Afghan war rugs
In late 1989 the last troops of the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan had left after a decade of resistance by the various factions of the mujahideen. During this period one finds an extraordinary profusion of visual media opposing the Soviet occupation. Contradictions abound in the visual record of this unhappy decade, and the non-traditional narrative carpets of this period constitute a form of indigenous modernism which occurred independently of other modes of contemporary visual art elsewhere in the world.
The rugs produced as a consequence of the Pakistani diaspora are more radically non-traditional than those which emerged from Iran. From the early 1980s a wide range of anti-Soviet propaganda was produced in Islamabad, and smuggled into Afghanistan. Therefore it is not surprising to find examples of imagery in war rugs reflecting a common propagandistic intent. In this rug, President Najibullah, who ruled until 1992, is represented as a puppet of the Soviet Union. In examples such as this one finds quite complex pictorial fields combined in the one image. The upper register is organised as patterned militaria, from which emerges the giant hand of the Soviet puppeteer (marked with the distorted hammer and sickle) holding the figure of the Afghan President. The central register is taken up by the map of Afghanistan, and Najibullah is shown as under attack from all sides by mujahideen. In contrast, in the lower register (representing Baluchistan), one sees the peaceful past, represented as an idyllic scene of Kuchi nomads.
This rug is very different. One of only two known examples, each of which differs slightly from the other, this remarkable image is derived from the Socialist Realist style of the post-WWII era, in a complex pictorial montage that depicts the heroic resistance of the mujahideen against the military might of Soviet heavy armour. What makes this rug so unusual and surprising is the way it breaks with (almost) all the conventions of carpet tradition. It is proof, if one needed convincing, that carpet weavers could indeed 'make anything.' Its design is familiar to a Western modernist eye insofar as it deliberately combines a number of models of representation simultaneously – not unlike its 20th century precursors of cubist collage and photomontage.
In this image the two Soviet tanks rendered in perspectival precision are represented on fire in the foreground of the Darul Aman Palace – itself subsequently destroyed during the civil war of the mid 90s. On the left a clean-shaven Afghan youth wearing a pakol and holding a flag bearing the inscription Allahu Akbar! stands in front of the Paghman Victory Arch, built in 1919 to celebrate the defeat of that other Imperial Power, Great Britain. Below the boy a horseman also carries a flag on which Allah is inscribed. The rest of the frame contains supplementary images (naturalistic vignettes showing scenes of warfare) which function much like the predella on a pre-Renaissance Italian altarpiece.
If the carpet was in fact designed to celebrate the victory over the Soviets at the historical moment just prior to the civil war (the Palace and the Victory Arch are shown as being still intact), it does so by representing a kind of David and Goliath account of the decade of warfare that had taken place. The Soviet tanks are no match for the Afghan warrior tradition, represented by the men on horseback, and the barehanded mujahideen who have set the tanks on fire. And this is not yet a visual culture subject to the dictates of the Taliban, under whose rule no man was permitted to go about clean-shaven, even if such a representation of a human being was permissible in the first place. In its distinctive and atypical style (in comparison to all other conflict carpets produced in this period) it is as if this one sets out to challenge the viewer by asking us to reconcile so many overlapping visual and thematic contradictions within a medium not normally associated with naturalistic representation. Nevertheless, it represents a particular point in the design of conflict carpets that signals the artists' capacity to cross the boundaries of visual and cultural traditions.
~This article is a part of Reclaiming Afghanistan: web-exclusive package.
~Find out more about the 'Rugs of War' project.
~Adjunct Professor Nigel Lendon is a Research Fellow at the Research School of the Humanities and the Arts and the School of Art at the Australian National University, Canberra. He works as an artist, art historian and curator in the fields of minimalist and conceptual art, with a particular interest in the relation between tradition and innovation and a focus on collaborative, interdisciplinary and cross-cultural practices. With Tim Bonyhady he has held an Australian Research Council Discovery grant to research the anti-war art of Afghanistan.