Archive for the ‘Propaganda in War Rugs’ Category

Anti-Soviet Social Realism

January 7, 2013

Over at Iconophilia you’ll find some work-in-progress on one of the most atypical war rugs we’ve seen. Of course there are so many different modes of the war rug, none of them are typical.

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

Anti-Soviet propaganda

May 4, 2012

More valuable ephemera. The Stiftung Bibliotheca Afghanica Afghanistan-Institut und Archiv in Bubendorf, Switzerland, holds a substantial archive of anti-Soviet propaganda which was produced in Pakistan in the early years of the Soviet occupation. A number of the propaganda posters produced at that time are similar to the imagery which appeared on war carpets. The idea of the “puppet” dictator (in this case, Babrak Karmal) is a common motif in war carpets produced in Pakistan.

The text on this matchbook cover reads “Faith, Union, Jihad”, and carries a quote from the Quran “Help comes from God, victory is near”.  The volcano, with Afghanistan inscribed on it, is erupting, upsetting Babrak Karmal from his throne….

Who is speaking?

November 3, 2006

Whereas the position of the author of “September 11” rugs (such as this one from the Rugs of War catalogue) is always ambiguous …

Plate 13 - war on terror


… unfortunately – for whatever reason – this butane lighter seems clearly celebratory. It’s for sale on eBay.

The vendor says it was purchased in Afghanistan during a tour of duty in the US Army; it has attracted bids of over $200 US.

UPDATED TO ADD: After a spirited bidding war, the lighter ended up fetching US$797. As is not unheard of on eBay, the same vendor is now offering another “guaranteed one of a kind lighter” for sale. Thanks to our friend Max Allen for the tip-off, and also for the link to Wikipedia’s entry on Asadabad, which says:

Asadabad has been the scene of a number of incidents since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan began. U.S. forces set up a provincial reconstruction team there in February 2004. The birth place of Sayeed jamal-udin Afghani.

Asadabad is one of the few Afghan cities still run openly by the Taliban. The Taliban rulers of Asadbad passed laws during the reign of the Taliban in Kabul saying that as long as they are in office they cannot be arrested for crimes of any kind. This arrangement is made possible by the mayor’s tribal relations to Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

Due to the proximity of the Afghanistan/ Pakistan border, Asadabad deals with a fairly large amount of trade goods destined for other places.

A FURTHER UPDATE: the latter auction received two bids of US$25, failing to meet the vendor’s reserve.

An update …

September 5, 2006

We’ve uncovered some more images – and perhaps the original model – for the “Mother Afghanistan” rug exhibited by former US Army Ordnance Officer Tatiana Divens in 1993.

More details are in the original post, “Anti-Soviet Socialist Realism”.

Anti-Soviet Socialist Realism

July 24, 2006

From the archive: former US Army Ordnance Officer Tatiana Divens (see bibliography) has sent us a copy of an invitation to one of the first exhibitions of Afghan war rugs in North America, featuring (see her script) “The ‘Mother Afghanistan’ rug of R. Neil [Reynolds]”.

The Mother Afghanistan Rug1.jpg

Inside the invitation, she has noted that “exactly 34 people showed up between 23 October – 18 December”. This reflects the decline of interest in war rugs in the early 1990s, which was remarked on by Tim in his catalogue essay (extract below).

final invite insides.jpg

F&M original.JPG

A version of this rug is featured in an online extract of Frembgen and Mohm’s 2000 book “Lebensbaum und Kalashnikow” (full details are in the bibliography; the online catalogue links are in the sidebar under the heading “War Rug Links”.)

To my mind, a number of aspects of this particular rug remain unresolved:

1. Was it made in 1980, at the start of the period of Soviet occupation, or later, referring (that is, approximately) to that date? The suggestion in Frembgen & Mohm is that it was made in the refugee camps in Pakistan. That would reinforce the suggestion that a later date is appropriate for its attribution. (At least we know it was made pre-1993).

2. The text is unusual for its unusual critical/sarcastic/bitter tone. This is not evidenced in any other war rug I have seen. In addition, the origin of the image is clearly external, either Soviet Socialist Realism in origin, or having its origin in some other anti-war poster tradition, as Frembgen & Mohm suggests. Does this suggest that the whole rug is the product of an outsider? If so, this would reinforce perhaps the later date attribution.

The description of the rug in Frembgen & Mohm is translated as follows:

Pattern construction and motifs: The composition of this highly stylised picture carpet (without border/trimming) showing a heroic representation of an Afghan mother was obviously/apparently copied from a political poster. With her left arm the woman protectively clasps her child, the right is stretched straight upwards in order to repel a rocket (with hammer and sickle). Burning ruins and the blue sky of Afghanistan form the background. At the lower contour there is a border of latin letters, which shows the English sentence:Just an example of Russian humanitarian help to the bereaved nations of the world. Afghanistan in 1980. There are carpets of the same series with a border/trimming.

Picture statement: Attached poster with accusation to the (?)Kriegsgräuel committed by the Soviets.

Origin: Probably Turkmen or Uzbek from a refugee camp in Pakistan, size: 132 x 87 cm.

On the question of the declining popularity of Afghan war rugs in the nineties, Tim Bonyhady has written (in the Rugs of War essay “Out of Afghanistan”):

Yet within two or three years [of 1990] this interest had plummeted in most countries. While some war rugs continued to be made in Pakistan by refugees – increasingly, it seems, by men rather than by women – it soon became a commonplace that weavers who had made them were returning to traditional designs. Most rug dealers, whether in Pakistan, Europe, the United States or Australia, came to regard war rugs not so much as novelties but as oddities which at best might be a peripheral part of their business. As a result, many dealers did not bother to stock these rugs, while others kept a few but made little of them. Art dealers and collectors generally ignored them. The few articles about them in English were often negative. One contributor to the Oriental Rug Review dismissed them as a ‘degenerative design export product’.

Updated to add:

We have located the following images in Maurice Rickards’ Posters of Protest and Revolution (New York: Walker and Company, 1970).

The first is a 1924 poster by German artist Kathe Kollwitz. The image became famous as a Vietnam war protest poster in the USA; the text reads “No more war”:

Nie wieder Krieg

The second is even more interesting, paralleling as it does even more closely the design of the “Mother Afghanistan” rug – could it be the model for the rug itself? The image is from a 1966 poster by Veniamin Markovich Briskin, and the text reads “Imperialism is war!”.

Imperialism is War!

More of Briskin’s designs can be found at this Russian site.

Attack on the Pentagon

May 9, 2006


This is a rug sourced from Peshawar in 2004. How this may be interpreted involves accepting a high degree of ambiguity – is it threatening? is it celebratory? is the representation of the Pentagon as synonymous with the computer screen significant? Is the Pentagon to be equated with the internet, or with Big Brother? Some of our readers have commented on the lack of an overt political position in the war rug tradition… are there examples we’re missing?

Robert Fyke draws attention to a variant on this rug (ground colours reversed) illustrated in an online essay about the symbolism inherent in the continuity of carpet-weaving (with comments about the identity of the Baluch): the author is Hwaa Irfan, “Weaving between Wars and Returning to the Soul” on He writes:

What happens when violence becomes a way of life, particularly as when imposed by occupying forces? What happens in places such as Afghanistan, which was a war game for the British in the 19th century, the Russians in the 20th century, and the US in this, the 21st century?

Individual’s coping mechanisms are determined by cultural resilience and how thorough the occupation force is at denying the indigenous people the right to be who they are. Different people express these problems in different ways, often making pathological imbalances appear socially acceptable, such as in the process of weaving where the abstract produces a kind of beauty.

War rugs are also in Karabakh

April 8, 2006

I can’t illustrate this post, but last night on SBS television I watched the last program in a BBC series hosted by Simon Reeve “Holidays in Places that don’t exist”. It’s the program that Graham Gower had written to us about here.

The story was located in the breakaway province of Nagorno Karabakh (Artzak), between Azerbaijan and Armenia. On a visit to a carpet shop where Reeve was looking for a wedding present a war rug is discussed in terms of familiar war rug icons, plus (significantly) a text promoting the independence movement. The transcript reads as follows:

David (Simon Reeve’s guide)
“…it’s very common to depict, you know, symbols of Karabakh on carpets.

Simon Reeve
Some carpets serve as reminders of the war (?) That is a rocket propelled grenade I think. A machine gun over here. Tank here, anti-aircraft guns here. Another tank here. What does it say here?

This say that you have to be powerful to have rights.

The full transcript is here.

Jihad against the Soviets

January 21, 2005

Here are the details of the text on the image below – the translation (in italics) is by Hossein Valamanesh.

(return to the full image here)


This is a combination of a number of words but the main word in the middle could be Jihad but with an extra line in the middle I do not know what that is – could be decorative.

Sabur Fahiz contributes a further translation: either side of the flaming hand are to be read the names of the Socialist factions: “Parcham”, and “Khalkh”. But as well, he suggests that the flaming hand of the Soviets is also a reference to another faction: “Shollah” or “the flame” which was also the name of another faction, rendered extinct in the internecine warfare within the Socialist bloc.

– An earlier example of this carpet can be seen at Plate 35 in Frembgen and Mohm.


On the right the word is people – on the left, flag.

– What’s striking about this image is the device of layering or transparency – the shower of (what is it? another hammer and sickle?), the geometrical symbol, and the text overlaid in a kind of matrix above the Jihad tag. The image of the hand descending from the space of the Soviet Union, with hammer and sickle above, is usually holding/manipulating the figure of Najibullah, but there are other examples of the hand raining down over the map of Afghanistan.


This is a difficult one – on the left the first word says price of or price, and continuing that it is not clear. It could be the word mistake or hard work.


On the left, land or land of. On the right, Afghanistan.


I think it may be imitating a Russian or English word.

In the full image of the carpet, surrounding Afghanistan clockwise from the top are the names of surrounding countries – Turkomanstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and on the left Iran.

Najibullah’s Soviet Puppet Masters

December 14, 2004

Jihad Carpet 121x183.jpg

This is a rug bought in Quetta in 1996. It bears a strong resemblance to the representations of Najibullah as a puppet of the Soviets, but in most cases the delineation of the hammer and sickle and the hand are less well defined as in this instance. The bomb/bullets border is common to many rugs of this era, and suggests the origin of a range of images from the same workshop. Has anyone got closer to the origins of this style?