Archive for the ‘Sources of imagery in War Rugs’ Category

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

Misliteration: JAPAN/, FIGET, (and PEPSI)

October 4, 2012

Mistakes abound in the insertion of Roman text into the many different categories of war carpets. Just as those who don’t speak the indigenous language see embedded Farsi text as a kind of abstract calligraphy, so the arrival of signs and logos in Roman script into Afghan visual culture must appear as alien abstract symbols to the designer/makers of these innovative rugs and carpets. In this case the jet planes (bombs?) central to this design are emblazoned with the word “JAPAN”, while the truck with the anti-aircraft gun is labelled with the word “FIGET”. To the left and right of the carpet are lines of scrambled text, which often suggests that the particular carpet is a copy of a copy of the original, or a copy made from memory.

This particular carpet is unusual in almost every aspect of its iconography. Its provenance is also interesting. It was bought in 1990 from a traveling rug dealer in Launceston, Tasmania, which is almost as far from the war in Afghanistan as you can imagine.

Other misliterations are quite comical, to outside eyes. Here’s a PEPSI tank (upside down) on a Khyber Pass rug.

However all of these mistakes make sense when you see how Roman script persists on the sides of the ubiquitous second-hand buses imported from Germany. The text “Weserbergland Express” makes no sense to a Farsi/Dari speaker, and signifies nothing,  transported to Afghanistan on the side of a bus, yet such texts remain a powerful symbol of the outside world…

the sources of mapping and global consciousness

September 7, 2012

… in Afghanistan is an oft-disputed issue. Some, like Luca Cerizza, would like to think that Alighiero Boetti was responsible. “Boetti’s tapestries became a vehicle for [for the women who made them] knowledge of world geography.” [Which I say is pure projection on his part.] Despite Boetti’s then wife Annemarie Sauzeau telling us the image of the map of Afghanistan was everywhere in the early seventies, and recognising that “… it is true, the way certain Italian travellers whisper, that there was already an old tradition of the geographical carpet in Afghanistan…” So, as you’ll see in previous posts, there were multiple sources of geographical imagery in Afghanistan from the sixties onwards. This postage stamp was used in 1973, but it celebrates the NY World Fair in 1964.

where atlas carpets come from (part 2)

May 16, 2012

Warning: this is NOT an exhibition of Alighiero Boetti’s Mappa. But it suggests an obvious source for the parallel tradition of atlas carpets: here we see walls covered with atlases is a girl’s school room (which had been closed by the Taliban) in Herat. This is a still from a BBC documentary shot in Herat in 1996. Part one of this discussion may be found here.

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….

the value of ephemera

April 10, 2012

Ever wonder about the origins of the imagery on a carpet such as this? Look in your wallet…

The Victory Arch [Taaq-e-Zafar] in the Paghman Gardens outside Kabul celebrates the Afghan victory over Great Britain in 1919. And the source of the photograph used to produce the bank note? Look in your mailbox…

This postcard was posted in 1973. It is the actual photograph from which the bank note was engraved. From which the carpet was woven. With some additional narrative elements.

The civil war of the early nineties left nothing unscathed.

…now restored.

[photo by Dr. Khalid Salimi]


what? where?

April 26, 2008

Do any of our readers recognise the subject of this carpet?

Sydney Harbour Bridge in Mashhad

September 9, 2007

Readers will remember our previous speculations about the identity of the many arched bridge war rugs. We wondered how rug makers might find images of Sydney harbour… well here I am in a take-away outside the Mashhad bus station. If here, why not just across the border?

Mashhad Bridge Montage

Helicopters and other images in Afghanistan and Iraq

June 13, 2007

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While we’re on the theme of helicopters (see below, or type “helicopter” into the search bar), Max Allen points us to this example – a helicopter appearing on a military patch. This is a UK/Australian/Dutch coalition Medevac patch made in Afghanistan.

Patches are of interest to the RoW project in the sense that all imagery which finds its way into the public domain (logos, postage stamps, posters, television, videos etc.) has the potential to be appropriated by rug-designers. And this is especially relevant with respect to images of militaria and other images which carry specific ideological messages.

As Max comments, military personnel sew embroidered patches on the shoulders of their uniforms to identify the unit to which they belong. The patches range from simple to elaborate, sometimes incorporating recognizable imagery and writing; until recently, official U.S. patches were colourful but are now only in in the dull browns and greens of camouflage.

In addition to the official unit patches, there are so-called “Friday patches” which military personnel wear on their off-duty clothing. Early in the various Gulf Wars these unofficial American patches were often stunningly vulgar (as in the final example below). They are not produced anymore.

Both kinds show weaponry drawn in an outline style and using isometric perspective that has been copied on (or from) the war rugs. This aircraft carrier appears in the Twin Towers rugs:

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Here are some other examples from Max’s collection…

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“Mystery” solved: call to prayer

April 20, 2007

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This is not a “war rug”, but given our interest in contemporaneous innovation in Afghan carpets of other subjects, this caught our eye some time ago. In an earlier post, we speculated about the meaning of the cloud of text motif in this image. At 5.15am on my second morning in Istanbul, I awoke to the dawn call to prayer, and this image came to mind. Perhaps the seemingly random “texts” which fill the background of other rugs is explained by this example? If so, it’s an eloquent visual metaphor…
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If we had audio, you could see what I’m hearing, over the Golden Horn…

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