Mixed Memorials: how war rug iconography can morph from one subject to another.

November 23, 2016 by

I have argued elsewhere that conflict carpets were often conceived as a form of memorialisation – as opposed to a form of celebration of the events of war and conflict. In part, the latter interpretation is due to the degradation of the iconography as rugs are reproduced – endless hand-made copies of copies of copies – until the point is reached where the elements of the original image revert to the traditional norm of pattern-making. Two towers become three, cruise missiles become flowers, text becomes illegible, etc. etc.

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Here is an image of a memorial. The Soviet tank with figures climbing on it references the memorial monument at Darb Qandahar, a busy street intersection in Herat. On evidence provided by Nasser Halimi, the monument was created in 2002 on the instigation of the then Governor of Herat Ismail Khan. Nasser has also discovered that the figures were sculpted by a local mason, trained in Iran, named Khalifa Rahman, who now lives in Zeyarat Jah, in Herat province. The monument memorialises the defeat of the Soviets, which (it could be said) began with the Herat uprising in March 1979.

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Another version of this image is posted here.

Above and below the image of the tank in the rug under discussion you will see – reversed left and right – a strange brown form which some viewers have thought was a mythical creature, or a cityscape. However this bizarre form, together with the diagonal red sub-structure at the base of the rug, has in fact been ‘borrowed’ from the September 11/World Trade Centre memorial design, where it began its iconographic evolution as the blue and white deck and red and green superstructure one of the three US aircraft supercarriers from which the raids on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Tora Bora were first launched, as seen in the example below.

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See how the superstructure has been detached and deployed (as pattern) above and below the primary image of the tank. Even the letters USA have become detached from their meaning, and float in space as mere decoration. This strange morphology suggests to me three things: that the origin of both these rugs, produced for the souvenir market, is closely related; that the actual makers of such rugs have lost contact with the original designer(s); and that the makers of  rugs like these have little or no understanding of the significance of the iconography of the images they are reproducing. All conflict carpets sit somewhere on a spectrum between fine art and souvenir art – which is where such images as these are properly located.

Twin Towers/September 11

March 28, 2016 by

The question of the motivation for these carpets keeps re-emerging. My thoughts on this category are here: http://www.readingthepictures.org/2010/10/how-to-read-a-war-carpet/

The Afghan Modern

March 15, 2016 by

Nigel Lendon Gallery Rugs 316_01_668

Perhaps it is only from the outside that one can decode aspects of the visual culture of a country like Afghanistan and formulate a proposition like “The Afghan Modern”. To propose an indigenous modernism within a distant culture is, inevitably, an act of cultural projection. And yet the bodies of work we have encountered beg the kind of formal analysis and iconographic interpretation that applies in any number of contemporary cross-cultural circumstances.

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Afghan Modern @RKD is a small exhibition of ten conflict carpets from Afghanistan at Nigel Lendon’s studio space (@RKD) at Wamboin, near Canberra. The exhibition may be viewed by appointment (iconophilia@gmail.com) until 24th March.

Nigel Lendon Gallery Rugs 316_03_668

The following essay summarises my thoughts about a group of Afghan conflict carpets produced in the years from 1988 to 1992, in which the dominant visual framing device is a map. Innovative in character, these carpets are distinct from other conventional uses of the map in the same medium during the same period, which I have written about elsewhere.[1] These particular examples are, I suggest, artefacts that collectively constitute an instance of a regional, or indigenous, modernism which has emerged independent of any cultural dependency or external influence, and which signals a break with the continuity of local traditions. In this sense, at least, it is like any other modernism.

Nigel Lendon Gallery Rugs 316_04_668

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Are Afghan Conflict Carpets more like Social Realism than Propaganda?

March 4, 2015 by

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(an extract from a text-in-progress)

Following the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, one of the earliest examples of overt propaganda in the range of imagery produced in Afghanistan and in the refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan was the representation of President Najibullah as a puppet of the Soviet Union. This bears a close – but not exact – correspondence to the propaganda posters produced by expatriate Afghans working out of Islamabad in the early 1980s. The posters, flyers, and even matchbook covers produced at that time were classic propaganda – pointed, bitter, angry cartoons and even more graphic realist images reflecting the alienation and history of the suffering of the Afghan people during this time.

A further reference to the possibility that these carpets may have been copied from propaganda posters is the inscription in English and Farsi along the lower edge of the first images of this kind to appear in collections in the west: “Published by the Ministry of Information Islamic Interim Government of Afghanistan.” The Interim Islamic Government of Afghanistan was a shaky coalition of opposition parties formed in 1989, and the faction led by Hekmatyar had been associated with the production of visual propaganda of this kind since the early 1980s. Thus we can suggest that the Najibullah carpets were produced in Pakistan no earlier than 1989/1990, in the period of political opposition to Najibullah’s continuing presidency following the exodus of Soviet forces in 1989.

The figure of the President is depicted with hammer and sickle tattooed on his forehead being dangled over the map of Afghanistan by a giant hand descending from the North.  This “hand of the Soviets” was surrounded by helicopters and bombs, the acronym USSR, and decorated with a distorted hammer-and-sickle emblem, making quite clear the message of the primary icon of the image. The secondary icons of the image are the depictions of the mujahideen in opposition, surrounding Najibullah and pointing their weapons at him. Further out, in the regions of the map identified (labelled) as Iran and Pakistan, the rugmakers depicted idyllic scenes of life before the invasion – Afghan nomads with their camel-trains, goats and sheep, and their portable houses. In this sense the complexity of this image is both political propaganda and an historical narrative projecting, perhaps, a return to the normality of the past.

Seen as propaganda, such imagery is as much oriented to a domestic audience as to the outside world. Yet these carpets made compelling viewing in the West – especially in the period of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet empire, when such aspects resonated with the tensions that were identified with the end of the Cold War. The first of these rugs to be seen and exhibited in the West was from the R. Neil Reynolds collection in Washington, in an exhibition titled “Pieces de la Resistance: Afghanistan’s war rugs”, curated by Tatiana Divens, in October 1993.

In the years that followed Najibullah being deposed (and later assassinated), during the disastrous civil war and the ascendancy of the Taliban, it appears the “puppet dictator” theme had lost its relevance, and rug designers and makers turned to other subjects and designs.

In the decade following September 11 2001, Afghanistan was once again “occupied” by the U.S.-led international anti-Taliban coalition formed to rebuild civil society and re-equip Afghanistan to defend its own territory. During this period the production of conflict carpets appears to have diminished, with the exception of the mass-reproduction of small tourist rugs, which are largely copies of themes developed during the Soviet era. Surprisingly, one of the most prolific of these is the imagery that continues to celebrate the exodus of the Soviet Army from Afghanistan in 1989. In my experience, there has been no production of an equivalent iconography that could be interpreted as anti-U.S., or anti-Western, especially given the make-up of the ISAF forces which took control of the country for the period since 2001.

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In about 2005 it appears that the makers of the original Najibullah carpets resumed production. This time, the primary icon of the image is the closest one might come to a response to Afghanistan’s changing circumstances and experiences. In the centre of the image, floating over the map of Afghanistan, one now finds a most curious emblem that is comprised of a Kalashnikov sitting inside an inverted “Uncle Sam” top hat. In the one hybridised emblem one sees both the archetypal symbol of the legacy of the military might of the Soviet Union, and a symbol of anti-imperialist politics globally, now embedded in the historical symbol of American imperialism. In these new rugs this ambiguous hybrid emblem is no longer surrounded by mujahideen, but by militaria of every possible kind. Equally, while the general style of these carpets is completely coherent with those of the Najibullah era, they have lost the specific historical references and narratives that once made its predecessors so distinctive.

And yet this new Soviet/U.S. icon has its own compelling affect. It is as if the designer/makers were searching for a new iconography that alludes to a cultural experience for an audience beyond that of the tourist market, or of mere propaganda, oriented to an indigenous audience. In this sense, these carpets are more like the rich and complex imagery of the narrative carpets of the 1980s. The montage effect – whereby the merger of two icons synthesises a third order of meaning – signals a complex order of intention on the part of its designer/makers. To my reading, these conflict carpets are more like that found in early Social Realism that the propaganda generated by contemporary forms of psychological warfare. It would seem that by combining the familiar symbols of the two world superpowers, the makers are signalling both a sense of the perpetual crisis besetting their country of origin, and a sense of their subjecthood, in a state of being perpetually dominated by the world outside their borders.

The questions Kevin needs to answer

February 26, 2015 by

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Readers will be interested to see that Kevin has taken down this post on his Facebook page – without answering (in public) the questions raised. There’s an issue of ethics at stake here, surely?

Conflict Carpets attracting scholarly interest

November 26, 2014 by

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00233609.2014.933872#.VHZZYocVfgo

See the essay by Vera-Simone Schulz: “Portraits, Photographs, and Politics in the Carpet Medium: Iran, the Soviet Union and Beyond.”

http://himalmag.com/afghan-war-rugs/

March 27, 2014 by

http://himalmag.com/afghan-war-rugs/

Hali’s Thread of Time

November 5, 2013 by

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Here Ben Evans compares political textiles: the 1992 Victory over the Soviets carpet, and the 1819 Peterloo Massacre handkerchief. In Hali #177 Autumn 2013. Scroll down four posts to see my more specific account of the carpet…

contemporary designs by Arzu

February 14, 2013 by

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.

required reading: Art Power

February 7, 2013 by

“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…