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Battleground: War Rugs from Afghanistan

Date Apr 23, 2008 - Jan 27, 2009
Curated by Max Allen

Exhibition Overview

The terror of bombs falling from the sky and landmines exploding from the earth is revealed in Battleground: War Rugs from Afghanistan. Through three decades of international and civil war, Afghans have borne witness to disaster by weaving unprecedented images of battle and weaponry into their rugs. This exhibition presents 118 rugs that tell the story of the Afghan world turned upside down.

Additional Information

When the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Afghan weavers found their world turned upside down, the sky and the earth thick with weaponry. On their rugs flowers turned into cluster bombs, birds turned into airplanes. The disaster continued with ten years of brutal civil war. And it continues today as international forces battle in an ancient land that has exploded.

Battleground: War Rugs from Afghanistan presents catastrophe turned into art.


Related Exhibitions:
Battleground: The Kandahar Journals of Richard Johnson

Battleground: Patches — Military Uniform Insignia
Installation (2008), Photo: Jill Kitchener
Installation (2008), Photo: Jill Kitchener
Installation (2008), Photo: Jill Kitchener
Installation (2008), Photo: Jill Kitchener
Installation (2008), Photo: Jill Kitchener
Installation (2008), Photo: Jill Kitchener
Installation (2008), Photo: Jill Kitchener
Installation (2008), Photo: Jill Kitchener
Installation (2008), Photo: Jill Kitchener
Installation (2008), Photo: Jill Kitchener
Installation (2008), Photo: Jill Kitchener
View Collection Artifacts from this Exhibition

Battleground: War Rugs from Afghanistan

Curatorial Essay by Max Allen

Modern warfare came to Afghanistan with the Soviet invasion of 1979. After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, a decade of civil war piled disaster on top of calamity. Now the global war on terrorism continues to fill the land and the sky of Afghanistan with the machinery of death.

LOOMING DISASTER: Afghan weavers depict on their rugs what they see and what matters most to them. And so over three decades of chaos, the customary images of flowers have turned into bullets, or landmines, or hand grenades. Birds have turned into helicopters and fighter jets. Landscapes have filled up with field guns and troop carriers. Sheep and horses have turned into tanks.

But are the war rugs pro-war or anti-war? Whose side are they on?

It is hard to tell what a particular rug is supposed to mean when its history is hidden and its maker is unknown. In the past, the materials and weaving techniques of an oriental rug were a clue to its origin. People of different ethnic groups, in different places, made rugs in different ways. Today four million people from all over Afghanistan have been mixed together in refugee camps, sharing and mixing images and techniques. As a result, the old methods of sorting rugs into categories no longer apply.

What’s left are the rugs themselves – eloquent anonymous documents of catastrophe.

MINES: Afghanistan is the most heavily mined country in the world, a legacy of the Soviet war. Countless mines remain hidden in fields and roads, waiting to be detonated. Adults and children with arms and legs blown off are a common sight. Of all the Canadians who have died in military operations in Afghanistan, 75% have been killed by home made mines. These “improvised explosive devices,” similar to the ones used by Afghan fighters to retaliate against the Soviets, are used today by al Qaeda and the Taliban against coalition forces.

CROSSFIRE: Some war rugs include weapons that are hardly visible. They blend right in. The rugs look like typical oriental rugs, until you notice the troop carriers and helicopters neatly hidden in the body of the rug or encircling its border. Sometimes images of weapons cover the whole field of the rug, like a colourful meadow of flowers. On other rugs, guns and tanks and planes stand out as individual portraits, framed perhaps by a row of bullets or grenades.

The weavers of Afghanistan have seen the machinery of war, not through radar scopes or on the internet, but straight on, caught in the crossfire. Cities and landscapes under attack are drawn f rom multiple shifting vantage points – from above and from the side all at once – as if no solid place remained to safely stand and observe.

A bird’s eye view of Afghan roads would show tanks, armoured personnel carriers, LAVs, trucks and motorized artillery crawling like ants from one military engagement to another. A bird’s eye view of airfields like Kandahar and Bagram would show fighters and bombers and helicopters coming and going. The war rugs, like television news programs, report this incessant military activity. Television imagery itself, from CNN and al-Jazeera, has also influenced rug-weaving. Fractured scenes with multiple images and moving lines of text appear on the rugs, just as they do on television screens.

HEROIC PORTRAITS: War rugs show heroes as well as weaponry and shattered landscapes. Amanullah Kahn was the king of Afghanistan from 1919 to 1929. He fought the British to a standstill in the Third Anglo-Afghan War and gained independence for Afghanistan. He campaigned against the veil, against polygamy, and encouraged the education of girls. His attempts at modernization created a violent religious backlash, and most of his army deserted rather than resist. To avoid a civil war he abdicated and went into exile in 1929, and most of his reforms were overturned. The skill and bravery of Ahmad Shah Massoud – who fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s – was legendary. After the Soviet withdrawal, he helped set up the Northern Alliance and served as Defence Minister in the first independent Afghan government. Internal friction led to civil war, the destruction of Kabul, and sectarian massacres. On September 9, 2001, Massoud was murdered by Taliban assassins.




Exhibition Didactics

LOOMING DISASTER
THE CHAOS OF WAR

Are war rugs pro-war or anti-war? Whose side are they on?

It is hard to tell what a particular rug is supposed to mean when its history is hidden and its maker is unknown.

That is the case here. The war rugs in this exhibition have travelled a long way from where they were made. An Afghan weaver might give a rug to her husband who passes it to a friend of his brother, who knows a trader who will sell it to someone in Pakistan who will send it to Miami where it will appear on the internet and then, perhaps, end up in a museum. At each step of the way, sellers are unwilling to say anything about their sources, or they simply don't know. The weaver is invisible, and field research in Afghanistan today is hazardous.

In the past, the materials and weaving techniques of an oriental rug were a clue to its origin. People of different ethnic groups, in different places, made rugs in different ways. Today four million people from all over Afghanistan have been mixed together in refugee encampments and villages, sharing and mixing images and techniques. As a result, the old methods of sorting rugs into categories no longer apply.

What's left are the rugs themselves - eloquent anonymous documents of a world turned upside down.

CROSSFIRE
MACHINES OF DESTRUCTION

The earliest war rugs, from the period of the Soviet occupation (1979-1989), often include weapons that are hardly visible. They blend right in. The rugs look like typical oriental rugs, until you notice the tanks and helicopters neatly hidden in the body of the rug or encircling its border.

The weavers of Afghanistan have seen the machinery of war, not through radar scopes or on television screens, but straight on, caught in the crossfire. Most of the vehicles and aircraft and guns on their rugs are shown in profile, close up. Cities and landscapes are drawn from multiple shifting vantage points - from above and from the side all at once - as if no solid place remained to safely stand and observe.

"Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, the Angel of History sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble," the philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote during World War II, but he could have been describing Afghanistan today. "The Angel of History would like to pause for a moment to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But the storm of progress drives him irresistibly into the future, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high."

MAPS OF IDENTITY
A COLLECTIVE VISION

These little rugs with maps of Afghanistan look like propaganda posters for national unity.

Afghanistan is a country that was amalgamated by international forces in the crucible of war. At the start of the 19th century most of the land separating British India and the outlying regions of Tsarist Russia was unmapped. Across those 2000 miles the British and Russian empires played a Great Game of espionage and imperialistic diplomacy. Afghanistan was caught in the middle. The British fought three wars with the Afghans to protect what they saw as British interests. They lost two out of three.

In recent years both the USSR (in 1979) and the USA (in 2001) invaded Afghanistan in response to the threat of Islamist terrorism. The USSR, with 14,453 soldiers dead and 53,753 seriously wounded, withdrew from Afghanistan after ten bloody years. Even today weavers celebrate the Afghan triumph on rugs that show the Soviet tanks and aircraft moving back northward in retreat.

When the Soviets went home in 1989, they left behind a communist government under president Mohammad Najibullah. On war rugs, he is shown over a map of Afghanistan with a controlling hand reaching down from the USSR to grasp him like a puppet. The Taliban later seized him from the United Nations compound where he had taken refuge, mutilated his body and hanged it from a post in the centre of Kabul.

A GARDEN OF WEAPONS
AIRCRAFT AND FIREPOWER
No matter when they were made or where they are from, all oriental rugs have the same general layout. A patterned centre-field - like a garden - is framed by a protective border. Most war rugs are designed like this, too.

Sometimes images of weapons cover the whole field of the rug, like a colourful meadow of flowers. On other rugs, guns and tanks and planes stand out as individual portraits, framed by a row of bullets or grenades.

The weapons and vehicles are usually drawn so realistically that the exact model can be identified. During the Soviet occupation, Soviet weapons appeared. In more recent rugs, American weapons are featured.

CITIES - REAL AND IMAGINED
ANCIENT AND MODERN HERAT

Herat, in western Afghanistan, has been a thriving city for more than 2500 years.

Alexander the Great built a citadel here in 330 BC. The citadel, periodically rebuilt, has been used as a fortress by armies over the centuries, and still stands today. It is shown on the three war rugs to the right.

Herat has suffered in wars ancient and modern. In March 1979 an insurrection began in Herat against Afghanistan's communist government and its policies of land reform and social liberalization. Soviet Afghan advisors and their families were killed. In retaliation, the central government in Kabul, with Soviet backing, bombed and devastated Herat. As many as 24,000 people (estimates vary) were killed in a single week. The Herat insurrection was part of a complex web of Islamist and nationalist unrest across the whole country, which led to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979.

During the Soviet occupation, warplanes flew overhead from the huge Shindand military airbase in Herat Province south of the city. On the four rugs on the wall to your far left, Herat and its great Friday Mosque are shown against the distant hills where anti-aircraft gunners lie in wait.

BUILDINGS, TRAFFIC AND WAR

Imagine you are a rug weaver, living far from any city or town. Imagine that war comes and your world is bombed and mined.

You flee for your life, together with four million others - the largest refugee population in the world. You head east toward Pakistan or west toward Iran, and on the way you encounter something astonishing: A city.

The city is like nothing you've ever imagined, a jumble of buildings and traffic and war. And for the first time you see images of other cities in magazines, on postcards, on propaganda brochures. You remember those images. You weave them into your rugs.

Or imagine that you live in Herat, for instance, and one of your relatives happens to work in the Afghan Cafe at 79 Victoria Street in Melbourne, Australia. One day she sends your family a postcard from Melbourne that shows the famous Flinders Street railway station. You weave this building into one of your rugs - and it turns out to look rather like a domed mosque.

HOMEGROWN TERROR

The Afghan battleground extends far beyond Afghanistan. The worldwide web of terror, real and imagined, disrupts cities from London to Islamabad. Some of those cities are depicted on rugs along the wall to your right.

The web of terror continues to reach into the heart of America itself. The Afghan rug on the left depicts Chicago. The Sears Tower, with two white antennae, is the tallest building in the United States. The FBI arrested seven men in September 2006 and charged them with a terrorist plot to blow it up.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said the arrested men, all of whom were black, were examples of homegrown terrorists who were prepared to "wage a full ground war against the United States" and were inspired by a "violent jihadist message." Vice president Dick Cheney called the group a "very real threat." The arrests were headline news worldwide.

The group, with two FBI infiltrators (who were paid $130,00 for their work), met in a shabby warehouse in a rundown area of Miami. The leader wore a cape and carried a crooked cane and said his aim was "to take over the U.S. government in the name of Allah.". The group had no explosives or weapons. The FBI paid for the warehouse space and even for the boots the group wore, and secretly videotaped the group for six months talking and smoking marijuana.

The group got the idea to blow up the Sears Tower from an FBI informant posing as an al-Qaeda representative. In December 2007, a jury acquitted one of the seven of the terrorism charges, and could not reach a decision on the other six.

SYMBOLIC ANIMALS
METAPHORS OF GOOD AND EVIL

The animals on war rugs are symbols of good and evil. Animals of the air, like birds and flying horses, are helpful and good. Animals from under ground, like snakes and dragons, are wicked and dangerous.

Symbolic animals in combat have long appeared in Middle Eastern art. Persian hunting carpets woven in the 16th century showed hunters on horseback with animal prey - and some of those animals, like raptors and tigers and deer, were also battling each other. This kind of imagery continues on the war rugs.

An important war-rug character is Rustam, whose adventures are shown in this gallery. Rustam is the mythic warrior immortalized by the 10th century poet Firdowsi in his epic called the Shahnameh: "The bright sun shone, the raven night flew low, Great Rustam donned his tiger-skin helmet and mounted his fiery steed." Assisted by his splendid horse Rakhsh, Rustam undertook seven dangerous labours including fighting demons and a dragon.

LANDMINES
A LEGACY FROM HELL

Afghanistan is the most heavily mined country in the world.

Landmines are designed to wound and kill. Today adults and children with arms and legs blown off are a common sight.

The manufacture of artificial limbs is a major industry in Afghanistan. Education posters warn people - especially children, who represent the majority of the casualties - to watch out for mines.

Of all the Canadians who have died in military operations in Afghanistan, 75% have been killed by home-made landmines. These "improvised explosive devices," similar to the ones used by Afghan fighters against the Soviets, are used today by al Qaeda and the Taliban against coalition forces. They lie hidden in fields and roads, waiting to be detonated by contact, by trip wires, or by remote control, killing or maiming whoever comes near.

In the 1980s Russian helicopters and infantry scattered millions of PFM-1 mines. They were called butterfly mines because of their shape. Images of these mines are found on war rugs - together with images of lovely butterflies which only make sense when you know what they symbolize.

TROOP MOVEMENTS
WAR IN PERPETUAL MOTION

A bird's eye view of Afghan roads shows tanks, armoured troop carriers, LAVs, SUVs, trucks, motorized artillery and tanks crawling like ants from one military engagement to another. A bird's eye view of airfields like Bagram shows fighters and bombers and helicopters coming and going.

The war rugs, like television news programs, report this incessant military activity.

Here are some mortality statistics about the battleground: During the Soviet occupation, 14,453 Soviet troops and at least a million Afghans were killed. During the civil war that followed, the physical destruction of the country became even worse as the various warring factions destroyed Afghanistan's urban areas by bombardment and street battles; 50,000 people were killed in Kabul alone. Since the 2001 coalition invasion and subsequent occupation, 765 international soldiers, including 78 Canadians, have died. The number of Afghans killed is uncertain, but may be around 10,000.

MINARETS
BEACONS OF ETERNAL FAITH

The elegant Minaret of Jam in the barren mountains of central Afghanistan is as tall as a 20-storey building. Once upon a time, perhaps a thousand years ago, there was a thriving civilization here. But now nothing is left - except the Minaret.

It is made from elaborately patterned brickwork and glazed tile. The surface decoration includes calligraphy from the Qur'an about Mary, the mother of Jesus. There is a legend that the mud for its bricks was mixed with the blood of captives from ancient Ghazni.

The Minaret of Jam is one of the symbols of Afghanistan's long history, and it is often depicted today with warplanes overhead.

From a balcony near the top of all minarets, the faithful are called to pray five times a day. The two huge minarets on the wall behind you are powerful symbols of Islam. They have such a commanding presence that they look like they might be alive.

WESTERN PERSPECTIVES
ANGLES OF PERCEPTION

Perspective techniques allow artists to represent the appearance of a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional surface.

Oriental rugs have never been primarily concerned with naturalistic perspective. But some war rugs break with this tradition by their sudden use of "photographic" western perspective. Weavers discovered new styles of representation as they moved through cities and refugee camps and saw billboards, magazines and postcards with photographic images.

The television imagery of CNN and al-Jazeera has also influenced rug weaving during the recent Afghan wars. Fractured scenes with multiple images and moving lines of text appear on the rugs, just as they do on television screens.

HEROIC PORTRAITS
VISIONARIES OF FREEDOM

Ali ibn Abi Talib lived in the 7th century AD. He was the cousin, son-in-law and one of the inner circle of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. A disagreement about Ali's role after Muhammad's death caused the Muslim community to split into Sunni and Shi'a branches.

Amanullah Kahn was the king of Afghanistan from 1919 to 1929. He campaigned against the veil, against polygamy, and encouraged the education of girls. His attempts at modernization created a violent religious backlash, and most of his army deserted rather than resist. To avoid a civil war he abdicated and went into exile in 1929, and most of his reforms were overturned.

The skill and bravery of Ahmad Shah Massoud - who fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s - was legendary. After the Soviet withdrawal, he helped set up the Northern Alliance and served as Defence Minister in the first independent Afghan government. Internal friction led to civil war, the destruction of Kabul, and sectarian massacres. On September 9, 2001, Massoud was killed by Taliban assassins.

PAGHMAN VICTORY ARCH
TRIUMPH AND RUIN

Paghman used to be a vacation retreat near Kabul. But after the Afghan civil war in the 1990s, hardly anything was left. The village of Paghman, like Kabul itself, was reduced to rubble.

The Victory Arch in Paghman was built by King Amanullah Khan as a memorial to those who fought against the British in the Third Anglo-Afghan War. That war resulted in a 1921 armistice which gave Afghanistan independence from British control.

The arch was built in 1928 after King Amanullah Khan and Queen Soraya Tarzi returned from a seven-month tour of Europe and Asia. The arch resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, only smaller. The Victory Arch was ruined in the Afghan civil war, but has since been restored.

© 2008 Textile Museum of Canada