… 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.
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 Mullah Mahommed Omar – the titular leader of the Taliban – is rarely depicted whether by photography, or by any other means. Sometimes he is portrayed indirectly. This is a detail from a carpet which shows a surreal depiction of his hand throttling a serpent, or perhaps a dragon. The text is written in Latin script – which tells us that it was made for a Western audience…
Such imagery (snakes, hands) is often used in carpets to depict evil, or power. In the context of the events of the last two decades in Afghanistan, this has become an impossibly enigmatic image.
“Mullah Omar’s Face”, a recent article by Amy Davidson in The New Yorker, probes the reasons behind the secrecy that surrounds the identity of Mullah Omar. This echoes the secrecy surrounding his current circumstances, and references Steve Coll’s account of his current role in negotiations with the U.S. She illustrates her article with the four known photographic images of the Mullah Omar that are currently in circulation.
One of these is a screen shot from a documentary Afghanistan Soldiers of Allah filmed by Peter Jouvenal and narrated by John Simpson for the BBC program Newsnight in 1996. This rare portrayal of the Mullah also has an extraordinary historical significance for the event it depicts in the minute or so of footage that still exists in the public domain. It captures an act with profound political and religious consequences, whereby the Mullah assumes an ultimate form of authority by the act of displaying the Prophet Mohammed’s cloak to the assembled crowd. It shows the moment in the sequence of events where Omar (the central figure), who is standing on the top of the Shrine of the Cloak of the Prophet Mohammed, (Da Kherqa Sherif Ziarat) is shown turning to his right, holding the cloak, as an acolyte moves forward to kiss it, and others begin to throw their turbans forward in the hope that they might indirectly touch the holy relic.
Jouvenal’s documentary is itself a remarkable piece of work, and gives unique insights into the world of the Taliban just before they took control of Kabul, and the rest of Afghanistan. John Simpson narrates the event in the following words:
“There was a tremendous stir in Kandahar – we followed the crowds to a mosque in the city centre. The Taliban had been holding an assembly of mullahs from all over Afghanistan, and now the results were about to be made public. A Holy War was announced against the government of President Rabbani, in Kabul. The head of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, was declared to be the Emir or leader of all Muslims everywhere. Because this was regarded as a key moment for the Afghan nation, Mullah Omar displayed the holy cloak of the Prophet Mahommed to the crowd. It’s kept in Kandahar, and is shown at times of crisis – the last time was sixty years ago. Neither the cloak or the ceremony has ever been filmed before – nor has Mullah Omar. People in the crowd threw up their turbans to be touched by the cloak and be blessed by it. It was like being at some great religious ceremony in the Middle Ages.”
In his recent book, Taliban (2011), James Fergusson tells another version of the story:
The sequence relating to the public disclosure of the sacred relic – the cloak of the Prophet Mohammed – is one of the most remarkable pieces of historical photography of the late 20th century. To film this scene at all was itself a transgressive act of the highest degree – later in the film we see how notorious were the Taliban for the brutality of their punishment for much lesser crimes. More than just a brave or foolhardy decision, this “image capture” may now be understood as a paradigmatic example of the way the photographic act itself may transcend mere documentation. In this instance the determination of the photographer to persist with filming the scene has resulted in the capture of a ceremonial event which, one could argue, was the first of a sequence of historical circumstances which was to culminate in the September 11 outrage five years into the future.
It is in the moments before we see Omar’s face that this prior image, where the Mullah is shown holding up the cloth for the crowd to see, is seen. This is the critical moment for its place in the history of photography. In this gesture, several things are happening at once. By displaying the cloak, the Mullah Omar is asserting himself as the rightful leader of the people of Afghanistan, both politically, and in religious terms. By this act he becomes the Mullah al-Momineen (Leader of all Pious Muslims). Reciprocally, the approving crowd is acknowledging the fetishistic and symbolic significance of the piece of textile held up for them to witness. It is the material presence – the actual matter – of the textile object that conveys the ultimate authority from the Prophet Mohammed to the Mullah himself through the political act of its possession and control.
Earlier in the shot sequence one also sees a man – who may or may not have been the Mullah Omar – wrapping himself in a green cloth. As the story has evolved, this figure’s action has been interpreted (eg. see the Wikipedia entry) as if the Mullah Omar actually wrapped himself in the Prophet’s cloak.
However in the later sequence the piece of textile the Mullah was holding aloft appears to be of a different colour, size and material. The photographic evidence – as it comes to us down the wires of the internet – simply does not tell us enough to reach this conclusion.
Nevertheless, this photographic sequence poses entirely new challenges for our appreciation of this extraordinary point of coincidence between such disparate technologies and modes of iconic signification. If the authenticity of the relic is to be believed, which it is by those participating, this collision of cultures spans the millenia. From one direction, there is the secretive and forbidden intrusion of Western news media “behind the front lines”, and from the other, the revelation of one of the most holy relics of the Muslim world from its long seclusion from public view. It is a revelation of a revelation, each at cross-purposes to the other. The event of taking (stealing, shooting) the photograph is an act of disempowerment of the subject, whose own act of representation relies on the immediacy (and ephemeral) and uniquely experiential nature of his performance of revelation – which is, ultimately, invokes the presence of the Prophet.
This is also a collision of technologies of representation: just as the camera captures the image of the figure of Omar, so at the same moment the Mullah claims himself to be the heir of the Prophet, through the agency of the piece of cloth. The cloth itself, despite its aniconic character, is held up for the crowd’s recognition and approval, and momentarily became the screen on which the power of the Mullah is projected by the adulation of the crowd and approbation of his peers. Just as the Mullah’s hand may be depicted choking the life of a serpent, so his actual hand, by holding the holy relic aloft to his audience, enacts a form of representation of his own growing political authority.
To be continued…
P.S. I started to think about the symbolism of the authoritarian hand here…
P.P.S. There’s an update to the story here.
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.
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….
Ever wonder about the origins of the imagery on a carpet such as this?your wallet…
The Victory Arch [Taaq-e-Zafar] in the Paghman Gardens outside celebrates the Afghan victory over in 1919. And the source of the photograph used to produce the ? Look in your mailbox…
The civil war of the early nineties left nothing unscathed.
[photo by Dr. Khalid Salimi]
Scholars of the history of modernity in Afghanistan will enjoy Adam Curtis’ online research, based in large part on BBC archival material.
Wouldn’t you love to know who made this? But as Max Allen has often commented, there’s more that we don’t know than what we do know about the war rug genre. There are many different categories of cartographic images made during the era of the war carpet, and accurate representations of the map of Afghanistan are first seen in war carpets from the mid-1980s. And there were many other forms of representation of the map of Afghanistan in circulation in Afghanistan in the pre-war era. Maps like this one – with schematic rather than cartographic forms – appear to derive from the western provinces of Afghanistan, and some are dated 1989, 1990, and 1991. I have seen nine examples like this (plus others at a larger scale) and what is striking about them is that they are all clearly by different makers – despite the fact that the basic format (naming the different provinces of Afghanistan, inserting familiar symbols, war references, and orienting the East upwards) is the same in each example. And so while this group are anonymous (in the Western sense) they have a communal character that is very compelling. Afghan carpets are commissioned, designed, made and distributed under a distinctive schema of collective agency, and so to recognise this as a “work of art” we will need to rethink our Western convention of a work of art having a unique author… Maybe the nine constitute the one work? In the sense of communal authorship? Watch this space!