As the 1970s came to their twilight years, one of Afghanistan’s most populous industries, employing more than a million people, witnessed a massive aesthetic change. With the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979, motifs of flowers turned into rockets and Kalashnikovs (a type of rifle or sub-machine gun made in Russia), and abstract designs turned into bombs and grenades. This way, the Afghani “War rugs” came into existence.
Initially, the rugs were woven by Baloch women who expressed their own experience of violence through their designs. However, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 80s, carpet production started to be done by Afghan refugees in Pakistan, mainly in Peshawar. Forced to find a means of survival amid the precarious living conditions, these displaced communities translated the political scenario of the time and their trauma into their weaves. The target consumers for these rugs were local Afghan buyers who resented the Soviet invasion.
Fig 1: War rug from 1989 depicting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. (Source: Warrug.com)
Globalisation and subsequent change in the War rug imagery
As the world globalised in the 1990s, worldwide markets for these “unique” rugs came about. The Western buyers were fascinated by the designs, and soon, the demand for the war carpets surged. A few years before the Soviet retreat, men began weaving carpets alongside women. In this period, rather than direct motifs of war, depictions of the Mujahideen’s victory against the Soviets, portraits of political leaders, and Farsi poetry were woven. These were less wanted by the Western buyers.
Fig 2: Portrait Rug: Amanullah Khan with Weapons (Source: Memorial Art Gallery)
9/11 and the commercialisation of violent imagery
Another wave of carpet weaving began in the country with the large-scale terror attack of September 11, 2001, in the USA. Portraying securitised symbols like the planes flying into the Twin Towers, explosions, American and Afghan flags, and peace symbols like doves and olive branches, these post-9/11 carpets sought to capture the experiences of War-torn Afghanistan and expand the market of art collectors and American soldiers.
September 11 directly affected Afghanistan as the US launched a global war against terror and started a two-decade-long military campaign in the Taliban-ruled country. In a way, these rugs also challenged the dominant forms of aesthetics that cemented the narrative that the U.S. was the sole victim post 9/11 to justify the War on Terror. Afghanistan had been suffering under the military occupation of a foreign power, a daily encounter with a superpower that killed more than 70,000 civilians and displaced even more innocent people. This is apart from the surge of islamophobia that gripped the world after the events of September 11.
During this phase, the original Afghan tradition of carpet weaving almost completely vanished as the demand skyrocketed and the industry became increasingly commercialised. Less attention was paid to the details and quality of the carpets. The traditional rugs with traditional motifs now continue to be woven only in remote villages by marginalised women and girls, completely removed from the economy, while the men do the commercial weaving in cities and refugee camps.
Fig 3: 9/11 war rug (Source: warrug.com)
The Politics of Display
Since the advent of the War Rugs - colleges, museums and private collectors across the United States have put up exhibitions to showcase these “authentic” war rugs. However, they fail to do justice in presenting the work as non-neutral art, as something highly embedded in international politics. They also fail to honour and respect the weaver’s agency and often capitalise on the emotional experiences of Afghans. They render the weavers nameless and faceless and collectivise them into generalised categories.
The rugs are now easily available in online stores like Amazon, eBay, and Etsy. However, with the presence of the middleman, the profits seldom, if ever, go to the weavers. These rugs are mostly bought by soldiers, diplomats, collectors, and even common people. Often, they are used as decorative pieces or souvenirs.
Return of the Taliban and what comes next
With the re-establishment of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the art and culture of the country have taken a massive blow. Although there is no substantial material on the Taliban’s stance on the war rug industry, the new wave of oppression on the Afghan people may likely leave another lasting mark on the craft of carpet weaving and the kind of imagery and motifs depicted. Or soon, like other forms of art, this practice too might be made to disappear entirely.
Question to ponder upon:
Subversive art often falls into the hands of and becomes a means of profit for the oppressor. In what other instances has this happened? Then, can subversive art ever be taken at its face value?