Battleground review

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VISUAL ARTS: BATTLEGROUND: WAR RUGS FROM AFGHANISTAN
Artists are weaving beauty in a world of nightmares
The daily reality of Afghanistan is showcased in a startling show, R.M. Vaughan writes
R.M. VAUGHAN  (GLOBE AND MAIL)

May 3, 2008

When was the last time you read the words “Afghanistan” and “beauty” in the same sentence? Perhaps never?

As long as I’ve been conscious of world events, Afghanistan has been at war. An entire generation has grown up in the country knowing nothing but militarism, gun, grenades and tanks. When considering such a place, and the people living under such conditions, talking about art or beauty seems almost decadent, even irresponsible. One may suspect that the creative impulse itself has been hijacked by the endless fighting, that now, war-making is the national art form. But one would be wrong.

If nothing else, Battleground – the Textile Museum of Canada’s new exhibition of so-called “war rugs” from Afghanistan – proves that self-expression is as vital to survival as food and water. People will always make things of beauty, no matter how awful the world around them.

It’s a hoary old cliché that art comes from unhappiness, or, even worse, that it is a form of therapy. But since I have never been to Afghanistan (nor have I ever lived in the middle of a war zone), I can only guess why people in Afghanistan have chosen to reflect their reality through these bluntly gorgeous rugs. And my guess is that sometimes it’s a relief to replicate your world, however unattractive – because by replicating what is all around you, you can, for a short time and in a small (and, yes, illusory) way, control the horror. When surrounded by carnage, people draw monsters.

The depictions of conflict culture on display in Battleground’s 118 rugs vary in style from a rugged, crude realism to near-pure abstraction, to a jittery Pop Art take. The stunning selection includes works that resemble the pixilated, boxy look of early video games and works that are closer in style to the hyper-realism of contemporary digital imagery. Conversely, a handful of the works are almost indistinguishable from the Oriental rugs readily available in department stores – long swaths of arabesque patterns and abstracted flute and feather forms, all intertwined like puzzle pieces – except when you look very closely and see that in between the pretty curls, tiny images of grenades and bullets lie in wait.

And, while almost all of the rugs employ the “walled garden” format typical of rugs made across the Middle East – a rectangular border frames decorative patterns or images – the contents of the “garden” include everything from knotted versions of bug-like fighter planes, jagged guns, maimed soldiers and bullet-shaped armed vehicles, to iconic political and religious figures, to now ruined historical sites, to nightmarish mythological animals.

According to Battleground curator Max Allen (a long-time collector of war rugs, among many other textile works), rugs depicting Western military imagery did not exist in Afghanistan until after the 1979 Soviet invasion.

“While many textiles across the world contain conflict images, from this part of the world, no previous examples exist of representations of large-scale mechanical war artillery.

“Why? Well, if you want to know the answer, go stand by the paramedic landing pad [on the roof of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children] when the ambulance helicopters land – they’re only half the size of military helicopters, and make half the noise, but it sounds like the end of the world. A lot of Soviet helicopters, at least 300 of them, were shot down by Afghan fighters, thus littering the landscape with war machinery, that, before the Soviet invasion, had never been seen. The Afghans’ own military hardware was quite minimal by comparison. The Russian invasion gave the weavers new visual material, and the horrible noise created by the machines made a terrible impression.”

Despite the abundance of war rugs currently on the market (a quick eBay search turns up hundreds of samples), Allen says that very little is known about the actual weavers.

“There is not a single photograph in existence (that any of us know about) that shows a war rug being woven. My friend Nigel Lendon at the Australian National University was in Afghanistan last summer researching war rugs. He managed to find a few, but no weavers and no information about them. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true.”

The frustrations of scholars aside, there are enough dazzling examples of craftsmanship, eye-grabbing design and delirious, resonant colour combinations (scarlet against creamy yellow, ochre on midnight black, chocolate dotted with sapphire blue) to almost permit the viewer to forget they are looking at pretty pictures of Kalashnikov rifles and land-mine victims with their legs blown off. Beauty and evil, decoration and shock, play against each other as one wanders from gallery to gallery, creating an uneasy yet seductive tension.

Which leads back to the myriad of ethical questions the viewer must confront once the initial wonder dissipates. Do these works propagandize violence, or merely record it? Who are the images and messages in the rugs for – an Afghan audience or the guilt-ridden Western buyer? And, if the latter, does the ambiguous treatment of conflict in most of the rugs (few of the works collected here make outright calls for peace, but equally few can be regarded as battle cries) leave the Western viewer in the ugly position of voyeur?

Furthermore, would we apply similar ethical dilemmas to other exhibitions of art, or do we do so in this case because we in the West are implicated in the continuing violence, and/or because Afghanistan is topical? And, finally, do these questions ever apply to art? Nobody, after all, wonders whether it is ethical to gaze adoringly at Goya’s war paintings.

Allen offers this poignant observation about the moral perils of enjoying the rugs.

“The show does hear directly from the people who make the rugs: The rugs are here, and what could be more eloquent? In other kinds of exhibitions in museums and galleries, we ‘hear’ mostly from the artists through their art. I’m pretty sure there’s not just one story that would be told by all the weavers, but many.”

In other words, the rugs, with their nuanced displays of remorse and triumph, disgust and pride, of a yearning for peace tainted by celebrations of military heroism, perform a function the Western media generally has not: They give rich voice to the civilian population enduring the war, the people whom the endless battles and parades of champions can only allege to represent.

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