Tim Bonyhady


In 2003 Tim Bonyhady contributed the following essay to The Rugs of War catalogue:

Out of Afghanistan

International interest in Afghanistan was intense in the late 1980s. While the political and military implications of the mujahideen’s defeat of the Soviet Union commanded most attention, the cultural consequences of the war also attracted an international audience. An exhibition of eighty ‘Russian-Afghan War Carpets’ staged by an Italian rug dealer, Luca Brancati, was pivotal. After opening in Turin in May 1988 as the first Soviet troops were preparing to quit Kabul, these rugs went on tour to other Italian cities as the Soviet withdrawal gathered pace, and then travelled to the United States as the last Soviet soldiers quit Afghanistan in February 1989.

Brancati’s exhibition succeeded not only because of this timing but also because the works in it were treated as contemporary art or, at least, as objects of immediate interest to art collectors and curators, so often quick to embrace new ‘tribal art’. An article featuring two of these rugs appeared in New York’s Arts Magazine alongside essays about the oil paintings of Gerhard Richter, the watercolours of John Cage and the kitsch of Jeff Koons. An advertisement for war rugs appeared beneath an advertisement for an exhibition staged by Leo Castelli, the New York art dealer renowned for showing the work of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichstenstein and Jasper Johns.

The characterization of these rugs as both tribal and contemporary art has been vital to their western reception. Yet the international circulation, sale, reproduction and discussion of these rugs have not depended solely on these classifications. They have also been lauded as women’s work and as children’s art, promoted as social and historical documents and marketed as a form of militaria in which particular weaponry may sometimes be identified. Some have been dubbed protest rugs, others have been called victory rugs. Although generally known as war rugs, they also have been interpreted as anti-war rugs.

The most influential early attempt to explain their origins appeared in 1989 in the Oriental Rug Review. Its author, Tatiana Divens, was a collector of Baluchi rugs who had spent ten years as an officer in the United States army specializing in conventional ammunition and so had a professional interest in the equipment that war rugs depicted. Divens suggested that the earliest of these rugs ‘were developed in response to the demands of a new consumer group – the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan’. Since most of the 700,000 Soviet conscripts who served in the war were unlikely to have been able to afford to buy rugs, Divens proposed that they were bought by Soviet officers and officials.

This speculation probably had some basis even though Divens presented no evidence to support it. As Svetlana Alexievich recorded in Zinky Boys, her book about Soviet veterans of the war, many officers and officials returned home with souvenirs from Kabul and other Afghan cities. While some bought precious stones, jewellery and porcelain, others preferred carpets. The majority probably were traditional designs, but some are likely to have been war rugs. The presence of writing resembling Cyrillic script on a number of early war rugs suggests their makers expected a Russian audience.

This market was probably always small. When Ron O’Callaghan, one of the most prominent American dealers in war rugs, tried to test Divens’ hypothesis in the late 1990s, he failed to trace any war rugs in the former Soviet Union. Several groups of Soviet veterans of the war whom O’Callaghan asked about these rugs had neither seen nor heard of them. As the war rapidly turned bad for Moscow, the men left to fight it probably had little appetite for mementos which would remind them so directly of their defeat by the mujahideen.

Divens’ own evidence suggests another very different market for these rugs which was probably always at least as important. The earliest war rug that she succeeded in locating had been bought not by a Soviet officer but by an American diplomat. The place was Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, near the foot of the Kyhber Pass. The date was June 1980, just six months after the Soviet Union started its invasion of Afghanistan by airlifting its troops into Kabul. If this rug was bought then, few carpets could have been made for Soviet consumption any earlier given the time required to make a rug, particularly one of any size. Yet even if this date is inaccurate, war rugs were soon for sale in Peshawar. When Peter Elliott, an Australian doctor with the Asia and Oceania Federation of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, went there in 1983, he saw them in the bazaar – one of the earliest recorded sightings of them in Peshawar.

This rapid emergence of rugs depicting the Soviet invasion is hardly surprising given the rich tradition of pictorial rug-making by Baluchi people, who seem to have been responsible for most of the first war rugs. Long before the 1980s, Baluchi pictorial rugs not only depicted local plants, animals and people but also exotic animals such as Irish elk and new technology including aircraft. One rug made in 1934, most likely as a gift for Japanese Royalty, was dominated by three groups of geishas but also had an aircraft in each of its corners. The weavers who worked in this tradition had also shown themselves quick to adapt to new markets – rapidly developing particular designs in response to the preferences of Peace Corps volunteers and travellers on the hippie trail in the 1960s and 1970s.

Peshawar was the main city in Pakistan where war rugs were sold through the 1980s. It had already been an important centre for the sale of Afghan rugs before the Soviet invasion because it was much more accessible than any Afghan city. But when dozens of Afghan dealers fled there after the war started, its rug trade grew rapidly so that it soon eclipsed Kabul. While many of the first war rugs sold in Peshawar were made within Afghanistan and then carried over the border on horses or donkeys, many others were made within Pakistan by Afghan refugees who ranged from experienced, accomplished weavers to novices who turned to rug-making because they could find no other work.

The market for war rugs in Peshawar was particularly great because it was the base of the Afghan resistance to the Soviets, a key point on the arms pipeline to the mujahideen which the CIA fuelled with over US$500 million each year, and the location of many international aid agencies such as the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights and Medecins Sans Frontieres. If the western agents, military advisers, arms merchants, journalists and aid workers who visited or lived there wanted mementos, they could, as Doris Lessing observed when she visited Peshawar in 1986, choose from a wealth of Afghan goods. They could also buy the fur hats, caps, belts and Red Star badges of dead Soviet soldiers. They could also buy war rugs and many of them appear to have done so.

War rugs also began to spread more or less accidentally in consignments sent to other countries by rug agents in Peshawar and Kabul and wholesalers in Hamburg. Sometimes dealers who ordered rugs by simply specifying their price, quantity, sizes and tribal styles would discover war rugs in shipments that they expected would contain only traditional carpets. Sometimes dealers who selected their own consignments without careful looking would later discover the weaponry of war within what they had thought were traditional rugs. Sometimes dealers would buy war rugs without seeing any particular interest in their novel imagery.

Yet gradually the shipment of these rugs became more deliberate and the dealers in other countries who received these rugs began to treat them as something special. Jacobsen Oriental Rugs, one of America’s biggest and oldest carpet dealers, was quick to do so. When Tatiana Divens visited its premises in Syracuse, New York, early in 1987, it had three large war rugs hung on its walls, while its stock included at least another fifteen war rugs which had been selected by one of its staff in Pakistan. An English art dealer, Nigel London, did even more to promote these rugs by assembling the first big collection to rival Brancati’s exhibition.

Individual collectors were often also influential. When the leading Sydney rug merchant, Cadry’s, received a consignment of about 100 Baluchi rugs in 1988 including several depicting small tanks and grenades, it paid little attention to them. But when Cadry’s took some to Canberra for one of its regular rug sales in the city’s Albert Hall, they were seen by James Mollison, the Director of the National Gallery of Australia, who regularly visited these sales. As recalled by Robert Cadry, Mollison was his first customer to be excited by these rugs. Mollison’s standing as Australia’s most renowned museum director, his enthusiasm for this new form of rug and purchase of some for himself, persuaded Cadry’s to take them more seriously.

As this demand grew, so that new war rugs even began to be sold by international auction houses led by Christie’s of London, the production of these rugs intensified. When Chris Walter, an American rug-dealer from Cambridge, Massachusetts, visited the Faisal refugee camp in north-western Pakistan early in 1989, he found that almost the only employment for its Turkmen inhabitants was in the rug trade, whether dying wool, weaving carpets, shearing or selling them. Where once the weaving had been the work of woman and girls, it had also become the work of boys and young men. War rugs were ‘being knocked off the looms in prodigious numbers’.

Yet these rugs were not always very visible or easy to find in Pakistan. Saul Barodofsky, another American rug-dealer from Charlottesville, Virginia, who also visited the North-West Frontier early in 1989, reported that he saw very few war rugs. Two American collectors, Eric and Kim Miller, who visited this area around the same time and were excited to learn that aid agencies had established a program to teach the children of Uzbek and Turkmen refugees how to make war rugs, found that this program was winding down. The Millers were only able to secure examples of the children’s work because local rug dealers ‘scoured’ the camps for them.

By then, the range of war rugs was very diverse. Some included just a few weapons within traditional botanical, zoological and geometric forms. Others juxtaposed one or more tanks with water ewers and vases – traditional symbols of the household, hospitality and domestic order. A third type showed cities filled with the weapons of war. A fourth type was dominated by Kalashnikov rifles which were used by both the Soviet troops and the Afghan resistance but became the prime symbol of the mujahideen. A fifth type was dominated by larger Soviet weaponry, especially armoured personnel carriers, tanks and helicopters, which generally were depicted in neat rows and columns.

Perhaps the earliest recorded Afghan assessment of these rugs came from Sayed Ahmad Gailani, the leader of the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan, a mujahideen group based in Peshawar. For Gailani, these rugs exemplified how Afghanistan had been transformed by war. In an interview in 1988, he reflected: ‘You must understand that a terrible violation of my country has taken place. A whole generation grew up knowing nothing besides the war. All they know how to do is fight. Think of the beautiful Afghan rugs for which my country is famous. Even as recently as ten years ago, people embroidered them with pyramids and camels. But today there are only tanks, military planes, and bombers.’

Westerners often dismissed these rugs for different reasons and even hoped that their production would soon stop. Their standard criticism – expressed by Chris Walter in his report from the Faisal Camp – was that war rugs were ‘very much a commercial enterprise’ directed simply at meeting western demand. Yet since most Afghan rugs were commercial products made for export – and no-one questioned or belittled their makers’ eye on a foreign market – this argument was unconvincing. Instead it seems that Walter objected to the war rugs because he thought their novel imagery meant they were not authentic. In his view, the refugees should have been using traditional designs and vegetable dyes that would preserve ‘an invaluable part of the cultural heritage of Afghanistan’ – something he soon was actively encouraging as co-ordinator of a rug-making project sponsored by the human rights group Cultural Survival. Rather than responding to new circumstances, Walter wanted Afghan rug makers to return to their past.

Other collectors and dealers admired these rugs because of their innovation and sophistication. Joyce C. Ware, a contributor to a special issue of the American journal Fiberarts devoted to ‘Political Fiber’, observed: ‘The war rugs . . . excited my interest . . . because there are so few tribal rugs being woven today that reflect contemporary experiences.’ She was particularly impressed by the complexity and the variety of designs and colours of the rugs that she first encountered in New York in 1989. In the course of eight months she saw over two hundred rugs and bought fifty – all, she emphasized, unique pieces. Far from seeing their new imagery as a corruption of tradition, she lauded these rugs as authentic responses to recent events.

The way in which the weavers depicted war excited more discussion. Thomas Bayrle, a German artist who wrote about these rugs in the Swiss art magazine Parkett, saw them as just one of many demonstrations of their weavers’ great capacity for ‘ornamental assimilation of new subject matter’. Eva Linhart, a German art historian, was troubled by how the rugs turned something evil into decoration but concluded that, far from being merely decorative, they told stories of the war. Ewa Kuryluk argued in New York’s Arts Magazine that, by maintaining an old, familiar set of colours and balanced, well-structured designs, the weavers had avoided the uncontrolled emotion that so often characterized war art and resulted in either propaganda or kitsch. The result, she suggested, was works of art which conveyed the weavers’ stoicism and vitality – presenting the banality of evil in the right proportions by treating it as a fact of life.

The production of these rugs by children – usually a ground for concern because of the fear of exploitation and abuse – was sometimes also part of their appeal. The key for Eric and Kim Miller was that the rugs which they acquired from the refugee camps outside Peshawar had been made under better conditions as part of an aid program. Eric Miller was attracted by how the small mats made by the children combined the military and the domestic – their ‘vibrant depictions of Kalashnikov rifles, tanks, helicopters, land mines and bombs’ with ‘an occasional flower pot and tea service thrown in for added decoration’. Even though these mats would have been designed by adults, Miller looked on their imagery as an expression of ‘the children’s direct experience with war’.

As westerners responded to war rugs in these ways, refugees in Pakistan not only continued producing their established designs but also developed new imagery in response to the Soviet withdrawal. The most popular type of new rug celebrated Moscow’s defeat. While some showed Soviet tanks leaving along two roads coming out of the north of a map of Afghanistan, most showed one road, identifiable as the Salang highway, which was the Soviets’ main route of retreat. These rugs were the first to include extensive, usually misspelled English text – a clear indication of their expected market. A typical text ran ‘Russian Aggressors Final Defeat’; another was ‘Afghanistan Mudjahideen Long Life’.

The market for these rugs – and their promotion by rug dealers in both Europe and the United States – remained strong through 1990. One London dealer took out a full-page advertisement in the glossy international rug journal, Hali, to promote his stock of war rugs. A Californian dealer similarly used the Oriental Rug Review to announce that he had received ‘a shipment of these highly popular rugs’. In Connecticut Joyce Ware was frustrated to find that the quality of the rugs accessible to her in the eastern United States had fallen so that she primarily saw either poorly constructed mats from the refugee camps or rugs with such similar designs that it looked as if they came from an assembly line. Since Ware could not find enough rugs that she thought worth stocking, she had ‘a waiting list of disappointed buyers’.

War rugs were so chic in this period that they were even taken up by Liberty, the fashionable retailer on London’s Regent Street that promoted itself as being at the forefront of contemporary design. As part of a double-page spread in Good Housekeeping in May 1990, Liberty made much of how its rug-buyers did not simply frequent air-conditioned dealing rooms in Hong Kong or importers’ warehouses in England but sought out ‘the rare, the eccentric, the authentic’. These rugs included a ‘collection of carpets from the battle-scarred Afghan hills incorporating typical local sights – Russian tanks and helicopters’. One accompanying illustration showed mujahideen with their guns. The other was a war rug. Although the advertisement did not say so explicitly, the mujahideen’s triumph over the Soviets and their characterization by President Reagan as ‘freedom fighters’ made these carpets ideal ‘Liberty Rugs’.

Woven History, an exhibition at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney in 1990, was probably the first in any country to place a small selection of these rugs within the long tradition of carpets that depict great historical figures and events. The State Librarian, Alison Crook, initiated this exhibition after she visited Cadry’s one day to buy a kilim and noticed a rug containing a double portrait of Vladimir Lenin and Nariman Narimanov, a Bolshevik leader in Azerbaijan. When Crook discovered that Jacques Cadry had a collection of pictorial rugs dating mostly from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which had never been exhibited together, she arranged for the Library to show this collection and Cadry’s included six war rugs as the latest manifestation of this pictorial tradition. One of them, a Kalashnikov mat, achieved unprecedented prominence when the monthly Sydney Review put it on its cover.

Yet within two or three years this interest had plummeted in most countries. While some war rugs continued to be made in Pakistan by refugees – increasingly, it seems, by men rather than by women – it soon became a commonplace that weavers who had made them were returning to traditional designs. Most rug dealers, whether in Pakistan, Europe, the United States or Australia, came to regard war rugs not so much as novelties but as oddities which at best might be a peripheral part of their business. As a result, many dealers did not bother to stock these rugs, while others kept a few but made little of them. Art dealers and collectors generally ignored them. The few articles about them in English were often negative. One contributor to the Oriental Rug Review dismissed them as a ‘degenerative design export product’.

This loss of interest was just part of the broader neglect of Afghanistan – especially by the United States. The turning-point was the fall of Mohammad Najibullah, the president of Afghanistan installed by Moscow in 1986 who defied all expectations by remaining in power well after the Soviets withdrew. Once the mujahideen finally ousted Najibullah in 1992, the United States abandoned Afghanistan and stopped its aid. As Robert Oakley, a former American ambassador to Pakistan observed in 1994, the political future of Afghanistan was ‘no longer of interest to the United States’. The international media typically ignored Afghanistan until 1998 when Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda group attacked the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the Clinton administration responded by attacking al-Qaeda’s camps in Afghanistan with cruise missiles.

The one country to continue to take war rugs seriously after Najibullah fell was Germany, the main European centre of the Afghan rug trade. While exhibitions of war rugs elsewhere dwindled, the first museum exhibitions devoted to war rugs were staged in Germany accompanied by the first catalogues about them. In 1993 the Heidelberg Ethnographic Museum showed the collection of Saladin, a rug dealer in the neighbouring small town of Wiesloch. In 1994 the Ethnographic Museum in Freiburg in Breisgau exhibited the collection of another dealer, Masoud Farhatyar. In 2000 the Ethnographic Museum in Munich showed a private collection assembled by Hans Werner Mohm. In 2001 this exhibition travelled to the Linden Ethnographic Museum in Stuttgart.

Yet war rugs retained the capacity to excite new audiences in other countries as the art dealer, Ray Hughes, demonstrated in Sydney. His enthusiasm for these rugs was part of a taste for tribal art, which started in the 1960s when he saw New Guinea masks and tapa cloths in Brisbane, but only became substantial in 1992 when he went to west Africa for the first time. Hughes’ main acquisitions on this trip were medicine and barber shop signs from the Ivory Coast which he exhibited in his gallery after returning to Australia early in 1993, but he also returned with a small number of embroidered hats commemorating the first Gulf War from Kana in northern Nigeria which he kept for himself.

Hughes’ opportunity to secure war rugs came almost immediately through Richard Elliott, whose father Peter had already seen war rugs in the bazaar at Peshawar in 1983 and then bought several on another visit. When Richard Elliott decided to visit Pakistan in 1993, he talked to Hughes who had already read about war rugs in a Trans-World Airlines in-flight magazine and seen them at Cadry’s exhibition at the State Library in Sydney. While Elliott bought a few rugs in Islamabad, he acquired most in Peshawar, where several dealers in the bazaar had war rugs though many had none. Much like Joyce Ware in 1989, Elliott was struck by their variety. In all, he probably looked at two hundred war rugs ranging from small mats to large carpets, saw at most three or four versions of any one design and returned to Sydney with thirty-six rugs.

When Hughes exhibited these rugs at his gallery in mid-1993 – at the same time as a show of the work of the contemporary New Zealand artist, Jeff Thomson – every rug sold to a typical mix of the collectors, artists, art historians and curators who frequented Hughes’ shows. Many would-be collectors were also disappointed to discover these rugs too late. So Elliott made another trip to Pakistan later in the year only to find that war rugs were much scarcer in Peshawar as part of the larger decline in their production. In all he probably saw only about one hundred rugs and bought about fifty – some of which he sold himself, while Hughes sold the rest without bothering to mount a formal exhibition as demand for them was so great.

The juxtaposition of war rugs with contemporary western art started in Europe a few years later. The key figure was Michael Aubry, a French artist whose own work has often concerned military clothing and camouflage. In 1997 he collaborated with the anthropologist Remo Guidieri, on Symetrie de guerre – a book that combined war rugs with Aubry’s own art. In 2000 the Biennale of Contemporary Art in Lyon included some of these rugs and one of Aubry’s own animations in Sharing Exoticisms, an examination of the relationship of non-western and western contemporary art. In 2001 the Beyeler Foundation in Basel similarly included war rugs in Ornament and Abstraction which explored the relationship between oriental ornamentation and western abstraction.

The events of 11 September 2001 and their aftermath have transformed war rugs yet again not only because of the ousting of the Taliban but also because Afghanistan has returned, however temporarily, as a focus of global attention. The greatest demand for these rugs, probably for the first time, is in Kabul. The American soldiers and members of the International Security and Assistance Force, journalists and aid workers now in the city are a much richer market than Soviet soldiers ever were.

Yet demand for these rugs is far from confined to Afghanistan. It also has been stimulated and met by exhibitions staged by dealers and collectors in Europe, the United States and Australia and by the internet which has allowed dealers to reach audiences that would never come into their shops and collectors to see rugs that they never could find where they live. While many dealers include war rugs on their own sites, the greatest range of rugs is available on eBay where the vendors come from Pakistan, the United States, England and Germany and the carpets range from ‘semi-antiques’ from the 1980s to new rugs.

These new rugs are not only being made in Pakistan but also in Afghanistan – especially in towns to the north. Whereas some rugs from the 1980s and 1990s carried writing which identified them as being made in refugee camps in Pakistan, the text of some of the new rugs identifies them as coming from Shiberghan, the provincial capital of Jawjan, while others announce that they are made by Turkmen. Although still hand made, the workmanship and materials of many of these rugs are poor and they are also more than ever the stuff of mass production, so that the same designs are being produced in great numbers with only minor variations.

Many of these new rugs made since 2001 show the attacks on the World Trade Center. Some simply depict the Twin Towers – 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. Yet most of these rugs also depict the response of the United States by showing an American aircraft carrier sending a warplane and a missile into Afghanistan, which is characteristically represented as a map. These rugs also suggest that the United States has brought peace to Afghanistan by showing the American and Afghan flags linked by a dove.

Another type of rug is headed ‘War against Terror’. These rugs refer to September 11 only through acronymns – ‘WTC’ for World Trade Center, ‘NYPD’ for New York Police Department and ‘FDNY’ for Fire Department of New York. They also include a map in which Tora Bora – the mountain range near Jelalebad that has become a metaphor for America’s hunt for al-Qaeda – is prominent. But they are primarily devoted to weaponry. Whereas earlier war rugs were filled with Soviet tanks and helicopters, these rugs celebrate America’s wealth of materiel ranging from spy planes to M16 rifles. These rugs also display little of the traditional symmetry and balance – the ordered rows and columns – which characterised the first designs.

The viewpoint of most of these rugs is equally novel. Instead of expressing their makers’ sentiments in the manner of the rugs celebrating the mujahideen’s victory of the Soviets, these rugs express the views of their expected American purchasers. So these rugs do not say ‘Afghans liberated from Taliban’ – a sentiment many of the carpet-makers may hold – but ‘Afghans liberated from Terrorists’. In similar fashion, they celebrate not the ‘Rout of the Taliban with the Help of America and Britain’ but the ‘Rout of Terrorism with Help of America and Britain’. Far from wishing long life to members of the Northern Alliance, they exclaim ‘Long Live US Soldiers’.

The dealers who sell these rugs in Kabul appear, at best, to have very mixed regard for them. In early 2003 when a journalist with Agence France-Presse visited Chicken Street – the city’s main tourist strip, where one can buy Coca-Cola and club sandwiches between looking at rugs and antiques – the most enthusiastic dealer maintained, ‘These carpets don’t glorify war, they reflect an end to it.’ Another dealer declared dismissively, ‘Afghans don’t buy this stuff. Mainly the military guys do’. A third reflected, ‘It’s the idea of war and weapons, things to kill Afghans. You can’t feel good with all these symbols of death here, I don’t like any of it.’

The response of Americans has been much more enthusiastic as they have recognized the politics of these rugs as their own. According to a soldier on the staff of General Tommy Franks, the American commander bought one hundred ‘War against Terror’ rugs when he visited Afghanistan and Pakistan in mid-2002. Franks gave several of these rugs to his fellow generals on the CENTCOM battle staff. He allowed members of his personal staff to buy some of these rugs – an opportunity this soldier used to turn a quick profit by buying three which he promptly sold on eBay. Franks kept the remainder for use as official gifts.

Yet not all the new rugs have satisfied the American market. When the American dealer, Ron O’Callaghan, first received a pair of World Trade Center rugs in 2002 – the first showing the American Airlines flight approaching Tower One; the second showing the immediate aftermath of its impact – he rejected them. The reason, it seems, was that these rugs showed the destruction of the World Trade Centre unlike most American memorabilia which shows the Twin Towers intact. As O’Callaghan explained it, these rugs ‘brought it all back and it was just too much’. O’Callaghan told his supplier that he ‘didn’t want to see any more like those.

The text on some of the new mats being produced in northern Afghanistan is also written as if these rugs were intended for a local, as well as a foreign audience. While these rugs celebrate the American role in the war, they also recognize that the Northern Alliance was a key actor in it. Underneath the flags of the United States and Afghanistan and the dove of peace, they explain: ‘For Bringing Peace in Afghanistan Your Local Leaders Became Union with the American Army’. The first ‘2002’ mat sold on the internet was even more exceptional in its politics. It did not side with either the Americans or al-Qaeda, the Northern Alliance or the Taliban, and contained nothing about terrorism, liberation or freedom. Instead it expressed a universal sentiment. It was dominated by a single word, ‘Scared’.

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