Peter Hill review: “Front Line of Ideas”

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Sydney Morning Herald visual arts critic Peter Hill reviewed the Adelaide Festival exhibition of The Rugs of War (March 13-14, 2004, Spectrum pp 8-9) in its relation to the contemporary works in the Adelaide Biennale of Australian Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia.

While Peter’s conclusion “These rugs… could almost have been included within the Adelaide Biennale of Australian Art” is the first to speculate how these works might be seen in the same frame as the rest of contemporary art, this is one of the motivating interests of Tim and myself in continuing to explore these works. More of Peter’s comments over the fold.

… For me, the most memorable images were The Rugs of War, exhibited at the Lion Arts Centre [Nexus]. As curators Tim Bonyhady and Nigel Lendon, from the Australian National University, write in the introduction to the catalogue: “Many countries have experienced wars over the last 25 years, but probably none has suffered so much warfare as Afghanistan or produced so much art depicting it. Afghan rug-makers began incorporating the implements of war into their designs almost immediately the Soviet Union invaded their country in 1979. They continue to do so today in the wake of September 11 and the start of America’s War on Terrorism which ousted the Taliban government of Mullah Omar… The Rugs produced in reponse to these events constitute the richest tradition of war art of the late 20th century and early 21st century – a remarkable product of at least hundreds if not thousands of anonymous weavers.”

If you just glance at many of these rugs they appear typical of their historical genre – a butterfly here, a floral border or geometric castellation there. But look closer and suddenly you see the surface is crawling with tanks and aircraft carriers and studded with Kalaschnikov rifles and the rotor blades of helicopters.

The post-September 11 rugs are probably the most chilling. “Some simply depict the Twin Towers,” Bonyhady writes, ” the American Airlines flight striking Tower One and the United Airlines flight striking Tower Two, the consequent fires and people jumping or falling to their deaths.”Sydney dealer Ray Hughes was one of the first collectors in the world to start buying these Afghan rugs, and when he exhibited them in 1993 they sold out immediately.

The fascinating thing about them is that that the weaving process is so complex they appear almost digital. It is like looking at millions of woven pixels that nevertheless build into a beautiful hand crafted object. These rugs, at least one of which foretells the execution of its maker, could almost have been included within the Adelaide Biennale of Australian Art…

Note – the penultimate reference is not to the execution of the rug’s maker, but to the execution of the puppet dictator Najibullah.

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