Study for Meditation Mat

Study for Meditation Mat
Handspun Tapestry Weaving

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Road Trip: Afghanistan War Rugs

Afghanistan weavers have a long tradition of weaving intricate rugs using knotted pile, soumak and tapestry weaving techniques. A typical prayer rug is filled with intricate symbols and images of flowers, animals and daily life. Over the years, with the invasions of outsiders into their country, Afghan weavers began to incorporate images of another kind into their rugs - the constant of war and its intrusion into daily life.

I have read about these rugs for many years, the beauty and subtlety of their patterns and the skill of the weavers as they knot their rugs from wools dyed with natural materials and synthetic dyes. Apart from photographs, I've never seen one, so when fellow weaver and fibre enthusiast, Leslie C. sent me a link to an exhibit of these rugs in the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, I didn't hesitate to invite myself along on a road trip to see the show. We headed out on Friday for the day to spend time at Battleground: War Rugs from Afghanistan.

As a weaver, this was a trip of a lifetime for me. The show, organized by the Textile Museum of Canada, displays 118 pieces, rugs of various sizes, along with two bags, dating from around 1920 to the present. We had the gallery pretty much to ourselves and were allowed to take all the photographs we wanted, provided we didn't use the flashes on our cameras. (My point and shoot camera didn't care for that, so I apologize for the quality of the photos here. If you want to see more detail on these pieces, click on the link above.) I was like a kid in a candy store, running back and forth between the displays, which were organized by theme rather than chronology. Perhaps I should say I was more like a kid on a scavenger hunt; unfortunately (and surprisingly), there was no catalogue. Large, laminated cards provided some information on each section, but details on techniques, dates and the significance of the images were scarce. There were small "souvenir" battle rugs for sale in the gallery shop, accompanied by a pamphlet on these rugs:

Men and women are involved in carding and spinning sheep's wool by hand. Natural dyes (including from onion skins and pomegranate rinds) and synthetic dyes are used.
. . .The first Afghan war carpets, featuring stylized depictions of helicopters, tanks, and weaponry, emerged during the 1979 - 1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and Afghan carpet weavers incorporated these symbols of war into more traditional Afghan carpet designs. ("Souvenir Battle Rugs from Afghanistan," pamphlet, Mendel Art Gallery)

The rugs ranged from many square metres in area to much smaller rugs which looked as if they were designed to be wall hangings. Some of the rugs had technical problems, in that they had large amounts of draw-in, bubbling and were dramatically off square, but each one had its charms. As time passed, the weavers replaced images of camels, sheep and flora with the machinery which has become all too familiar to them. A few contained only one or two images of weapons, often Kalashnikov rifles, the Russian AK-47, while others were packed with tiny images which, at first, seemed to be traditional symbols. On closer examination, the symbols were images of helicopters, tanks and guns. Some of the rugs depicted New York's Twin Towers. The most modern of the rugs have shifted perspective completely; from the traditional overall depiction of pastoral scenes, mosques and Afghan cities, they show, in modern landscape format, what could be any bustling city.

While a preponderance of these battle rugs may have appeared during the decade from 1979 - 1989, the incorporation of symbols of the modern machine age goes back much further. This is the earliest rug on display; dating from around 1920, it shows a British Sopwith Camel airplane joining the bird in the sky over a placid natural scene (#1.58, 1920's,p. 3 in the link to the exhibit):

This rug was well-used, probably as a floor and/or prayer rug, as the detail shows:

The detail of the weapons is astonishing, showing both the weavers' skills and their familiarity with the weapons themselves. The tank at the bottom of this rug showed every detail of its machinations. (#1.90, 2001-2007, p.2):

Some images are more stylized, used in ways similar to traditional motifs, as borders:

#1.40, 1989? p. 1 

Some of the smaller rugs contain much less detail, but are far more poignant. This small rug, one of four depicting single images is, according to the exhibit information, "the saddest image in the exhibit." It caught my eye instantly. What was this woman's story? How had the shift from flowers which would normally be included in such a scene to grenades and tanks affected her life? (#L2008.408, 2001-2007, p. 2):

Words and blurry photographs cannot do justice to this exhibit; it's a once in a lifetime opportunity for local weavers and textile enthusiasts to see this large collection of remarkable textiles up close. The display runs until March 22, 2015; if you are anywhere near Saskatoon, go to the show. Plan to spend several hours in the gallery. If you are a weaver or a textile enthusiast, prepared to be humbled by the skills and beauty which can come from adversity. (If I lived in the city, I would be there every day, examining each rug and taking notes.)

Thank you so much, Leslie, for taking me to see this show. I am very grateful to have been your travelling companion.


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