Max Allen reviews Enrico Mascelloni: Beyond the West

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We are pleased to publish the following review of Oltre l’Occidente – Rappresentazioni estreme nei tessuti orientali (2006), which has been the subject of earlier discussions on Rugs of War. Max Allen is the founding curator of the Textile Museum of Canada where, since 1975, he has curated more than 100 textile exhibitions. His review follows:

Exhibition catalogues are sometimes works of scholarship. This one isn’t. Instead it is a work of narrative imagination and polemics, and as such it is a far more striking object than most of the textiles within it. Aside from the fact that everything is from “The East” – as if that meant anything – there is no coherence to the collection, nor any discernible reason for assembling it.

In his foreword, the Cultural and Tourism Activities Councillor of Todi says the exhibition has a “humane and political significance that exceeds ideology and embraces the great themes of peace and respect for a multiracial society, with the sole intention of constructing and sustaining a better world.” Enrico Mascelloni says that the “unusual artworks” he has included in the show are “to a large extent literally unseen outside their own context and have been chosen with a single criterion in mind: they are open to a variety of issues and do not avoid controversy.” The Italian reads: “Le strane opere che seguono (in gran parte letteralmente “mai viste” al di fuori del proprio ambito) sono state scelte con un solo criterio, si aprono a molteplici questioni e non eludono qualche polemica.”

The text is presented in both Italian and English, which is a bonus, although the translation is often ungraceful and occasionally incomprehensible. The text references are presented without footnotes, and the bibliography reveals how limited the author’s research has been. There are also 20 touristic photographs, uncredited, that bear little relation to the text. The photography of the textiles is flat and lifeless; the printing is good and the binding is stitched so the book opens well and lies flat. Best of all, the dates and cities of acquisition of the textiles, and sometimes even the names of the dealers, are given. This is useful information that is rarely divulged. But it is not revealed to whom these textiles belong. Museums? Collectors? The author(s) of the catalogue?

Advance publicity for the exhibition said that 90 pieces would be shown; there are 69 in the catalogue. Of these, 13 are “rugs with armaments,” 5 are “world rugs” with maps, and 7 are figurative rugs of various kinds from various places. In addition there are 44 other erratically-dated textiles ranging from camel trappings to floor felts. Why these were included is unclear. Neither “extreme” nor “representational,” they are for the most part pedestrian examples of ordinary textiles from Central Asia, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan. There is also a flatwoven rug (#25) from Daghestan with this annotation: “On an open field of dark blue, without minor decorations, complex, isolated and main figures appear; their repetition amplifying their strength. It is evident that they were not simply generated by a combination of pleasing geometrical patterns, but the sense of the image remains a mystery; a figure to view and review, rather than to interpret.”

That last sentence sums up the overall approach: Here are some pretty – or not so pretty – things from The Mysterious East and you can make of them whatever you wish. In addition to this kind of postmodern dismissal of objective fact and intentionality, the book is littered with exotic bafflegab like: “Kilims were…the only admissible pubic [sic] evidence of the virtue of the women in the (nomadic) family. Objects made to live with forever, for someone to use in play, objects that were invited to linger in aesthetic spaces, coordinated according to undiscovered rules, alluring doors to another reality that turns the hard disorder of the camp and the surrounding steppe into a livable cosmos.”

Five people contributed to the text: Enrico Mascelloni and Graziano Marini who wrote the main essay called “Extreme Representations,” Alessandro Fantò who has a good knowledge of textiles, Valentina Pannacci and Mirna Santucci. No information is given about the authors themselves – for example, what their credentials might be. Mr. Marcelloni is apparently a freelance curator specializing in oddball phenomena like “Romantic Punk Shamanism” and exhibitions of, for example, war rugs in unusual places like the Gilda Discotheque in Rome.

There is no hint what the “extreme representations” of the title of this catalogue might mean. I guess the idea is that “we” make paintings and “they” make flat things that are sometimes about the size of paintings, but aren’t. Some of these flat things are colourful, some aren’t. Some have pictures on them, some don’t. Many are made of wool, by women. That’s about it.

The 13 war rugs are familiar types: vertical columns of tanks and helicopters, often bordered by cars, a couple of rifle rugs, and two rugs that show a map of Afghanistan, in one case surrounded by weaponry, and in the other case with tanks and helicopters above the map and a caravan, presumably of refugees, below. Rugs like the latter two usually feature Najibullah in the centre as a Russian puppet. But in these two rugs Najibullah has been replaced by a Kalashnikov resting, according to Marcelloni, “on a pedestal of stars and stripes.” This “pedestal” is actually Uncle Sam’s hat, here depicted as a cornucopia of weapons. This is a sophisticated graphic commentary – which Marcelloni has missed – on the avalanche of weapons the United States sent to Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, an avalanche that continues today. Mascelloni also remarks about the “poor quality” of these rugs which indicates “the use of totally unskilled manual labor.” In my experience rugs like these – judging from the photographs in the catalogue and comparing them to ones I have handled – are very well made indeed.

Mascelloni writes that “the Afghan wars of the last thirty years are insufficient to explain the origins of the war rugs, which grow and propagate on the margins of the conflict itself (Peshawar, Quetta…) but on closer inspection turn out to predate the same war.” He asserts that the war rugs – and the impulse to make them as a kind of symptom of his “nightmare of modernism” – came well before the Soviet invasion. With respect to the Afghan war rugs, there is no solid evidence for this, in this book or elsewhere.

Mascelloni says he heard about early dates for some of the war rugs from the “old dealers” in the bazaars. Ah yes, the old dealers, world-famous for their candor. Never has one ever, ever been known to invent a story to dazzle the customer. If they say a rug is old, it’s old. If they say it was made in 1235 AD, then that’s when it was made – and no, those aren’t chemical dyes, they’re brilliant hues distilled from the tongues of nightingales. If they say this unsightly rip in the middle of the rug is from a swordfight the Khan had with his infidel cousin in order to protect the virginity of his mother, then who could possibly doubt it? But Mascelloni himself knows better. “In reality the merchants of Peshawar are capable of the most refined inventions, their intuition in entering into the most unexplored meanders of the psychology of their client has not been equalled neither in Vienna nor in Naples,” he said in a 2001 catalogue Afghanistan: Tappeti di guerra Tappeti del mondo (2001). He might have been talking about himself.

Mascelloni has been all over Central Asia and adjoining lands, shopping, but he certainly wasn’t doing in-depth research. What he says about the war rugs – except for the idea that they predate the war – has been said by others, although his bibliography is very skimpy. He never reports talking to a weaver or seeing a war rug woven. (But then, neither has anyone else, with the partial exception of Ariel Zeitlin Cooke, who got her information second-hand.)

I don’t want to give the impression that Mascelloni’s catalogue is simply tiresome. The exuberance of his baroque and inventive narrative is often fun to read. For example: “A recent though relative proliferation of rugs with tanks and cars (in Peshawar) as well as a relative lowering of the quality suggest a new production based on an old one. The active interest of some foreign dealer and the exhaustion of residual supplies is enough to re-launch a beautiful and buried typology. The bazaars, like amplifiers, send out the long and magnified echo of a purchase, till it triggers a new production of objects in the interests of the so-called ‘extremely rich Western dealers’. The bazaar is a place that constantly generates myths; the greatest of these is the mythological foreign dealer (or collector) who buys up samples, warehouses and even entire villages with an insatiable voracity that even convinces commissioning agents from distant bazaars to order large stocks of the last (supposed) purchase.”

He shows what he calls a modernist rug (catalogue #51) that he bought in Herat in 2006, which he dates to the 1970s. It is a common type, widely available on eBay, that depicts a cityscape woven sideways with cars and tall buildings and perhaps aircraft or missiles in the sky. He claims his early dating is “plausible” because “associations with modernist rugs are evident in the entire group.” By modernist rugs he means twentieth century propaganda rugs apparently from Khotan and Inner Mongolia that show industrial workers, portraits of Chiang Kai-shek, Mao, etc. Who knows, maybe some of the Afghan cityscape rugs were made in the 1970s, although there are no contemporary reports, and Mascelloni doesn’t say what the connection between the Chinese and Afghan types – other than perhaps the zeitgeist – might be.

One of the five “world rugs” Mascelloni includes in the catalogue – and this one shows weapons as well as a map – is dated and has an inscription in Farsi, which like all of the Farsi texts in the catalogue, and the Chinese writing on the Chinese rugs, is not translated. Needing to show an early rug-with-weapons to support his notion of prewar war rugs (“my own research shifts the first rugs with weapons back to the 60’s and 70’s, when the war still seemed far-off”), Mascelloni suggests this 1990 rug could be dated, according to the Turkish (!) calendar, 1970. Unfortunately for this goofy theory, the Farsi inscription says the rug was made by Afghan immigrants in “the Islamic Republic of Iran” – which did not come into being until 1979 (as observed by Nigel Lendon and Tim Bonyhady in their blog rugsofwar).

About the world rugs and their possible precursors, he and co-author Sergio Poggianello repeat, in Afghanistan: Tappeti di guerra Tappeti del mondo, the often-repeated tale of the late Alighiero Boetti commissioning Afghan women to make map “rugs” (as everybody calls them). But they were embroideries, not rugs. Are any of Boetti’s “rugs” reproduced, anywhere, in sufficient detail to determine anything about the technique? No. Does anybody know anything about the makers, even where they worked? No, it’s just “Afghanistan.” Is there any concrete connection between Boetti’s concoctions and the war rugs? None that I know of.

But so what? Mascelloni is simply writing a kind of imaginary – and briskly anti-American – travelogue along the lines of Gulliver’s Travels. Fanciful speculation and hyperbole are the order of the day. “Afghanistan has the greatest concentration of textile traditions in the world,” he says. What about Japan? What about Indonesia? Facts about the war rugs, which are famously hard to come by, turn out to be irrelevant. “The predominately collective nature of the textile art form and its ability to spread via internal lines that are difficult to retrace frustrates those who are looking for linear and tested pathways,” he says. And so he just gives up and puts together this hodgepodge instead.

Books like this are liable to give war rug studies a bad name.

Enrico Mascelloni and Graziano Marini, Oltre l’Occidente – Rappresentazioni estreme nei tessuti orientali, the catalogue of an exhibition held 8 Dec 2006 – 4 Feb 2007 at the former nunnery of Lucrezia della Genga in Todi (Perugia). The 124-page paperback catalogue is distributed by Skira, but it has no ISBN nor is any price indicated.

The thread continues here.

5 Responses to “Max Allen reviews Enrico Mascelloni: Beyond the West”

  1. enrico mascelloni Says:

    from enrico mascelloni on max allen letter

    Healthy debate requires a variety of perspectives and not just a concern for judging ‘truth value’ statements and seeking errors. My work offers a challenging span of material from which to speculate about origins and motivation, and my upcoming book presents a new thesis on the subject. This publication was not presented as a clear comparison of existing ‘apples with apples’. The declared contention of the text and the main purpose of the exhibition, which deliberately includes disparate and relatively ‘ordinary’ artefacts, are to draw attention to the transference and transformation of cross-cultural and contemporary images. I consider such efforts to be another kind of scholarship, which lives in the field, where academic ‘certainties’ are not always clearly matched with pressing social realities.

    As an independent curator and geopolitical writer, I approach the issue of war rugs and the war in general from an entirely fresh angle, one that I consider to be rich in new and exciting possibilities. The West prefers to see itself as the protagonist in such exchanges. Actually, much is happening without its help or knowledge, in ways that are difficult to monitor, and much less predictable. The translation perfectly captured my metaphor and spirit of irony in the “pedestal” reference, and any mistakes in either text can be attributed to the same facetious devil which also caused the repeated misspelling of my name here: Marcelloni [sic].

    Afghanistan is a highly complex and largely invisible multicultural society, set within an even more complex and insidious conflict. The war rugs are not simply a cultural reaction to the Russian or any other invasion, they are a fascinating hybrid and the extent to which they generate discussion happily reminds me of Clemenceau’s famous statement, “War is too important to be left to generals.” As examples of conceptual/folk/tourist art, visual chronicles and critiques, the ghosts of contemporary imagery are worth pointing out. I might add that our very own Boetti also commissioned many ‘carpets’ and there is a long standing debate with Boetti fans who think his pieces were the original ‘world rugs’ and even the first ‘war rugs’; a laughable proposition for anyone who knows about the process of textile production in Afghanistan and its surrounds. It is not difficult for a specialist to find ‘proof’ to confirm his thesis. Of course, there is a world of difference between being against Bush’s war and being anti-American. In my texts I am even more critical of Russian and Pakistani policies, but Allen does not acknowledge this. Perhaps he is a philoamerican…specialist?

    Obviously, the exact chronology and provenance of specific rugs remains entirely unresolved and one must be mindful of regional practices, such as the Baluchi in Herat who often use “made in Iran” (hardly an omission) to facilitate sales in Mashad (where millions of tourist/pilgrims arrive, as opposed to Herat which sees the usual ISAF troops coming and going) after smuggling them to Iran.

    The textiles on display in Beyond the West: Extreme Representations were drawn from my own and other private collections, and include a range of items made by semi-nomadic people: Turkmen, Kazakh and Kirghiz, Uzbek, Baluch, Shahsevan, Bakhtiari, Kurds, Qashqai. I am interested in their cultural foundations and contemporary contexts; in the ways neighbouring territories appropriate techniques and aesthetics, and I have collected examples of textile art worldwide, from all time periods, for more than 25 years. Sadly, nomadism is vanishing and yet kinship is still a cultural ideal. If it were not for the energy, enthusiasm and investment of collectors, with an experiential understanding of ‘context’, armchair and ‘wandering’ scholars alike would have nothing to debate…

    While Max Allen is of course entitled to his opinions, my years of research and collecting ‘in situ’ represent a different perspective on a very complex set of aesthetic, cultural and political circumstances. In presenting to the public differing (and potentially opposing) perspectives in this field, the intent is to encourage a wider and deeper appreciation for complex phenomena rather than a homogenization of analysis.

    Enrico Mascelloni

  2. enrico mascelloni Says:

    may be the friends of the blog who didn’t read the letter of allen are interested to know the exibition “beyond the west” opened one week ago in the Castello di Otranto, a medioeval castle in the italian southern town of Otranto (until 4th september). Because some people (and political party) from the north of italy consider roma an african city, otranto could be considered a far east city or an asian city, even though finally max allen explained us “everything is from the east”. the closest aereoport is brindisi (200 km from otranto). the trip by train from roma is more or less 8 hours; by car is impossible to say because the summer traffic (during the week end is more easy to reach peshawar)
    the catalogue is avalaible by the well known publisher skira or by the less known acaservices (info@acaservices.it), the sponsor of the exhibition. the price should be euro 25, including an italian discount (oriental bargain isn’t permetted)

  3. enrico mascelloni Says:

    errata corrige of the former one:

    It may be the friends of the blog are interested to know the exhibition “Beyond the West” opened 22th june in the Castello di Otranto, a medieval castle in the Italian southern town of Otranto (until 10th september). Because some people (and political party) from the north of italy consider Roma an african city, Otranto could be considered a far east city or an asian city, even though finally Max Allen explained us “everything is from the east”. the closest aereoport is Brindisi (200 km from Otranto). the trip by train from Roma is more or less 9 hours; by car is impossible to say because the summer traffic (during the week end is more easy to reach Peshawar)
    the catalogue is available by the well known publisher Skira or by the less known acaservices (info@acaservices.it), the sponsor of the exhibition. the price is euro 25, including an italian discount (oriental bargain isn’t permitted)

  4. Nigel Lendon Says:

    Max Allen replies:

    I apologize for the devil who misspelled Mr. Mascelloni’s name. He was
    chased off the blog about 6 hours after he appeared.

    Mascelloni says the “declared contention of the text and the main
    purpose of the exhibition, which deliberately includes disparate and
    relatively ‘ordinary’ artefacts, are to draw attention to the
    transference and transformation of cross-cultural and contemporary
    images.”

    What an interesting idea. But there is no hint of the “transference and
    transformation of cross-cultural and contemporary images” in any part of
    the catalogue except for speculations about the war rugs and the Chinese
    propaganda rugs. What is the rest (that is, the majority) of the
    material in the catalogue for? How does it demonstrate the transference
    of cross-cultural and contemporary images (in those cases where there
    ARE images)?

    Mascelloni’s interest in the “cultural foundations and contemporary
    contexts” of semi-nomadic people is commendable. Some solid information
    on the subject, relating it to the textiles, would have been useful.
    Markets are not the best place to discover any kind of “truth” except
    what the dealers want to sell you.

  5. Janet Tyson Says:

    This is not a very well thought out response to the conversation so far. Although my degree is in art history, I probably am more of a critical theorist — due to lack of opportunity (due to being a wife and mother) to do original research in distant places than to lack of interest — than I am a historian. Therefore, I may be biased toward acceptance of the possibility of truths that do not necessarily rely on documented proof.
    That said, I, too, find unsettling the idea of accepting “truth” as it is declared in the marketplace. (Not just the marketplace in Kabul, but any marketplace!) So it occurs to me: why aren’t more researchers trying to find and interview weavers, to ask them about their influences and motivations? Someday, when my children are grown, I’d like to go to Afghanistan, enlist a translator and visit and interview weavers of rugs, men and women.
    As a post script, has anyone participating in Rugs of War read Brian Spooner’s essay, “Weavers and dealers: the authenticity of an oriental carpet”? It is in Arjun Appadurai’s 1986 book, “The social life of things”, which overall concerns the commodification of objects in various cultural settings. Spooner’s essay focuses on Turkoman textiles and on textile production in Afghanistan. Given the date of its publication, it mentions more or less in passing, the expanding war with the Soviet Union, putting it into a broader perspective of Russian and Soviet intrusions into Central Asia.
    If anyone is familiar with the text, I’d appreciate their assessment. I found it quite disturbing as it takes the phenomenon of weavers and dealers catering to the Western market to a disturbing degree — and that’s without having taken into consideration the proliferation of rugs in response to Ebay and other forms of online marketing!

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