Afghan War Rugs: The Modern Art of Central Asia
Curated by Enrico Mascelloni and Annemarie Sawkins, PhD
Located in Central Asia, landlocked Afghanistan has been a commercial crossroads served by the historically significant and influential Silk Road for over 2,000 years. It is home to mountain ranges and desert areas covering over 250,000 square miles, making it slightly smaller than Texas. A nexus of ideas and trade between East and West, it has been a site of conflict for centuries. Although Afghanistan won its independence from Great Britain in 1919 and was ruled by its own monarch until 1973, lasting peace had been elusive; recent occupiers have included the Soviet Union, the United States, and Taliban forces.
War rugs are unique to Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, to which many weavers fled following foreign invasions and civil war. Some feature maps, portraits of military heroes, monuments, or cityscapes, but most avidly collected examples showcase weaponry and armaments. Machine guns, assault rifles, bombs, mines, tanks, warplanes, and drones figure prominently. Although they are often said to have appeared first after the Soviet invasion in 1979, earlier examples do exist and may express an aspect of the country’s road to modernization. War rugs produced after 1979 derive their imagery from television broadcasts, propaganda posters, and first-hand observation of the reality of daily life in a country under siege.
Rug weaving in Central Asia and the Middle East dates back thousands of years. The process involves knotting individual pieces of colored wool to the warp threads of a loom It can take up to a year to produce a full-sized carpet of a complex rug. The finest examples are made from the wool of Karakul sheep, the oldest known domesticated breed. Designs typically consist of a central field of floral or geometric motifs framed by a decorative border. Until recently, motifs remained largely unchanged for centuries. Major producers of Afghan rugs are the Baluchi, Hazara, Zakini, Taimini, and Turkoman tribes. While weaving has traditionally been considered women’s work, men and children are now recruited out of economic necessity. The nearly 40 war rugs in this exhibition come from a number of distinguished private collections.