Scholars of contemporary carpets will be interested to see the designs by contemporary architects produced by Arzu Studio Hope, whose website is here. Other links on the site reveal the source of many contemporary neotraditional and “tribal” designs. Arzu’s admirable ethical foundation is outlined here.
“The dominating art discourse identifies art with the art market and remains blind to any art that is produced and distributed by any mechanism other than the market.” (Boris Groys, Art Power, MIT Press Cambridge Mass. 2008:5) And from his essay in this collection, “Art at War”, Groys continues: “But at the moment an image begins to circulate in the media and acquires the symbolic value of a representation of the political sublime, it can be subjected to art criticism along with every other image.” (127) “…we are in need of criticism that analyses the use of these images of violence as the new icons of the political sublime, and that analyses the symbolic and even commercial competition for the strongest image.” (128) More to come…
Over at Iconophilia you’ll find some work-in-progress on one of the most atypical war rugs we’ve seen. Of course there are so many different modes of the war rug, none of them are typical.
The recent suite of retrospective exhibitions of the work of Alighiero Boetti at the Museo Reina Sofia, the Tate Modern, and the Museum of Modern Art, plus another at the Fowler Museum at UCLA has triggered substantial catalogues, monographs and other publications, plus reviews and commentary. All of these have, to greater or lesser degree, repeated and elaborated a set of myths in relation to his outsourced embroideries, kilims, and carpets produced in Afghanistan and Pakistan between the years 1972 and 1994. The following abstract summarises an online essay published by the Melbourne University Art H EMAJ, in which I pose a counter-argument to the conventional account now established in the Boetti literature.
A tournament of shadows: Alighiero Boetti, the myth of influence, and a contemporary orientalism
This paper examines the evolution of the historical and theoretical literature that has developed about the work of the avant-garde Italian artist Alighiero Boetti produced in Afghanistan from 1971 until 1994. Characterised by a set of interrelated cultural and historical fictions, I propose that this collective narrative has evolved to constitute a contemporary orientalist mythology. This is particularly evident in the literature following his death in 1994, and most recently in anticipation of his retrospective exhibitions in the Museo Reina Sofia, the Tate Modern, and the Museum of Modern Art in 2011–12. Prior to his death, the literature on Boetti primarily took the form of catalogue essays, journal articles and biographies. These drew heavily on a small number of interviews conducted with the artist, plus accounts and memoirs given by his wives, partners, and curatorial collaborators. Since his death, the literature has proliferated, and today a greater emphasis is placed on a growing number of secondary authorities. Recent monographs, catalogue essays, and auction house texts draw heavily on the anecdotal accounts of his agents and facilitators, as well as his familiars, employees and archivists. In exploring what I describe as the mythologies informing the contemporary reception of his work, I examine the claims of his influence over the distinctive indigenous genre of Afghan narrative carpets which were produced both within Afghanistan as well as by diasporic Afghans in Iran and Pakistan in the years following the 1979 Soviet invasion until the present. The attribution of political intent in the later Boettis, whether attributed to the artist or on the part of his agents, is a recent invention worthy of challenge. Finally I argue that such interpretations of his attitudes and practice might be described as a form of late orientalism, a mode of representation occurring through the appropriation of tradition and the projection of cosmopolitan values and avant-garde practices onto this most conflicted and exoticised cultural context of the contemporary era.
You can download the essay by going here:
Mistakes abound in the insertion of Roman text into the many different categories of war carpets. Just as those who don’t speak the indigenous language see embedded Farsi text as a kind of abstract calligraphy, so the arrival of signs and logos in Roman script into Afghan visual culture must appear as alien abstract symbols to the designer/makers of these innovative rugs and carpets. In this case the jet planes (bombs?) central to this design are emblazoned with the word “JAPAN”, while the truck with the anti-aircraft gun is labelled with the word “FIGET”. To the left and right of the carpet are lines of scrambled text, which often suggests that the particular carpet is a copy of a copy of the original, or a copy made from memory.
This particular carpet is unusual in almost every aspect of its iconography. Its provenance is also interesting. It was bought in 1990 from a traveling rug dealer in Launceston, Tasmania, which is almost as far from the war in Afghanistan as you can imagine.
Other misliterations are quite comical, to outside eyes. Here’s a PEPSI tank (upside down) on a Khyber Pass rug.
However all of these mistakes make sense when you see how Roman script persists on the sides of the ubiquitous second-hand buses imported from Germany. The text “Weserbergland Express” makes no sense to a Farsi/Dari speaker, and signifies nothing, transported to Afghanistan on the side of a bus, yet such texts remain a powerful symbol of the outside world…
… in Afghanistan is an oft-disputed issue. Some, like Luca Cerizza, would like to think that Alighiero Boetti was responsible. “Boetti’s tapestries became a vehicle for [for the women who made them] knowledge of world geography.” [Which I say is pure projection on his part.] Despite Boetti’s then wife Annemarie Sauzeau telling us the image of the map of Afghanistan was everywhere in the early seventies, and recognising that “… it is true, the way certain Italian travellers whisper, that there was already an old tradition of the geographical carpet in Afghanistan…” So, as you’ll see in previous posts, there were multiple sources of geographical imagery in Afghanistan from the sixties onwards. This postage stamp was used in 1973, but it celebrates the NY World Fair in 1964.
Here’s a summary of a paper I presented to the Annual Conference of the Art Association of Australia and New Zealand, at Sydney University, last Friday 13th July, 2012.
Addressing the inherent tension in the three elements of my title: what is the Afghan Modern? who are its anonymous authors? and how does a concept of collective agency assist our interpretation of what these artists make? I suggested that the unfamiliar or even contradictory relation between concepts of The Modern with that of both anonymity and collectivity can be resolved by the introduction of a concept of collective agency – an idea which was implicit but not developed in Alfred Gell’s definitive Art and Agency of 1998.
In this paper I proposed that the concept of collective agency supercedes the problem of the anonymous author for our understanding of these works as a form of indigenous modernism. All these works propose collective social values and behavior as the source of intentionality, creativity, and virtuosity – that is, the capacities that enable the artefact to enchant (in Gell’s theory) through its abducted agency.
I also proposed that the consideration of collective agency demonstrates that there is, in this instance, a capacity to reconcile the tensions between modernity and tradition – which has produced a form of indigenous modernism developed independent of the colonizing effects and assumptions of the West (contra John Clark’s account) and in contrast to the continuity and reinvention of local neotraditionalism.
And so I sought to demonstrate how a concept of collective agency is also a means by which one can reconcile the apparent contradictions between an unfamiliar form of modernist art and the anonymity of its makers, and through a new understanding of the intrinsic interplay between individualism and collectivity as the means by which this genre has been produced.
In this paper I focused on a particular set of images, the modernism of which is reflected in the capacity of the designers to integrate new forms into the medium of the carpet, in order to convey narrative and other meanings derived from contemporary graphic sources. In these images the key emblem – the map of Afghanistan – is transformed in ways which reveals the capacity of an artist to explore form-for-form’s sake – by creating complex and apparently contradictory imagery which is completely new and distinctive to the genre.
In my argument about the modernity of artefacts such as these, I’m concerned not so much with the direct translation of graphic conventions into the medium of the knotted carpet but rather I’m looking at the more complex transformation of this emblematic and cartographic icon – here presented as the primary icon of national identity, and unity, in response to the experience of the occupation by the Soviet Union.
In the paper I discuss examples of this re-orientation of the form of the map of Afghanistan (rotated 90 degrees counter-clockwise) such that it loses its cartographic accuracy or relevance at the same time as it gains added symbolic significance and spatial complexity through its novel and ambiguous pictographic character.
This re-orientation (some say disorientation) of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan produces a kind of vertical landscape – with the illusion of foreground and background, an horizon line, creating spaces for buildings, helicopters, and aeroplanes, plus other illusionistic elements, and other pictorial modes…
The evolution of these maps towards a landscape form – what in Chinese art would be called a floating perspective – is here also affective by its evocation of national identity, suggesting character, resistance, and isolation – all as positive virtues – despite all of the ethnic complexities, rivalry, and conflict, (implicit in the complexity of the map form itself), manifest in the civil conflict that burst on the scene in the years immediately after these rugs were made.
P.S. Such carpets as these can be attributed to the Aimak-speaking Hazara and Tajik people from the Ghor province, in the mid-western desert mountains of Afghanistan.
P.P.S. See another related example here.