Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and continuing today, traditional Afghan rug weavers have incorporated stylized representations of political figures, Kalashnikovs, flags, maps, architectural landmarks, tanks, drones, and ammunition amid colorful floral and geometric patterns—designs reflecting a reality familiar to multiple generations in this war-torn region. In 1971, the Italian conceptual artist Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994) began commissioning Afghan weavers to produce his now-famous series of map textiles originally inspired by his collected newspaper illustrations of the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six-Day War. Years later, during the Soviet invasion and rise of the US-backed Mujahideen, numerous war rug artists began to reuse Boetti’s visual mode in order to portray political maps of Afghanistan and neighboring regions overlain with representations of munitions, soldiers, fighter jets, and historical people and events. Designs from the 2000s feature the collapsing World Trade Center Towers behind peace doves and conjoined US and Afghan national flags. Still other rugs situate orderly rows and columns of identical tanks or guns enclosed within floral borders and encircled by decorative bands of bullets. Obama-era rugs began to include images of a new weapon: the drone. These and other iconographies are lifted from Western propaganda materials, sourced from major media outlets, and culled from personal experience. This exhibition presents a selection of rugs that simultaneously document the history of a region while standing as a complicated testament to a still viable expressive and contemporary artistic tradition impacted by unusually diverse economic and political pressures.
Warp: War Rugs of Afghanistan is organized for tour by the Gund Gallery at Kenyon College and made possible, in part, by contributions from the Gund Gallery Board of Directors and the Ohio Arts Council.