TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Friday, September 12, 2008

War Rugs from Afghanistan and the Twin Towers

War rugs became a popular motif in Afghanistan after the victory over the invasion of the Soviet Union in the late 1970's. My former partner, Abdul Wardak, from our Chicago gallery, Dara Tribal Village, imports rugs, beads and a huge assortment of new and old crafts and artifacts from Afghanistan. The war rugs he brought in always inspired heated debates and were quickly snatched up by collectors.

After 9/11, war rugs began to depict the Twin Towers and images of the the American presence in Afghanistan. The best source I have seen for war rugs is appropriately named Warrug.com. They have a huge selection of rugs, stories and data on the origin and weave of the rugs. This is an example of the Twin Towers motif:

The banner through the middle shows the two flags of the United States and Afghanistan and a dove of peace. Warrug.com describes the history of how women began weaving these rugs:

The Art of Making Their Voices Heard

"For thousands of years, the women of nomadic tribes in what is now Afghanistan and its environs have been weaving rugs by hand. The oldest known and intact example of these rugs in the world is the “Pazyryk” rug dating from the 4th century B.C. (currently housed in the St. Petersburg Museum). These traditional pieces of folk art have long depicted the same deeply rooted motifs and patterns, with occasional images derived from the artist’s everyday experiences. However, about 25 years ago, all that suddenly changed. Following the 1979 Soviet invasion into Afghanistan, rug dealers began seeing drastic alterations in the content of Afghani rugs. Tanks replaced flowers, rocket launchers replaced vases and airplanes replaced abstract borders!

After the Soviet departure from Afghanistan the new ruling power instituted the strict Muslim Sharia law which governs the religious, political, social, domestic and private life. This law stripped many Afghani women of basic rights including banning them from talking to men outside of their family, walking outside alone, or working. Women were also made to abide by the practice of purdah which is the seclusion of women from public observation by having them wear concealing clothing from head to toe, like a burka, and by the use of high walls, curtains and screens erected within the home. This separates the women from learning about the outside world in order to make them ignorant of the practicalities of life and deprives the woman of economic independence by not allowing them to work outside the home. In order to keep females submissive, women know only what their fathers, husbands, and sons want them to know. The women who practice purdah have no voice or free will.

For women who break the fatwas, or edicts, associated with Sharia law, including purdah, there are dire consequences including harsh beatings or even death. Additionally, since Sharia law dictates that it is taboo to represent animate subjects in art; weavers were no longer allowed to portray images of birds, animals or people.

Thus as the artists iconography changed so did their outlets for expressing it. Those living outside of the war-torn Afghanistan can’t comprehend the reality of living in a world where the images depicted through the rugs are a part of everyday life. To the women of Afghanistan the rugs have become a way to make their voices heard and to communicate to the rest of the world what they live with everyday.

This new category of rugs has been termed “war rugs” and has sparked an underground movement in the art world. Many collectors see the rugs not only as art, but also as historical documents and a testament to the times."

NPR's Jim Zarroli interviewed Warrug.com's owner, Kevin Sudeith, in a moving piece while they were at a flea market in New York. Passersby stopped with either admiration or disgust for the rugs. The interview concluded with whatever the reaction, the rugs are a powerful testament to the political reality of and on an ancient culture.

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