The Afghan Modern, its anonymous authors, and the question of collective agency.

July 16, 2012 by

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.

worlds in collision

May 19, 2012 by

The  Mullah Mahommed Omar – the titular leader of the Taliban – is rarely depicted whether by photography, or by any other means. Sometimes he is portrayed indirectly. This is a detail from a carpet which shows a surreal depiction of his hand throttling a serpent, or perhaps a dragon. The text is written in Latin script – which tells us that it was made for a Western audience…

Such imagery (snakes, hands) is often used in carpets to depict evil, or power.  In the context of the events of the last two decades in Afghanistan, this has become an impossibly enigmatic image.

“Mullah Omar’s Face”, a recent article by Amy Davidson in The New Yorker, probes the reasons behind the secrecy that surrounds the identity of Mullah Omar. This echoes the secrecy surrounding his current circumstances, and references Steve Coll’s account of his current role in negotiations with the U.S. She illustrates her article with the four known photographic images of the Mullah Omar that are currently in circulation.

One of these is a screen shot from a documentary Afghanistan Soldiers of Allah filmed by Peter Jouvenal and narrated by John Simpson for the BBC program Newsnight in 1996. This rare portrayal of the Mullah also has an extraordinary historical significance for the event it depicts in the minute or so of footage that still exists in the public domain. It captures an act with profound political and religious consequences, whereby the Mullah assumes an ultimate form of authority by the act of displaying the Prophet Mohammed’s cloak to the assembled crowd. It shows the moment in the sequence of events where Omar (the central figure), who is standing on the top of the Shrine of the Cloak of the Prophet Mohammed, (Da Kherqa Sherif Ziarat) is shown turning to his right, holding the cloak, as an acolyte moves forward to kiss it, and others begin to throw their turbans forward in the hope that they might indirectly touch the holy relic.

Jouvenal’s documentary is itself a remarkable piece of work, and gives unique insights into the world of the Taliban just before they took control of Kabul, and the rest of Afghanistan. John Simpson narrates the event in the following words:

“There was a tremendous stir in Kandahar – we followed the crowds to a mosque in the city centre. The Taliban had been holding an assembly of mullahs from all over Afghanistan, and now the results were about to be made public. A Holy War was announced against the government of President Rabbani, in Kabul. The head of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, was declared to be the Emir or leader of all Muslims everywhere. Because this was regarded as a key moment for the Afghan nation, Mullah Omar displayed the holy cloak of the Prophet Mahommed to the crowd. It’s kept in Kandahar, and is shown at times of crisis – the last time was sixty years ago. Neither the cloak or the ceremony has ever been filmed before – nor has Mullah Omar. People in the crowd threw up their turbans to be touched by the cloak and be blessed by it. It was like being at some great religious ceremony in the Middle Ages.”

In his recent book, Taliban (2011), James Fergusson tells another version of the story:

The sequence relating to the public disclosure of the sacred relic – the cloak of the Prophet Mohammed – is one of the most remarkable pieces of historical photography of the late 20th century. To film this scene at all was itself a transgressive act of the highest degree – later in the film we see how notorious were the Taliban for the brutality of their punishment for much lesser crimes. More than just a brave or foolhardy decision, this “image capture” may now be understood as a paradigmatic example of the way the photographic act itself may transcend mere documentation. In this instance the determination of the photographer to persist with filming the scene has resulted in the capture of a ceremonial event which, one could argue, was the first of a sequence of historical circumstances which was to culminate in the September 11 outrage five years into the future.

It is in the moments before we see Omar’s face that this prior image, where the Mullah is shown holding up the cloth for the crowd to see, is seen. This is the critical moment for its place in the history of photography. In this gesture, several things are happening at once. By displaying the cloak, the Mullah Omar is asserting himself as the rightful leader of the people of Afghanistan, both politically, and in religious terms. By this act he becomes the Mullah al-Momineen (Leader of all Pious Muslims).  Reciprocally, the approving crowd is acknowledging the fetishistic and symbolic significance of the piece of textile held up for them to witness. It is the material presence – the actual matter – of the textile object that conveys the ultimate authority from the Prophet Mohammed to the Mullah himself through the political act of its possession and control.

Earlier in the shot sequence one also sees a man – who may or may not have been the Mullah Omar – wrapping himself in a green cloth. As the story has evolved, this figure’s action has been interpreted (eg. see the Wikipedia entry) as if the Mullah Omar actually wrapped himself in the Prophet’s cloak.

However in the later sequence the piece of textile the Mullah was holding aloft appears to be of a different colour, size and material. The photographic evidence – as it comes to us down the wires of the internet – simply does not tell us enough to reach this conclusion.

Nevertheless, this photographic sequence poses entirely new challenges for our appreciation of this extraordinary point of coincidence between such disparate technologies and modes of iconic signification. If the authenticity of the relic is to be believed, which it is by those participating, this collision of cultures spans the millenia. From one direction, there is the secretive and forbidden intrusion of Western news media “behind the front lines”, and from the other, the revelation of one of the most holy relics of the Muslim world from its long seclusion from public view. It is a revelation of a revelation, each at cross-purposes to the other. The event of taking (stealing, shooting) the photograph is an act of disempowerment of the subject, whose own act of representation relies on the immediacy (and ephemeral) and uniquely experiential nature of his performance of revelation – which is, ultimately, invokes the presence of the Prophet.

This is also a collision of technologies of representation: just as the camera captures the image of the figure of Omar, so at the same moment the Mullah claims himself to be the heir of the Prophet, through the agency of the piece of cloth. The cloth itself, despite its aniconic character, is held up for the crowd’s recognition and approval, and momentarily became the screen on which the power of the Mullah is projected by the adulation of the crowd and approbation of his peers.  Just as the Mullah’s hand may be depicted choking the life of a serpent, so his actual hand, by holding the holy relic aloft to his audience, enacts a form of representation of his own growing political authority.

To be continued…

P.S. I started to think about the symbolism of the authoritarian hand here

P.P.S. There’s an update to the story here.

where atlas carpets come from (part 2)

May 16, 2012 by

Warning: this is NOT an exhibition of Alighiero Boetti’s Mappa. But it suggests an obvious source for the parallel tradition of atlas carpets: here we see walls covered with atlases is a girl’s school room (which had been closed by the Taliban) in Herat. This is a still from a BBC documentary shot in Herat in 1996. Part one of this discussion may be found here.

Anti-Soviet propaganda

May 4, 2012 by

More valuable ephemera. The Stiftung Bibliotheca Afghanica Afghanistan-Institut und Archiv in Bubendorf, Switzerland, holds a substantial archive of anti-Soviet propaganda which was produced in Pakistan in the early years of the Soviet occupation. A number of the propaganda posters produced at that time are similar to the imagery which appeared on war carpets. The idea of the “puppet” dictator (in this case, Babrak Karmal) is a common motif in war carpets produced in Pakistan.

The text on this matchbook cover reads “Faith, Union, Jihad”, and carries a quote from the Quran “Help comes from God, victory is near”.  The volcano, with Afghanistan inscribed on it, is erupting, upsetting Babrak Karmal from his throne….

the value of ephemera

April 10, 2012 by

Ever wonder about the origins of the imagery on a carpet such as this? Look in your wallet…

The Victory Arch [Taaq-e-Zafar] in the Paghman Gardens outside Kabul celebrates the Afghan victory over Great Britain in 1919. And the source of the photograph used to produce the bank note? Look in your mailbox…

This postcard was posted in 1973. It is the actual photograph from which the bank note was engraved. From which the carpet was woven. With some additional narrative elements.

The civil war of the early nineties left nothing unscathed.

…now restored.

[photo by Dr. Khalid Salimi]

the Modernity question

March 2, 2012 by

Scholars of the history of modernity in Afghanistan will enjoy Adam Curtis’ online research, based in large part on BBC archival material.

the anonymous art conundrum

December 13, 2011 by

Wouldn’t you love to know who made this? But as Max Allen has often commented, there’s more that we don’t know than what we do know about the war rug genre. There are many different categories of cartographic images made during the era of the war carpet, and accurate representations of the map of Afghanistan are first seen in war carpets from the mid-1980s. And there were many other forms of representation of the map of Afghanistan in circulation in Afghanistan in the pre-war era. Maps like this one – with schematic rather than cartographic forms – appear to derive from the western provinces of Afghanistan, and some are dated 1989, 1990, and 1991. I have seen nine examples like this (plus others at a larger scale) and what is striking about them is that they are all clearly by different makers – despite the fact that the basic format (naming the different provinces of Afghanistan, inserting familiar symbols, war references, and orienting the East upwards) is the same in each example. And so while this group are anonymous (in the Western sense) they have a communal character that is very compelling. Afghan carpets are commissioned, designed, made and distributed under a distinctive schema of collective agency, and so to recognise this as a “work of art” we will need to rethink our Western convention of a work of art having a unique author… Maybe the nine constitute the one work? In the sense of communal authorship? Watch this space!

atlas carpet analogue

October 23, 2011 by

And here’s an inevitable hybrid! See this Turkmen carpet with the map of the world, deleted, by Mona Hartoum (Afghan (Black and Red) 2009) exhibited in the Istanbul Biennale, 2011, in the exhibition “Untitled (Passport)”. More here. And a better photograph here.


From an Italian perspective: a call for an anthropological theory of art

October 17, 2011 by

Sergio Poggianella writes in response to the post below where do atlas carpets come from?:

“Regarding the opinions of Luca Cerizza, at p.8 of “Le Mappe di Alighiero Boetti” [Mondadori Electa S.p.A. Milano 2009 – first published in English as “Alighiero e Boetti: Mappa” Afterall Books, London, 2008] he affirms that nobody before Boetti thought to show us a world like a mosaic tangled with political formations, a puzzle of color and symbols, a muddle of differences…etc.

Moreover Cerizza knew very well my above mentioned exhibition and catalogue [yet], [evidently a] very ill-mannered person, he published at p. 76 of his controversial “Le Mappe di Alighiero Boetti” a geographical carpet belonging to my collection and for the first time published at p.129 of my catalogue, without mentioning my name [or the] origin of the carpet.

There are at least two reasons to contradict this wrong statement: first, geographical carpets are centuries older than the maps of Boetti. They were done mainly for the mighty, while in Boetti’s time [it is] for the art market; second, you will never see in Boetti maps, ordered from Afghan weavers [embroiderers], such a variety of shapes and forms as you find in the geographical carpet, with or without flags, where colorful nation’s  shape is respected, or where forms become sometimes abstract, like cells, as you can see in my catalogue “Afghanistan Tappeti di Guerra Tappeti del Mondo” 2001, Contemporanea Arti e Culture, from pp. 119 to 133.

It would be also very interesting, from the conceptual point of view, to study the artifacts, signed by Boetti and the artifacts conceived by the afghan weavers, from an anthropological perspective. Traditional art, when invested by aura, can shift into the contemporary art system, as Boetti, in a masterly manner did, deciding to accept the result of the woven maps, even ordered following a model provided by him, without any other change, any other intervention. We all have an idea of what we mean when we refer to an artist: we think about his [her] ability, inventive capability, aesthetic awareness, inspiration, creative gesture, etc. This can be applied in the artistic environment of any culture, including the afghan weavers’ art, as the art of war or geographical carpets, but only if rules and conventions are [recognized] by the contemporary western art system and art market.

The geographical carpets are the creative products of the afghan weavers; artifacts that in different contexts can be considered traditional art (for example in an ethnographic museum, or among ethnic art dealers) or, with the aura acquired in a modern or contemporary art museum or gallery, changing, like a chrysalis into a butterfly, they can become works of art.

In this new context, these objects should belong to contemporary art or to material culture? Should the war and geographical carpet weavers [be regarded as] artisans or artists? It is the power of the diverse cultures, which determines the symbolic, social and economic value of an artifact or of a work of art.

In any case, in my opinion, to get rid of the ideological justifications about craftsmen and artists and the contraposition between the self-referential concept of work of contemporary art and the exoticism of material culture, we need [to establish] an interdisciplinary dialogue between theories, methods and practices referred to aesthetics and to anthropology.”

Editor’s note: an anthropological theory of art might argue that the reason the map of Afghanistan is mirror-reversed in the image above is that it is easier to copy a carpet from the reverse-side. But it also tells us something significant about visual literacy and the makers’ familiarity (or otherwise) of the emblem of the map of Afghanistan.

on interpreting the 9/11 commemorative carpets

September 10, 2011 by

The most controversial and confronting of the many categories of Afghan “war carpets” made since the Soviet invasion in 1979 were those which first appeared in early 2002 and which memorialized the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Hundreds, maybe thousands of these small mats were made out of poor quality materials, reportedly produced in the regions to the north of Kabul, by the anti-Taliban Esari Turkomans. They were made in an attempt to cash in on the anticipated numbers of foreigners appearing in Afghanistan in the wake of Operation Enduring Freedom and the NATO-led ISAF operations, which began to impact on Afghan society from November 2001 onwards.

The original version of this carpet was so precise that it could have been designed on Photoshop. (It probably was.) These mats were made by hand, each probably taking three or four weeks on a loom with continuous cotton wefts. The weaver would finish one, roll down six inches, and start the next one, in what was probably the most exploitative of circumstances. In 2007 there were still similar examples on Chicken Street which had not yet been cut apart, and at first glance it was hard to believe they were not the product of some kind of mechanical reproduction. They are in fact still woven by hand, in the laborious pixel-by-pixel knotted pile method, as have oriental carpets for thousands of years.

This is the archetype of a 21st century souvenir artefact. Before they were to be found in rug stores in the west, in early 2002 they had already appeared on eBay, at premium prices, marketed by online dealers based in Pakistan. When the market realised how many had been produced, the price plummeted, and within a year they could be bought for the (inflated) price of shipping plus a dollar.  However once they appeared in the flea markets of New York, a controversy arose which raged around their motivation or intent.

While objectively their iconography had been designed to appeal to the west, ostensibly to recognize and memorialise the horror of the act and the heroism of the survivors, for some the sense of communal grief was so strong that they could not be seen as other than opportunistic and exploitative. Despite the fact that they sold well, and had attracted significant publicity, the dealer who first sold them came under virulent and threatening criticism from a range of political positions.

Here’s how you read the war carpet in its original form:

• The twin towers of the World Trade Centre are depicted in quite precise isometric perspective, with the impacts of the two airliners, left and right, just as they had been seen around the world on television and other media.

• The date and the flight details of the two airliners are also precisely written in English (“first impact”, “second impact”).

• The towers are montaged over the map of Afghanistan, colored green, the sacred color of Islam. The foreground band of the montage is derived from a US-produced propaganda leaflet, showing the two flags of the USA and Afghanistan united by the (usually white) dove of peace.

• USA is written vertically between the base of the towers, just above the obliquely rendered deck of one of the US aircraft supercarriers involved in Operation Enduring Freedom. The carrier showes fighter planes taking off, plus a Tomahawk missile rising up on the right hand side of the field. The missile is headed, presumably, for Tora Bora or the other sites targeted as al-Qaeda strongholds.

• The letters USA are repeated on the deck of the carrier. The first generation of these rugs (the most precisely-rendered versions) also included the headline “11ST SEPTEMBER 2001 ATTACK ON AMERICA IN [N]EW YORK” or “THE TERRORISM WAR IN AMERICA” or “THE TERRORS WERE IN AMERICA” and “AFGHANISTAN”. Thus the language, format, and iconography are all designed to appeal sympathetically to a foreign audience.

Eight years later another version of the carpet appeared, now held in a private collection in Montreal. Such is the nature of the manual reproduction of Afghan carpets that a carpet is often copied from another, and the process repeated, over and over again. In this process images change, are simplified, and morph into new forms. The people (often children) who make the twentieth (or hundredth) copy of a design are therefore likely to have no idea of the significance of the iconography or motifs they are laboriously reproducing.

In this case we see the culmination of a process of progressive abstraction, where the individual anonymous maker has clearly lost contact with almost all of the significant references made by the original design. Generations of reproduction produced by copying from previous copies has resulted in an almost incomprehensible outcome – with three towers, missiles proliferating as a row of flower-shaped forms, helicopters flying upside down, text disintegrating.

This is, in a sense, tradition in action. Forms and motifs have now dissolved into pattern. The tradition has reverted to its norm.

Nigel Lendon is an artist, curator, historian and cultural critic at the Australian National University. Together with Tim Bonyhady he holds an Australian Research Council grant to research the tradition of Afghan war carpets. He authors two blogs, Iconophilia ( and Rugs of War ( Further information on the Afghan war carpet tradition may be found at the site for Max Allen’s Battleground exhibition at the Textile Museum of Canada  ( and at Kevin Sudeith’s (

(An earlier version of this post was originally written for BagNews Notes as “How to read a war carpet”. And if you want to see how these works are liable to misinterpretation, go here.)

PS. I have never seen anything like this made as a carpet: 7 October 2001 (Reuters/Zahid Hussein)

From The Monthly Sept 2011


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