War rugs from Afghanistan show rifles, landmines amid flowers and birds
The Canadian Press / April 20, 2008
TORONTO — The rugs from Afghanistan featured in a new exhibition at the Textile Museum of Canada reflect the strife that country has endured over the last three decades.
Mixed in with traditional images of flowers and birds are depictions of helicopters, AK-47 assault rifles, armoured personnel carriers and landmines.
“As a cultural document, the rugs are unprecedented,” said Max Allen, curator of “Battleground: War Rugs From Afghanistan,” opening Wednesday.
The 120 rugs in the show form the largest exhibition of its kind ever staged, said Allen, who bought them from dealers in North America, Europe and elsewhere that he located on the Internet.
All were made since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, said Allen, a longtime CBC radio producer who co-founded the museum almost 35 years ago.
“Weavers have always put in their rugs the things that are important to them . . . whether those are flowers and sheep or prayer arches or whatever,” Allen said, noting that oriental carpets have long been a major export for Afghanistan.
“Stuff that mattered after the Soviet invasion was what-the-Jesus was coming out of the sky and how many members of your family had their arms and legs blown off by the landmines. So that imagery began to appear in some of the rugs.”
Woven in warm hues of red, orange, ochre and blue, the carpets show the tools of war as an organic part of the Afghan landscape. One rug portrays tanks among elephants, horses, birds and camels.
In some rugs the weapons are hard to spot – a helicopter may be discreetly placed in a corner – or be so stylized that the viewer must look closely to realize that, yes, that is a cruise missile and not a human figure.
In others the war imagery is stark and horrifying. A group of people with severed legs and arms is shown on one rug against a map of Afghanistan that serves as the background. The expressions on their faces are strangely placid.
Another rug shows a figure with blood-red eyes leaning out of a helicopter marked with a Soviet hammer and sickle and dropping mines onto a mountain landscape. The carpet is bordered with rows of grenades on all four sides.
Weaponry depicted on rugs changed along with the military situation in Afghanistan, Allen said. The departure of the Soviets in 1989 was followed by civil war. Later came the Americans, and that’s when rugs started to show images of U.S. rifles and B-52 bombers.
Allen said the exhibit provides a viewpoint of the tragedy of Afghanistan that is different from what Canadians see on their TVs and in newspapers: “It’s the people (of the country) . . . who are speaking through the rugs.”
And although the rugs were made in Afghanistan or by Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan, Allen cannot answer questions as to precisely who, where or when.
“The supply chain is long and complicated,” said Allen, who plans to donate the rugs to the museum.
“A woman makes a rug and gives it to her husband who in turn gives it to his brother-in-law who knows a trader who’s coming through the area and the trader has a friend in Pakistan who is a rug wholesaler who sells the rug to a dealer in Miami who puts it on the Internet and it ends up in the museum. And you try to trace that backwards and every step of the way the person you talk to has either some interest in concealing the source or doesn’t know.”
Also included in “Battleground” are sketches by Canadian artist Richard Johnson, who spent two months with Canada’s troops in Afghanistan last year. As well, a collection of embroidered military patches is part of the show.
“Battleground: War Rugs From Afghanistan” runs until January 2009.