Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

required reading: Art Power

February 7, 2013

“The dominating art discourse identifies art with the art market and remains blind to any art that is produced and distributed by any mechanism other than the market.” (Boris Groys, Art Power, MIT Press Cambridge Mass. 2008:5)  And from his essay in this collection, “Art at War”, Groys continues: “But at the moment an image begins to circulate in the media and acquires the symbolic value of a representation of the political sublime, it can be subjected to art criticism along with every other image.” (127) “…we are in need of criticism that analyses the use of these images of violence as the new icons of the political sublime, and that analyses the symbolic and even commercial competition for the strongest image.” (128) More to come…

Alighiero Boetti, the myth of influence, and a contemporary orientalism

November 15, 2012

The recent suite of retrospective exhibitions of the work of Alighiero Boetti at the Museo Reina Sofia, the Tate Modern, and the Museum of Modern Art, plus another at the Fowler Museum at UCLA has triggered substantial catalogues, monographs and other publications, plus reviews and commentary. All of these have, to greater or lesser degree, repeated and elaborated a set of myths in relation to his outsourced embroideries, kilims, and carpets produced in Afghanistan and Pakistan between the years 1972 and 1994. The following abstract summarises an online essay published by the Melbourne University Art History journal EMAJ, in which I pose a counter-argument to the conventional account now established in the Boetti literature.

A tournament of shadows: Alighiero Boetti, the myth of influence, and a contemporary orientalism

This paper examines the evolution of the historical and theoretical literature that has developed about the work of the avant-garde Italian artist Alighiero Boetti produced in Afghanistan from 1971 until 1994. Characterised by a set of interrelated cultural and historical fictions, I propose that this collective narrative has evolved to constitute a contemporary orientalist mythology. This is particularly evident in the literature following his death in 1994, and most recently in anticipation of his retrospective exhibitions in the Museo Reina Sofia, the Tate Modern, and the Museum of Modern Art in 2011–12. Prior to his death, the literature on Boetti primarily took the form of catalogue essays, journal articles and biographies. These drew heavily on a small number of interviews conducted with the artist, plus accounts and memoirs given by his wives, partners, and curatorial collaborators. Since his death, the literature has proliferated, and today a greater emphasis is placed on a growing number of secondary authorities. Recent monographs, catalogue essays, and auction house texts draw heavily on the anecdotal accounts of his agents and facilitators, as well as his familiars, employees and archivists. In exploring what I describe as the mythologies informing the contemporary reception of his work, I examine the claims of his influence over the distinctive indigenous genre of Afghan narrative carpets which were produced both within Afghanistan as well as by diasporic Afghans in Iran and Pakistan in the years following the 1979 Soviet invasion until the present. The attribution of political intent in the later Boettis, whether attributed to the artist or on the part of his agents, is a recent invention worthy of challenge. Finally I argue that such interpretations of his attitudes and practice might be described as a form of late orientalism, a mode of representation occurring through the appropriation of tradition and the projection of cosmopolitan values and avant-garde practices onto this most conflicted and exoticised cultural context of the contemporary era.

You can download the essay by going here:

Nigel Lendon: A tournament of shadows: Alighiero Boetti, the myth of influence, and a contemporary orientalism, EMAJ Issue 6 2011-2012

The Afghan Modern, its anonymous authors, and the question of collective agency.

July 16, 2012

Here’s a summary of a paper I presented to the Annual Conference of the Art Association of Australia and New Zealand, at Sydney University, last Friday 13th July, 2012.

Addressing the inherent tension in the three elements of my title: what is the Afghan Modern? who are its anonymous authors? and how does a concept of collective agency assist our interpretation of what these artists make? I suggested that the unfamiliar or even contradictory relation between concepts of The Modern with that of both anonymity and collectivity can be resolved by the introduction of a concept of collective agency – an idea which was implicit but not developed in Alfred Gell’s definitive Art and Agency of 1998.

In this paper I proposed that the concept of collective agency supercedes the problem of the anonymous author for our understanding of these works as a form of indigenous modernism. All these works propose collective social values and behavior as the source of intentionality, creativity, and virtuosity – that is, the capacities that enable the artefact to enchant (in Gell’s theory) through its abducted agency.

I also proposed that the consideration of collective agency demonstrates that there is, in this instance, a capacity to reconcile the tensions between modernity  and tradition – which has produced a form of indigenous modernism developed independent of the colonizing effects and assumptions of the West (contra John Clark’s account) and in contrast to the continuity and reinvention of local neotraditionalism.

And so I sought to demonstrate how a concept of collective agency is also a means by which one can reconcile the apparent contradictions between an unfamiliar form of modernist art and the anonymity of its makers, and through a new understanding of the intrinsic interplay between individualism and collectivity as the means by which this genre has been produced.

In this paper I focused on a particular set of images, the modernism of which is reflected in the capacity of the designers to integrate new forms into the medium of the carpet, in order to convey narrative and other meanings derived from contemporary graphic sources. In these images the key emblem – the map of Afghanistan – is transformed in ways which reveals the capacity of an artist to explore form-for-form’s sake – by creating complex and apparently contradictory imagery which is completely new and distinctive to the genre.

In my argument about the modernity of artefacts such as these, I’m concerned not so much with the direct translation of graphic conventions into the medium of the knotted carpet but rather I’m looking at the more complex transformation of this emblematic and cartographic icon – here presented as the primary icon of national identity, and unity, in response to the experience of the occupation by the Soviet Union.

In the paper I discuss examples of this re-orientation of the form of the map of Afghanistan (rotated 90 degrees counter-clockwise) such that it loses its cartographic accuracy or relevance at the same time as it gains added symbolic significance and spatial complexity through its novel and ambiguous pictographic character.

This re-orientation (some say disorientation) of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan produces a kind of vertical landscape – with the illusion of foreground and background, an horizon line, creating spaces for buildings, helicopters, and aeroplanes, plus other illusionistic elements, and other pictorial modes…

The evolution of these maps towards a landscape form – what in Chinese art would be called a floating perspective – is here also affective by its evocation of national identity, suggesting character, resistance, and isolation – all as positive virtues – despite all of the ethnic complexities, rivalry, and conflict, (implicit in the complexity of the map form itself), manifest in the civil conflict that burst on the scene in the years immediately after these rugs were made.

P.S. Such carpets as these can be attributed to the Aimak-speaking Hazara and Tajik people from the Ghor province, in the mid-western desert mountains of Afghanistan.

P.P.S. See another related example here.

the Modernity question

March 2, 2012

Scholars of the history of modernity in Afghanistan will enjoy Adam Curtis’ online research, based in large part on BBC archival material.

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

Beauty and Horror

July 26, 2011

Here it is (minus images). I’ve been asked to load a .pdf of my essay Beauty_and_Horror: Identity and Conflict in the War Carpets of Afghanistan (2008).

more discussion on the S11 carpet

October 30, 2010

is to be found on BagNews Notes

Max Allen reviews Enrico Mascelloni: Beyond the West

July 16, 2007

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.


Kevin Sudeith’s new publication

October 18, 2005

Kevin is going to print with Pictorial War Rugs: Volume 1 (due October 15) and invites orders on his site. Await a review when I get my hands on a copy!

Hwaa Irfan

June 22, 2004

Josephine Jasperse refers us to Hwaa Irfan’s interesting online essay: “Weaving between Wars and Returning to the Soul”.