The Rugs of War Introduction

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The Rugs of War


Many countries have experienced wars over the last twenty-five years but probably none has suffered so much warfare as Afghanistan or produced so much art depicting it. Afghan rug-makers began incorporating the implements of war into their designs almost immediately the Soviet Union invaded their country in 1979. They continue to do so today in the wake of September 11 and the start of America’s War on Terrorism which ousted the Taliban government of Mullah Omar yet left a country in which local warlords still fight each other, the Taliban are again increasingly active and Kabul itself is subject to occasional attack.

The rugs produced in response to these events constitute the world’s richest tradition of war art of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries—a remarkable product of at least hundreds if not thousands of anonymous weavers. The number of different basic designs which they have created is vast, the variations on these designs are prodigious. Their rugs range from small mats to huge carpets. Many are steeped in the traditions of Afghan carpet-making, but others are almost devoid of reference to these traditions. Some carry crude political messages. The meaning of others, at least from a distance, is difficult if not impossible to interpret.

This exhibition, although small, illustrates the range and complexity of these rugs — something rarely done before either in other conventional publications or in the virtual ‘exhibitions’ and typologies found, for example, at on the internet. The earliest works in this exhibition date from the 1980s, the most recent were produced since September 11. There are map rugs and cityscapes, rugs dominated by guns, tanks and aircraft and others in which the weaponry is hard to discover. In order to show how some types of war rug have been produced in many variations, the exhibition includes three different versions of one of the most powerful designs — depicting Mohammad Najibullah, whom Moscow made President of Afghanistan in 1986 and the mujahideen ousted in 1992.

This catalogue is an initial attempt to explain these rugs, which, like most oriental carpets, have generally been discussed from afar — by dealers and collectors in Europe and the United States typically aware only of what they have seen and heard about in their own country. This catalogue presents a much richer international picture. Tim Bonyhady provides the first extended account of the circulation and reception of war rugs around the world. Jasleen Dhamija is the first textile authority from the Indian sub-continent to explore the meaning of these carpets. Nigel Lendon considers the meaning of these carpets from the stance of an outsider astonished by their imagery yet, inevitably, not always sure of their meaning.

Both exhibition and catalogue are part of Fusion — a series of exhibitions, publications, musical performances, symposia and workshops at the Australian National University in 2003 coordinated by the National Institute of the Arts and the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research. A common assumption is that the forms of artistic expression can and should be pure — that it is both possible and preferable to maintain boundaries between different spheres of cultural practice. The premise of Fusion is that the interaction between different artistic traditions, musical styles and literary genres is not only inevitable but also often extraordinarily enriching. The war rugs of Afghanistan are a remarkable manifestation of this process.


The publication of this catalogue would not have been possible without the generosity of NECG: Network Economics Consulting Group, Peter Bellas, Colin and Liz Laverty. We are very grateful to them. We would also like to thank Sabur Fahiz who has given his time and expertise in assisting us with the identification and cataloguing of the rugs in this exhibition and catalogue.

We are also indebted to Peter Bellas, Jane Bruce, Alison Carroll, Himman Dhamija, Richard Elliott, Ray Hughes, Colin and Liz Laverty and Mandy Thomas for allowing rugs in their collections to be reproduced here and shown in The Rugs of War at the School of Art at the Australian National University.

Copyright Details

The Rugs of War is an event of Fusion: a year of activities at the Australian National University exploring the merging of creative practices and intellectual currents. This book is published in conjunction with the exhibition The Rugs of War held at the ANU School of Art Gallery 2-15 June 2003.

Fusion is coordinated by the National Institute of the Arts:

(02) 6125 5703

in association with the Centre for Cross-Cultural Research:

(02) 6125 2434

This publication is supported by

NECG: Network Economics Consulting Group

Peter Bellas Gallery, Brisbane

Colin & Liz Laverty

Goanna Print

Fusion events and publications are also supported by

ANUIIA, the ANU Institute for Indigenous Australia

HRC, Humanities Research Centre

NIH, the National Institute of the Humanities

NIAP, the National Institute for Asia and the Pacific

The Ian Potter Foundation

The Rugs of War is a publication of the Australian National University, Canberra ACT 0200.

Copyright (c) 2003 by Tim Bonyhady, Nigel Lendon and Jasleen Dhamija. All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording or any information storage or retrieval system, without the prior permission of the publisher.

Designed and typeset by Caren Florance, Letter Press, Canberra (02 62425948; Printed by Goanna Print, Canberra (02 62391208).

Photography by Neal McCracken and Stuart Hay, ANU Photography.

Fine art separation:

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication data

The rugs of war


ISBN 0 7315 3030 6 (Vol.).

ISBN 0 7315 3027 6 (set).

1. Rugs - Afghanistan. 2. Art and war. 3. Rugs - Afghanistan - Private collections - Australia. I. Bonyhady, Tim, 1957- . II. Nigel Lendon, 1944- . III. Australian National University. School of Art. (Series: Fusion (Canberra)).


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