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The Rugs of War: A Tragic Evolution in Art

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, May 19, 2011

Dramatic changes in art and craftsmanship followed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Rugs made by Baluch people of northern Afghanistan for thousands of years were always famous for their fine construction, rich colors and intricate design. But as war enveloped the country, traditional geometric patterns gave way to planes and tanks and animals and flowers became grenades and bullets.

A Philadelphia Inquirer story by Edward Sozanski reports on a new genre of Afghan weaving with designs that depict fighter planes, cars, helicopters, bombs, land mines, assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and even maimed combatants. The societal urge to create these rugs is not well documented. "Perhaps," Sozanski writes, "protracted war had so altered the landscape that military imagery seemed to offer an inevitable subject."


This rug shows military equipment arriving dockside, with city buildings and people in the backround, and bombs filling the sky and water. 

During the 10 years of resistance to Soviet occupation and the 2001 invasion by the U.S. and its allies, he writes, the style of war rugs evolved. In early examples, illustrations of weaponry are subtly entwined with traditional motifs. Only on close inspection do the symbols of war disrupt visually beautiful patterns. As the conflict continued, designs and presentation became less sophisticated and more clearly military. Some weapons are depicted in such detail that experts can tell where they were manufactured and used, and where the weavers are likely to have seen them. Later rug art also features maps as well as specific events and locations.


In the red rug at left, a Kalishnikov assault rifle, tanks, grenades and bullets surround a butterfly symbolizing the PFM-1 butterfly land mine used widely during the Soviet occupation.  Weapons, a map and text fill the other rug.   

"Battleground: War Rugs from Afghanistan" an extraordinary exhibit of these rugs, will be at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology through July 31. Anthropology Professor Brian Spooner (video auto-plays) talks about the rugs as cultural response, protest art, and commercial effort. Afghans realized soldiers with money would buy small, interesting rugs that symbolized their experience. Still, some of the images are stunning and wrenching and some suggest ambiguous or mysterious messages. Some celebrate modern heroes, and some show ancient heroes in modern war. The traveling exhibit of more than 60 rugs was organized by the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto. Max Allen (video auto-plays) who collected and contributed the rugs, is the show's guest curator.


Bombs fill the sky over the ancient Afghan city of Herat, and gunfire erupts in the street. The sideways white camel, center, sharing the sky with emeny aircraft, is not explained.

The rugs, which probably entered world markets through Pakistan, have become collectors' items and odd expensive treasures. The Rugs of War blog Nigel Lendon of the School of Art at the Australia National University presents interesting history.

Rugs shown are from the Textile Museum of Canada collection.


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