Are Afghan Conflict Carpets more like Social Realism than Propaganda?

March 4, 2015 by


(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.


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


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

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

March 27, 2014 by

Hali’s Thread of Time

November 5, 2013 by


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…

Anti-Soviet Social Realism

January 7, 2013 by

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.

Alighiero Boetti, the myth of influence, and a contemporary orientalism

November 15, 2012 by

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 History journal 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:

Nigel Lendon: A tournament of shadows: Alighiero Boetti, the myth of influence, and a contemporary orientalism, EMAJ Issue 6 2011-2012

Misliteration: JAPAN/, FIGET, (and PEPSI)

October 4, 2012 by

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…


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.