War rugs expose extreme feelings

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Ann McMahon reviewed the first showing of The Rugs of War at the School of Art Gallery in The Canberra Times on 23 June 2003.  She writes:

Christopher Kremmer, author of The Carpet Wars, admitted that he ‘didn’t like the Rugs of War,’ when he opened the exhibition at the Canberra School of Art Foyer Gallery. This was unexpected, but the exhibition was one that deliberately set about exposing expectations and turning them on their heads. Kremmer called the rugs, ‘a wooly window on a country in crisis for too long’. He was offended, he said by depictions of AK-47s, of which he has first hand experience. He described them as ‘the weapon of choice of anyone wanting to kill everything within fifty metres.’I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rising as he recalled cowering behind a wall while Kabul was shelled and the difficulty of road travel through numerous checkpoints manned by heavily armed warlords. When he explained, ‘that they were only trying to make a living, probably at his expense,’ I laughed along with the large audience in the Canberra School of Art Gallery. Kremmer’s speech, like the exhibition itself, evoked extreme responses.

Listed as plate 12 in the catalogue, “If you see one mine there will always be many others”, is described as a Baluchi style knotted wool rug made in the 1990’s, possibly in a Pakistan refugee camp; it is a catalogue of anti-personnel ordnance. An awareness that the weavers were intimately familiar with the variety of mines and grenades depicted grew along with a knot of horror in my stomach. This feeling conflicted with the comforting familiarity born of association with patterned carpets framed within the domestic setting.

Afghanistan has long and rich rug making history, but the war rugs serve as a reminder that craft is a contemporary practice in which the makers respond to current issues. While it is tempting to view these fascinating objects as anti-war rugs, the makers, as is customary with craft practitioners, are responding to the market. While most buyers have been foreign aid workers and western military personnel, export traders are also sensitive to the interests of collectors looking for something new. Let’s hope that someday, the Afghan weavers will be able to celebrate the return of peace. And war rugs will be a relic of the past, albeit a collectable one.

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