Rugs of War
Words by Shankar Tripathi
For thousands of years, handwoven aesthetic rugs from the Middle East have captured the interest of the world. In recent history, however, a new variety of rugs have emerged – the qalin-i jihad or war rugs from Afghanistan. To understand their unique visual idiom of presenting the truth through military motifs, I got in touch with Kevin Sudeith, a New York-based artist, and the creator of the largest online archive of such war rugs.
Throughout history, handwoven rugs made in Afghanistan have usually depicted immensely beautiful shikargah designs or the more typical floral sprays from a guldasta or chaharbagh. However, the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in its devastating wake not only displaced more than a million citizens, but also such designs from the rugs. The sheer presence of machine guns, tanks, helicopters, and modern instruments of war became such a pervasive sight that, because of their startling impact, they soon started appearing on these rugs. Lo and behold, war rugs.
As Kevin remarks, “The first war rug I saw awed me for its combination of contemporary imagery coupled with ancient patterns and motifs. The rugs immediately struck me as contemporary art.” The difficulties posed by the civil war and sanctions against the Taliban meant that going to Afghanistan to learn the intentions of the weavers was impossible, and this made Kevin set up warrug.com to analyse the rugs based on their patterns and structures.
The prodigious creation of such war rugs did not simply mean the creation of a new vocabulary of art, however, but also a seismic shift in the lives of the weavers that made such rugs. The rugs were not simply a curio for display, a subject for a dinner-party conversation, but a bone-chilling manifestation of a civilisation’s destruction. The Afghan weavers, in painstakingly weaving bombs and missiles, were weaving the very force that was slowly decimating them.
Interestingly, despite the constant threat of violence and chaos, Afghani weavers, in incorporating modern motifs, have held strong to the traditional constructions of rug making that have been passed down to them for generations. This is best noted in the war rugs made by the Taimani tribe, which incorporated the cityscape – as is seen with the image of Kabul airport. Here, the border and depiction of the landscape is very much in the ancient pictorial idiom; it is only when we zoom in closer do we note the heavy presence of helicopters, tanks, and aircrafts (the arrow-shaped motifs).
‘Kabul City Scene from Airport,’ 1980s | warrug.com
There is a certain quirky, almost kitsch-like presence in the crude, box-shaped depictions of the war machinery. However, later war rugs embodied a scientific precision in the depiction of weapons and aircrafts. The Turkman UXO (Unexploded Ordnance Rug), while carrying the traditional border, has an arsenal of modern weapons clearly distinguishable; it is an arsenal of mortars, UGBs (unguided bombs), land mines, armor-piercing tank shells, surface-to-air missiles, and many other accouterments of the army.
‘Unexploded Ordnance Rug,’ 2020 | warrug.com
Such precisionism should not come as a surprise. To say that Afghanistan has a ‘culture of warfare’ would be wholly wrong; yet war and conflict have become so pervasive that finding neighbourhood bazaars selling stockpiles of weapons has become an everyday sight for an Afghan citizen to absorb. What the UXO rug does best is provide us a window into contemporary Afghan society and its engagement with weapons. Their lived experience becomes at once apparent when we look at the Turkman rugs that depict modern-day drones and more advanced aircrafts like the F-16 Fighting Falcon, which saw continuous action in the region. Not only have the weavers made different rugs for different drones (identifying which is the Reaper and which is the Predator drone), but the selection of colors - deep blue for the background and red for the drone - carries an ominous depiction of terror striking at night.
‘Curvy Tail Dark Blue Reaper Afghan Drone,’ 2019.| warrug.com
War rugs have also (rather hauntingly) mastered the art of anomalous representations of sombre tones along with propaganda optimism, as is seen in this Turkman rug that depicts the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. For example, the middle banner that depicts the popular image of the American flag next to its Afghan counterpart with a dove with an olive branch in the middle - a symbol of hope - has been contrasted in a grim manner with the attacks shown. The dark tone of the image is set against more optimistic colors of red, green, and orange. Likewise, the outline of Afghanistan in the background is supported by a US aircraft carrier deploying fighter jets and missiles. Not only is the overall depiction busy and heavy but also ingenious and truthful (especially in wrongly spelled words like ‘MSILE’).
‘Blue World Trade Center,’ 2002 | warrug.com
How then, do we approach works of art that ideally, should not exist? The history of human civilisation has invariably been the history of battles and wars, and this has provided us with some of the most haunting and moving works of artistic expressions – as for example, witnessed in the aesthetic works of Kathe Kollwitz or war photographs of Lee Miller. For collectors like Kevin, the rugs have added depth and richness to their understanding of the world. “The imagination and perseverance the rugs embody is awesome. They are also a testimony to Cezanne’s ‘little sensations,’ that looking at the world and documenting it in one’s native tongue may render something important, which the Afghan weavers have certainly done.”
That “something important” is what I feel makes such war rugs much more than a simple work of art. As an outsider, I can’t help but reflect on a certain voyeuristic gaze in viewing such art - there is a sense of shock and awe in seeing such liberal depictions of guns and weapons at a time when violence is at inconceivable heights. However, in witnessing such rugs we find ourselves in the presence of a document of survival that communities all over the world are creating. War rugs are today part of a tradition of folk tales, oral heritage, songs, mores – traditions that communities ravaged by conflict are holding onto dearly to make their voices heard.
There is yet much to learn about these rugs. It is getting increasingly difficult to trace first-generation weavers today, and it is only through the voices of the weavers that we can fully appreciate their indigenous creation. What I do know is that the continued presence of such rugs - with their decidedly ‘western’ depiction - has been a testament to the resilience of Afghani citizens and their struggle for peace. In weaving threads of violence, the citizens of Afghanistan are also weaving the intercourse of the East and the West, what once the Silk Road did with relative peace.
About Mysticeti’s friends:
Shankar is a student of art history. His writings have been featured by The Punch Magazine, Standpoint, Live Wire, and Art Fervour among others.
Kevin Sudeith is a New York-based artist, and the creator of the largest online archive of such war rugs. His collection has been featured by Artsy, NPR and The Atlantic among others.