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Nigel Lendon and Tim Bonyhady: The Rugs of War

In our various essays to date, we have argued that this relatively unknown and unrecognised genre is significant in global terms for a number of reasons. It merits being seen comprehensively and widely. At the meeting point between East and West the artists of Afghanistan have produced an extraordinary new visual arts genre to represent the experience of this horrific era in their own distinctive media and aesthetic forms.

This tradition also sits strikingly at the nexus between contemporary and indigenous arts, and orientalism, and challenges our expectations of all three categories. And while it represents perhaps the most comprehensive tradition of war art of the 20th century, it has received almost no recognition within the art world, and it is marginalised by the rug world. Perhaps this is because it both sits between and crosses established categories of visual art – through its innovative qualities, it breaks out of its original categories of fine craft and ethnographica to sit precariously alongside contemporary and avantgarde art, and political art and propaganda. Rarely they have escaped the rug trade into the world of art or anthropology, and thus far there has been no comprehensive analysis through publication or exhibition of the depth of the tradition or its artistic significance.

We have held two small exhibitions thus far, and published the small catalogue The Rugs of War (2003), which has sold out and is now available online. The first exhibition of 25 works in Canberra was mounted in the Australian National University School of Art in the context of the 2003 Fusions conference, and 15 works were subsequently shown in Adelaide at the Nexus Gallery. Critical reaction to the latter has been strong: see Peter Hill and Susan McCulloch’s reviews in The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald. Peter Hills’ perception of the potential relation of this work to the contemporary Australian art elsewhere the Adelaide Biennale is relevant to our own motivations. In these two small shows we’ve demonstrated that this work deserves to be seen as contemporary art, and that the shift from the floors of domestic spaces to the walls of the gallery effects a dramatic conceptual and aesthetic re-evaluation. Viewers (and critics) have been deeply moved by the experience.

“War rugs” are the product of the nomadic Baluchi people of Northern Afghanistan, most of whom were displaced to Iran and Pakistan during the two decades of conflict since the Russian occupation in 1979. Many of the makers have apparently now returned to the northern parts of the country, and although there is evidence of continuing production of minor and propagandistic works, recent experience suggests the “war rug” genre is no longer part of their repertoire.

These works first started appearing in Australia in 1988, later through mainstream rug dealers (eg. Cadry’s) and in the art world through Ray Hughes (1993/4), as detailed in Tim Bonyhady’s catalogue essay Out of Afghanistan (use link to catalogue above). Tim’s essay details the various contexts in which a number of early collections have been exhibited in Europe in the early 90s (Aubry, Frembergen & Mohm) and the relevance of their accompanying publications.

Apart from the Australian War Memorial’s recent acquisition of two small rugs of the “War Against Terror” era, and the Powerhouse Museum’s recent acquisition of a minor work, we have uncovered no evidence of these being acquired by any significant art museum in Australia or internationally.

Other publications reveal scant research or critical enquiry of the kind we have initiated in The Rugs of War. Little or no anthropological work has been done in the region since 1979, for obvious reasons. The only exception discovered thus far is Brian Spooner, a US anthropologist in his “Weavers and dealers: the authenticity of an oriental carpet”,1986 (see our Bibliography).

We know of approximately 100 or so in war rugs in Australian collections, plus the works in the two other existing publications (Aubry, Frembergen & Mohm) and plus those featured on web-based collection databases and dealer websites.

The essays in The Rugs of War are the first published analytical and interpretative texts produced in an academic context. They have established a groundswell of interest in the project. It’s our intention to build on this in a future publication. We know of two significant private collections in the US and a number in Europe.

Access to the circumstances of production has already been explored by our collaborator Jasleen Dhamija in recent visits to Afghanistan and we are hopeful first hand experience will overcome some of these impediments to understanding the nature of these works’ production.

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