One half of an imaginary conversation.


Imagine you are the head of a carpet-making family living in the province of Herat, in western Afghanistan. Since the late seventies your life has been continuously disrupted by political coups, uprisings, air raids, then a decade of occupation by Soviet forces, puppet dictatorships, civil war, the domination of the Taliban, their overthrow by foreign military coalition, and continuing political unrest. Despite all of this, your region in Afghanistan is one of the most peaceful.

During these forty years, your extended family has managed to eke out a living by making carpets. Most of these have been repeats of traditional patterns and designs, which you have traded both locally and across the borders in Iran and Pakistan. It is a precarious business. A large carpet might take your team of women and children six months to make. Your family business is founded on fine craftsmanship, and fine, colourful wools – even though the dyes are now all synthetic, and some of the colours are bolder than they were in the past. You invest a lot of your earnings in securing the raw material from which your rugs are made.

The women who manage your production pride themselves in the quality of their handiwork, and even though you are in charge of the overall design, your makers insert elaborate details to fill the empty spaces, and they take pride in the decorative flat-weave “skirts” at the top and bottom of the rug. These minor elements are like the anonymous makers’ “signature”, and they reveal the degree to which the makers may vary the overall design. Equally, the makers may insert pieces of text that both explain the design, and reflect their own perspective on the difficulties of their life circumstances.

From time to time during these years you have decided to break with tradition, and to design new rugs with an iconography that reflects the circumstances of war and conflict which you continue to experience. These “war rugs” have been produced by Afghan weavers since the early 80s, and sometimes they bring a much higher price than the traditional carpets of your region. Most often your rugs are sold to dealers who sell them on to others, and you have no idea of their final destination. Rarely, the very best of your carpets are bought by local officials who, recognising their political significance, use them to decorate their offices. However most of your carpets end up in the hands of foreigners.

That is how we might come to have a conversation like this. You speak to me through the medium of the carpet. Your visual rhetoric triggers my curiosity. I express my efforts to interpret the meaning of your work as a consequence of my background of looking at cross-cultural artefacts. When I encounter your “war carpets” I speak to my audience about what I have seen and discovered, both through looking at similar carpets elsewhere, and through conversations with friends and colleagues, both Afghan and foreign. I project my own habits and values through this process of interpretation, and through the expression of my half of this conversation.

Many carpets of this kind are covered with texts, mostly written in Dari, the most common indigenous language. However many of your makers do not have the high degree of literacy required to weave the texts accurately, and so many of the place names on the maps are hard to read. Despite the fact that your main market is the world outside Afghanistan – the world depicted by your world map – you retain your local language in the same manner as the printed atlas that appears in books and classrooms throughout Afghanistan. This has the effect of maintaining a barrier between insiders and outsiders. While this poses problems for those who see your carpets in other countries – and map rugs do exist where the texts have been translated into English – the Dari language makes demands on your viewers that confirms the work’s integrity.

Often, these “conflict carpets” are made by copying the rugs that have been made by others. Sometimes the iconography of war is restricted to the borders of the rug, depicting tanks, armaments, helicopters and jet planes. In your workshop, these borders have evolved into the most fantastically elaborate decorative pictures, and the women who make them seem to forget the dark modernity (as a famous western writer has called it) of their origins, and the hideous consequences of their invasion into their lives. Perhaps their freedom to innovate is a way for them to negate the circumstances represented by the armaments, and the bright decorative patterns affirm the possibility of a life beyond war and conflict.

Over the years, the people who make rugs from your workshop have specialised in this mixture of innovative elements and details, and a gradual return to decorative abstraction in the major elements of your designs. In some of the carpets you made in the 1980s and ‘90s you depicted both the map of Afghanistan and the World Atlas, your representation of the world outside Afghanistan. Originally, you designed these carpets as accurate copies of printed maps, as people have done for decades before you. Gradually, however, you allowed your makers the freedom to manipulate the forms and images represented in these designs, so that the images became less a “map” in the strict cartographic sense, and more a complex emblematic representation of the towns, cities, provinces and monuments by which Afghanistan is known. Shapes and orientation are no longer slavishly copied. Some time in the late 1980s the women began to make small rugs where the map is rotated so that you see it standing on its western boundary. Over time, significant elements come and go – references to the USSR, the hammer and sickle, explicitly Russian armaments have become less specific, and, since 2001 the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan are represented by their empty niches.

You see the map of Afghanistan everywhere about you, as an emblem of national identity, in signs and trademarks, and as a way of recognising all the different provinces and monuments by which people’s origins are identified. When your rug-makers depict the map of Afghanistan, they sometimes take liberties with the size of provinces, and their geographic location in relation to each other. They also insert other symbols of contemporary life, with references to the war, and particularly the manifestations of Soviet military power. Your people depict the map of Afghanistan with a sense of pride, like a self-portrait. Perhaps also the map is used as if to celebrate the country’s survival, against all the odds, for the past hundred years. For this reason people take pleasure in the decorative elaborations and bright colours the weavers employ as they build the complex structures of shapes, images, and texts. Some of these elements point back to traditional forms and methods, but what stands out for the outsider viewer are the use of innovative forms and colours, enhancing the unconventional subject matter your rugs describe.

It is one thing to depict your own country, your homeland, in such a manner, in the complex woven materials of carpet-making. Much more challenging is the idea of representing the rest of the world. World maps have been made in your region (including over the border in Iran) on commission or for the export market for decades. However it is only since the 1980s that such imagery has included references to the war and conflict that has afflicted your country. Usually these hybrid rugs have elaborate borders composed of tanks and helicopters – often recognisable as Soviet equipment – and sometimes the empty spaces between countries are filled with fighter planes and other armaments.

These maps of the world depict the world outside of Afghanistan framed by the dark modernity of militaria. The evidence of war and invasion form a perspectival frame through which the rest of the world is experienced. It doesn’t matter to your designers and weavers that the topographical accuracy of a map is lost in the process of representing everything that is outside the boundaries of Afghanistan. Countries, oceans, mountains are identified, but in a random manner, as irregular forms in space that bear no relation to their original representation – say, in the maps your people may have seen in an Atlas if they have been to school. The largest of these irregular forms is always the Soviet Union, the country that takes up the whole of the continent north of the Oxus River.

What these maps of the world show is no longer a schema of places and their geographical relationship to each other, but a field of reduced forms and hard-to-read texts, animated by creatures and monuments, plus the omnipresent military presence that forms the boundary between the maker and the viewer. As these rugs morph through the various stages of their evolution they have retained but a faint indexical relation to their origins. In their particular way they have become more like a map of the night sky, where relationships between actual places are substituted for mythical creatures. In what you have made, imagination and creativity trumps reality.

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