Of the hundred or so Afghan War Rugs in I have seen in Australian collections, this is the one that is most characteristically “Baluch”, that is, identifiable as the work of the nomadic peoples most often associated with the war rug tradition. It’s an important identification to be making, for there is a real identity crisis among the rugs of the war era in terms of conventional modes of identification.
In the rug world, identifying styles and subject matter by the ethnic origins of its makers and speculations about its place of manufacture are the terms in which “authenticity” is argued. And yet, as anthropologist Brian Spooner reminds us*, such matters are highly speculative and dependent on the lore of the dealer, transmitted through many interpretations along the path from maker to its ultimate buyer.
However, as I have argued elsewhere (including in this catalogue essay) in the era of war, occupation, internal conflict, fundamentalism and anarchy, the nomadic peoples who were the makers of “Baluch” rugs left Afghanistan for Iran and Pakistan, and after two decades we see an incredibly unpredictable diasporic tradition, producing new forms, new content, and using whatever materials are available in their new locations and conditions as political and culturally displaced communities.
In this context rugs like the one shown here (difficult to photograph due to its size) are important benchmarks because they reach backwards and forwards in time. This rug is the favourite of my local Afghan rug dealer because the colours, materials and style of decoration are closest to the Baluch tradition, while its content and imagery speak about the experiences and threats of war.
For these reasons it sits in the middle of the tradition, and I would speculate that it is datable to the late eighties, on the basis of its size and materials, suggesting that it was made in a relatively stable context where the makers were still in contact with the sources of traditional materials and dyes. Hence the qualities so admired amongst pre-war Baluchi rugs – the variations in weave, the abrash which activates the blue sky, its surface qualities and handle.
We have not yet identified the city it represents, and there is no text to help us, and indeed the elements of such cityscapes may be highly abstracted, representing an idealised world (perhaps already lost) invaded by the apparatus of war.
* The text of Spooner’s article ‘Weavers and Dealers: The Authenticity of an Oriental Carpet’, in Arjun Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986) is not available online.