BATTLEGROUND: WAR RUGS FROM AFGHANISTAN at the Textile Museum of Canada (55 Centre), to January 27, 2009. $12, srs $8, stu $6, pwyc Wednesday 5-8 pm. 416-599-5321. Rating: NNNN
In Afghanistan and other middle Eastern countries, weavers traditionally covered carpets with patterns of flowers to represent a garden paradise. So it’s especially shocking to see how, since the 80s, weapons have replaced foliage on Afghan rugs.
It started out subtly with designs like a row of helicopters in a border, but eventually tanks, guns, mines and other war machines, first Russian and then American, took over the carpets’ surfaces.
Over 4 million Afghans are refugees, so Textile Museum co-founder Max Allen, who put the show together, couldn’t find out much about the anonymous weavers. Traditionally, weaving was women’s work, but some men who lost their livelihoods have taken up the shuttle.
Displacement to refugee camps and exile means rugs can no longer be traced to a region via local textile techniques.
Sometimes the weavers’ intentions are ambiguous as well, as in rugs that show the World Trade Center and other Western cities: are they celebrating or condemning jihad?
Particularly heart-wrenching is the section on land mines. What appears to be a lovely border of butterflies actually represents the small, toy-like, butterfly-shaped Russian PFM-1 mines that litter the Afghan soil. Some pictorial rugs feature limbless adult and child victims of the mines.
Also fascinating is the progression toward realistic representation of city scenes that may be inspired by postcards and calendar photos, and carpets in which images are clustered as on a TV news screen, complete with CNN-style printed scrawl.
Individually, war rugs might seem odd examples of folk art, but grouped together, as they are here, they have an overwhelming impact as a people’s testimony to on-the-ground experience of modern warfare.
We can only be grateful that Afghanistan’s strong textile tradition has not been destroyed, allowing these anonymous voices to speak.