Archive for September, 2011

on interpreting the 9/11 commemorative carpets

September 10, 2011

The most controversial and confronting of the many categories of Afghan “war carpets” made since the Soviet invasion in 1979 were those which first appeared in early 2002 and which memorialized the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Hundreds, maybe thousands of these small mats were made out of poor quality materials, reportedly produced in the regions to the north of Kabul, by the anti-Taliban Esari Turkomans. They were made in an attempt to cash in on the anticipated numbers of foreigners appearing in Afghanistan in the wake of Operation Enduring Freedom and the NATO-led ISAF operations, which began to impact on Afghan society from November 2001 onwards.

The original version of this carpet was so precise that it could have been designed on Photoshop. (It probably was.) These mats were made by hand, each probably taking three or four weeks on a loom with continuous cotton wefts. The weaver would finish one, roll down six inches, and start the next one, in what was probably the most exploitative of circumstances. In 2007 there were still similar examples on Chicken Street which had not yet been cut apart, and at first glance it was hard to believe they were not the product of some kind of mechanical reproduction. They are in fact still woven by hand, in the laborious pixel-by-pixel knotted pile method, as have oriental carpets for thousands of years.

This is the archetype of a 21st century souvenir artefact. Before they were to be found in rug stores in the west, in early 2002 they had already appeared on eBay, at premium prices, marketed by online dealers based in Pakistan. When the market realised how many had been produced, the price plummeted, and within a year they could be bought for the (inflated) price of shipping plus a dollar.  However once they appeared in the flea markets of New York, a controversy arose which raged around their motivation or intent.

While objectively their iconography had been designed to appeal to the west, ostensibly to recognize and memorialise the horror of the act and the heroism of the survivors, for some the sense of communal grief was so strong that they could not be seen as other than opportunistic and exploitative. Despite the fact that they sold well, and had attracted significant publicity, the dealer who first sold them came under virulent and threatening criticism from a range of political positions.

Here’s how you read the war carpet in its original form:

• The twin towers of the World Trade Centre are depicted in quite precise isometric perspective, with the impacts of the two airliners, left and right, just as they had been seen around the world on television and other media.

• The date and the flight details of the two airliners are also precisely written in English (“first impact”, “second impact”).

• The towers are montaged over the map of Afghanistan, colored green, the sacred color of Islam. The foreground band of the montage is derived from a US-produced propaganda leaflet, showing the two flags of the USA and Afghanistan united by the (usually white) dove of peace.

• USA is written vertically between the base of the towers, just above the obliquely rendered deck of one of the US aircraft supercarriers involved in Operation Enduring Freedom. The carrier showes fighter planes taking off, plus a Tomahawk missile rising up on the right hand side of the field. The missile is headed, presumably, for Tora Bora or the other sites targeted as al-Qaeda strongholds.

• The letters USA are repeated on the deck of the carrier. The first generation of these rugs (the most precisely-rendered versions) also included the headline “11ST SEPTEMBER 2001 ATTACK ON AMERICA IN [N]EW YORK” or “THE TERRORISM WAR IN AMERICA” or “THE TERRORS WERE IN AMERICA” and “AFGHANISTAN”. Thus the language, format, and iconography are all designed to appeal sympathetically to a foreign audience.

Eight years later another version of the carpet appeared, now held in a private collection in Montreal. Such is the nature of the manual reproduction of Afghan carpets that a carpet is often copied from another, and the process repeated, over and over again. In this process images change, are simplified, and morph into new forms. The people (often children) who make the twentieth (or hundredth) copy of a design are therefore likely to have no idea of the significance of the iconography or motifs they are laboriously reproducing.

In this case we see the culmination of a process of progressive abstraction, where the individual anonymous maker has clearly lost contact with almost all of the significant references made by the original design. Generations of reproduction produced by copying from previous copies has resulted in an almost incomprehensible outcome – with three towers, missiles proliferating as a row of flower-shaped forms, helicopters flying upside down, text disintegrating.

This is, in a sense, tradition in action. Forms and motifs have now dissolved into pattern. The tradition has reverted to its norm.

Nigel Lendon is an artist, curator, historian and cultural critic at the Australian National University. Together with Tim Bonyhady he holds an Australian Research Council grant to research the tradition of Afghan war carpets. He authors two blogs, Iconophilia ( and Rugs of War ( Further information on the Afghan war carpet tradition may be found at the site for Max Allen’s Battleground exhibition at the Textile Museum of Canada  ( and at Kevin Sudeith’s (

(An earlier version of this post was originally written for BagNews Notes as “How to read a war carpet”. And if you want to see how these works are liable to misinterpretation, go here.)

PS. I have never seen anything like this made as a carpet: 7 October 2001 (Reuters/Zahid Hussein)

From The Monthly Sept 2011

The Cosmorama Carpet

September 6, 2011

Atlas carpets (variously called World Political Map, or World Map, or Map of the World, or Mappa Mundi) are a recurrent theme on this site.

While there are deep precedents for such designs, (for example, the Early 19th century antique Bakhtiari carpet illustrated at the bottom of this post), during the past forty years we have seen numerous new innovative forms emerge within the Afghan and Iranian carpet-making traditions, including those with maps as the primary motif.

This example, the Cosmorama carpet, made by the Master H. Ghodrati, of Maragheh in northwestern Iran, was seen in the handicrafts section of The Anthropology Museum, in the Niavaran Palace Complex – the ex-Shah’s summer palace, at Sadabad, on the northern edge of Tehran, in 2007. As you see, it is simply dated “contemporary”. However, if we interpret the time-line revealed by the changing names of countries depicted, we see that The Soviet Union is still intact, as is Zaire. Therefore we can deduce that the printed atlas from which this carpet was copied was published some time between 1971 (the origin of Zaire) to 1992 (the formation of The Russian Federation). Of course that only tells us the terminus post quem, the earliest date after which it could have been made.

What this does demonstrate, however, is that the motif of the Map of the World is relatively widespread within the carpet-making traditions of Iran and Afghanistan during the period of innovative designs from the 1970s – which of course includes war carpets from the early 1980s. And if the atlas describes itself (as is common in the title text-block) as The World Political Map, it doesn’t mean that there is some political motive at play…

And whether or not this Bakhtiari is “early 19th century”, it demonstrates that the tradition goes back a long way…

This carpet (Early 19th century antique Bakhtiari) is illustrated in Eric Aschenbrenner, Iranian Town and Village Carpets and Rugs, 1981-2005, Yassavoli Publications, Tehran, p115.

where do atlas carpets come from?

September 1, 2011

The early 1990s saw a rash of carpets depicting the map of the world – some of which are framed by militaria, some of which include military paraphernalia within the cartographic space. Some, such as this example, remain close to their origins.

In conventional histories of European avant-garde art the Italian arte povera artist Alighiero e Boetti (and here) has often been credited with having triggered the contemporaneous production of Afghan carpets depicting the world map, and even the war carpet genre of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Boetti’s work first came into prominence following the showing of one of his first two Mappa del Mondo (maps of the world) embroideries illustrated in the 1972 Kassel Documenta 5 catalogue, which was curated by Harald Szeemann. Boetti’s work, exhibited in the section titled Individual Mythologies, was (so the story goes) produced in Afghanistan by a team of women from an “embroidery school” in Kabul.

Various recent published accounts (notably that by Luca Cerizza: Alighiero e Boetti: Mappa. Afterall Books, London, 2008) assume that the virtual industry established by Boetti, when the designs for his world maps and his later imagery were outsourced to as many as 500 women embroiderers, first in Kabul, and later in the Afghan refugee camps of Peshawar and surrounding districts, was the stimulus for other forms of innovation – in carpet-making. In reality there is but a single point of coincidence. Just as Boetti’s first coloured-in cartoon of flags drawn in biro on a school wall atlas, (Planisfero politico, 1969) was the design for his first Mappa, so the myriad other printed precedents, both in school rooms in Afghanistan, and in libraries and on walls the world over, have in turn served as the model for images such as this extraordinary example we saw on Tanna last week. No atlas carpets embody any of the Boetti trademark motifs. To the contrary, they are full of their atlas origins.

When you translate the text in carpets such as this you reveal a number of things: In the example above the old Soviet Union is identified as both the “Socialist Soviet Unions of Russia” and the “Federative (sic) Republic of Russia”. Given that the USSR became The Russian Federation in 1991, this would seem to provide a terminus ante quem – the date before which the atlas (and therefore the carpet) could not have been made.

To further bracket the date of the original atlas (from which the carpet was copied) the country of Zaire (which existed from 1971 to 1997) is to be found in a disproportionately small patch of territory in central Africa titled “Zir” – to the east of “Congo” (which is the Republic of the Congo). And so we can deduce that the “cartoon atlas” from which this carpet was made dates from between 1992 to 1997 – the only period in which both Zaire and the FRR coexisted.

And this example also demonstrates, at least in this instance, that the atlas carpets of the 1990s derive from the kind of atlas/poster found in schools – the translation of the text blocks reads: “The Political Map of the World” “The Map no. 14 (or 140)” and in the right hand box such words as: “Guide, Capital, International border, Centre of State, Border of State, Important City, and Main Path”. In the addition international time zones are indicated by the rows of clock faces above and below. Pure atlas. Thanks to MR for the translation.