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War Rugs.

The so-called war rugs, "qalin-i jangi" or "qalin-i jihad", first appeared in India in the mid-1980s when Kashmiri carpet-sellers had started bringing a few across the border from Balochistan and Peshawar. Relatively loosely knitted, these small (6x4 or 9x5) affordable carpets grabbed the attention of designers and art connoisseurs--the products were a winner in the market. India apart, their real market was amongst the Western troops and employees of international organizations and foreign aid agencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan who were seeking mementos. By 2010, stacks of them were available for sale in the larger home-stores of Europe and on eBay, and they are now distributed through a dedicated website: warrug.com.

A quirky or even comicstrip-like inclusion led to patterned incorporations of a tank or helicopter amidst the traditional forested shikargah designs, the many abstracted blossoms of Turkmen and Bokhara rugs, or the more typical floral sprays from a guldasta or chaharbagh. In some garden carpets, the helicopters, tanks, guns--and war itself--became the main subject. The motifs used to be ak-47S, helicopters, Russian tanks and Kalashnikov rifles, which shifted by the new millennium to aerial views or maps of Afghanistan, F-16 jets or rocket-propelled grenades. These were followed by depictions of the World Trade Center's twin towers, and portraits of kings, khans and military leaders. Weavers are now making dramatic carpets with images of the ultimate American weapon of mass destruction: drones. They patiently knot, line by line, into a carpet which takes about six months to finish, the instruments of their destruction. And the public buys these as amusing curiosities for dinner-party conversations. Yet, one knows that by buying a carpet one helps out a weaver and his/her family. A modern design that continues with an ancient technique, a modern design that leaves those who use it with a lump in their throat. A tourist memento that paradoxically keeps a traditional art industry alive by representing the poignant reality of its civilization's destruction.

Art historians are familiar with the many researches on "export-ware": art from one region that is made for consumption only in lands far away. Wrongly spelled English words like "BOM" or "MISEIL" make the carpets that much more truthful. The requirement of weaving mirror images of patterns in two opposite parts of the carpet is challenging when it comes to words, while the combination of Russian Cyrillic with English Roman lends to what the carpet-sellers know are sought after--"charming and attractive" mistakes that boost sales. Yet their prodigious output takes scholarship away from tourist voyeurism to now contend with the ethnography of a new industry, and an intrinsic part of the new vocabulary of a traditional art. The commercial success of these rugs has brought them to no fewer than a dozen exhibitions. From Berlin in 2015, Penn Museum in 2011 and the Textile Museum of Canada in 2008, to Milwaukee, Florida, Calgary, Scottsdale, Rochester ... these shows have travelled from larger museums to a number of university galleries where they have been used as instruments of instruction about the history of Afghanistan.

Since weaving is mostly done by women, it has elicited studies on gender and the contemplation of whether the rugs allow us a view into the expression of their trauma, and whether the act of weaving is cathartic. Equally, they draw attention to the consumption of child labour. On the other hand, for societies where the tradition of being given your first sword or knife (or now, gun) upon achieving puberty is still commonplace and where neighbourhood bazaars sell stockpiles of all manner of weapons, these are motifs that speak of a very different engagement with guns than that in the countries where they are exhibited--where liberals are leading campaigns to outlaw them. If a head-hunter's possession of a skull was a trophy in another age, securing the weapon of your adversary equally becomes a symbol of valour and an appropriate talisman on which to dine with your friends and family.

Akin to the photographs of Nazi death camps and Pol Pot's killing fields of Cambodia that were the sensation of exhibitions previously, contemporary art curators have noted the public requirement for the consumption of horror. The many narratives that have accompanied these exhibitions have also provoked a series of questions on why we are such avid consumers of war porn, such ardent legatees of the patterns of violence embedded in nature.

SELECT READINGS

Bokharachi, Elnaz. "Rug of War, Or, Guns and Roses--The War Rugs of Afghanistan". Online article at http://www.re0rientmag.c0m/2015/09/ afghan-war-rugs/ posted on September 21,2015.

Bonyhady, Tim, Nigel Lendon and Jasleen Dhamija. 2003. The Rugs of War. Canberra: Australian National University, School of Art Gallery.

Frembgen, Jurgen Wasim and Hans Werner Mohm. 2000. Lebensbaum und Kalaschnikow: Krieg und Frieden im Spiegel afghanischer Bildteppiche. Blieskastel: Germany Gollenstein Verlag.

Frembgen, Jurgen Wasim. 2015. Knotted Memories: War in Afghan Rug Art. Catalogue that accompanied Till Passow's exhibition on Afghan War Rugs (February 27-March 20,2015), Berlin.

Kirk, Mimi. "Rug-of-War". Smithsonian Magazine, February 4,2008.

Lendon, Nigel. "One Half of an Imaginary Conversation". Online article at https:// rugsofwar.wordpress.com/2017/04/25/onehalf-of-an-imaginary-conversation/ #more-969 posted on April 25,2017.

Sawkins, Annemarie and Enrico Mascelloni. 2011. Afghan War Rugs: The Modern Art of Central Asia. Rochester: University of Rochester.

Caption: Portrait rug, Afghanistan. 135 x 85 cm. COLLECTION OF AND COURTESY ENRICO MASCELLONI.

Caption: Red, white and blue drone rug, 2017. Tribe: Turkman. 63 x 104 cm. COURTESY KEVIN SUDEITH AND WARRUG.COM.

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Author:Ahuja, Naman P.
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9AFGH
Date:Jun 1, 2019
Words:926
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