzai was elected. In 2011, Rabbani was killed by Taliban forces.
As is often the case, there are hybrid rugs, which feature characteristics of more than one type of rug, such as a map rug framed by armaments, or a portrait rug with a major monument.
The Minaret of Jam, Afghanistan’s major historical monument, is paired with portraits of Ahmad Shah Massoud (well known as chief of anti-Soviet and then Taliban resistance in Badakhshan Province, northeastern Afghanistan) and of Ismail Khan, former anti-Soviet mujahideen leader in the Herat area. This rug was probably produced in western Afghanistan, where Ismail was popular after the 2001 defeat of the Taliban.
In additional to major monuments and symbols of victory such as the Minaret of Jam, military installments (airports), dams, and bridges are also part of the war rug culture, as they celebrate modernity and represent indirectly (but more so than a traditional pictorial rug) progress. Harnessing the country’s waterways helps electrify urban areas and improve people’s standard of living.
As indicated by the inscription in Farsi, this rug, presents two views of the Naghlu Dam, near Kabul. The dam was a major endeavor financed and built by the Soviets in the 1960s. The inclusion of military vehicles and weapons in rugs commemorating civil engineering projects is not uncommon as both sets of images and motifs relate to the modernization of the country.
And sometimes, a rug simply reveals awareness of the wider world. While previously thought to depict the Golden Gate Bridge, one cityscape rug actually portrays the Bosphorus Bridge, the first suspension bridge to span the Bosphorus Strait thus connecting Europe and Asia. Begun in 1970 (completed in 1973), this project was a major feat of engineering and a true symbol of modernity. Similarly, why depict a dam or an airport on a rug unless they represent economic and societal progress, but this is precisely what we see in select war rugs.
DRONE RUGS – The latest in War Rugs
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, as they are more commonly known, represent the latest feature in the design of Afghan war rugs. Their inclusion in hand-woven rugs is testament to the constant search for novel design ideas While drones—first used in the late 1960s and ‘70s—have been employed in Central Asia since 2009, they are only first observed in rugs in 2014 making them not only contemporary in date but also modern thematically.
And because of their modernity drone rugs are capturing the attention of United States service men and women, foreign soldiers, NGO and aid-workers, and those traveling, not to mention the interest of international rug collectors and enthusiasts, not all of who concentrate on age and knot-count as they build their collections
About the Traveling Exhibit
Assembled over two decades to show the depth and breath of war rugs Afghan War Rugs: The Modern Art of Central Asia is crisscrossing the United States. It has been featured at the Boca Museum of Art; the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art; and the Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester. The exhibition will be at the Masur Museum of Art, Monroe, Louisiana from November 22 until February 24, 2018 and then the South Dakota Art Museum, Brookings, SD and is available for additional venues. Logistics of the exhibition were greatly improved by cooperation by Shabahang & Sons Persian Carpets, Downtown Milwaukee. Not only did they facilitate the original shipment (lading) of the collection from Rome to the United States, they also generously provided a solution to the problem of efficiently hanging each rug on the wall, and gave visitors to the exhibition a lesson in weaving/repair of hand-made rugs as well as the opportunity to have their rugs identified and, or evaluated. When the exhibition was at the Boca Museum of Art, Orley Shabahang of Palm Beach, Florida, kindly supplied a portable loom to augment the display and to show people about how rugs are made.
Note from RUG NEWS andDESIGN: Consider sponsoring this exhibit at your local museum and build awareness of your establishment.
About the curators:
Enrico Mascelloni an independent curator, who has been travelling for thirty years in Africa and Central Asia, residing there for long periods. He has set up a cultural project called Caravan Café, which is closely tied to his own travel experiences and his personal knowledge of contemporary art and more generally of the visual phenomena of greatest impact in Africa and Asia (www.caravancafe.it: Caravan Café: Art from Central Asia (Orvieto: Acas edizioni, 2003). Mascelloni has curated exhibitions worldwide and is the author of numerous books on contemporary art including The Tamerlane Syndrome: Art and Conflicts in Central Asia (Milan: Skira, 2005); Oltre l’Occidente: Rappresentazioni estreme nei tessuti orientali (Milan: Skira, 2006); A Thousand and One Days: Pakistani Women Artists (Cinisello Balsamo: Silvana Editoriale, 2006); and War Rugs: The Nightmare of Modernism published in 2009 by Skira. He has also written geopolitical texts, including La terza guerra balcanica (Rome: L’idra, 1999).
Annemarie Sawkins, Ph.D., is an independent curator, art historian and author born in Durham, England. Her current projects are traveling the exhibition Afghan War Rugs: The Modern Art of Central Asia and working on two different collections of hand-colored photographs from China and Japan, respectively. She has curated several exhibitions including Hidden Treasures: Art Nouveau and Arts & Crafts in our Midst at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum and More on Less: The History of Burlesque in America from Lydia Thompson to Amber Ray, at the Charles Allis Art Museum. Past projects include editing Layton’s Legacy: A Historic American Art Collection, 1888–2013, UW Press, contributing to More Love: Art, Politics and Sharing since the 1990s for the Ackland Art Museum, UNC, Chapel Hill and curating Modern Rookwood, 1918–1933. From 1999 to 2012, she was a curator at the Haggerty Museum of Art at Marquette University, where she organized Lucinda Devlin: The Omega Suites (2010), Louise Bourgeois: Recent Works (2007), Eve Sussman: 89 Seconds at Alcazar (2005), Honoré Daumier: Political Caricaturist of the Nineteenth Century (2003), and Man Ray on Paper (2002). While at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 1997–99, Sawkins contributed to A Renaissance Treasury: The Flagg Collection of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture (1999). Annemarie Sawkins has a Ph.D. in Art History from McGill University in Montreal, Canada. [email protected]
 According to Natalie Marsh, curator of Unexploded Ordinances: Afghan War Rugs 1979–2008 (January 18, 2008–March 7, 2008) Denison University (Granville, Ohio), “War rugs began to be anonymously woven by the Afghan tribal people in response to the Soviet invasion of 1979” though she acknowledges the long tradition of pictorial rugs, which is where images of the first modern military vehicles appear.
 Enrico Mascelloni, War Rugs: The Nightmare of Modernism (Milan: Skira editore, 2009): 29.