[IN PICTURES] War Carpets: A story of Afghan women’s silent art revolution

The intricate Afghan rugs break down normative boundaries of war and peace.

Woman's hand weaving carpet

For thousands of years, women of Central Asia have been weaving intricate designs for hand-made rugs and carpets. However, the flowery patterns and block motifs of the carpets began to change radically in 1979.

Why did the carpet designs undergo a revolutionary change?

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan displaced more than a million citizens and devastated the region. The war impacted Afghani residents so deeply that women living as refugees in Pakistan and Iran unknowingly began to incorporate war icons into their carpets. Moreover, when the Taliban sought power in the region, they brought their own rules and regulations that majorly impacted women.

In this context, the flowers and fauna incorporated into many traditional carpet patterns became riskier. Strangely, parachutes and bombs quickly took their place. The traditional weaving of flowers, birds, and decorative knots was replaced by machine guns, grenades, helicopters, and tanks. These symbols were subtle additions at first but were later emphasized for a niche market of Western collectors.

Here are some pictures of these war carpets:

Themes addressed by the war carpets over time

In the carpets’ compositions, perspectives merge and flatten to integrate three-dimensional forms with maps and repeating decorative patterns. The masterful compositions of these carpets reveal dark humor and complex commentary on contemporary life; the horrors of violence and the destruction of everyday life manifests in these carpets with an absurd levity.

Some of the rug designs are based on Charbagh, a quadrilateral layout inspired by the four gardens of Paradise described in the Qur’an. Another genre of rugs depicts national maps of Afghanistan, which may have been influenced by Alighiero Boetti’s map series. Some of the war rugs feature Roman characters spelling out “USSR,” “Made in Afghanistan,” or “Long Live US Soldiers.” Over the years, these carpets have featured many prominent war images, including the iconography in propaganda leaflets dropped from U.S. military aircraft and the burning Twin Towers.

Why are makers of war carpet challenging to trace?

Ancient pattern techniques that can take months or years to complete pass down from mother to daughter. Even though almost all Afghani women know the art of war carpets, makers of these rugs are still difficult to trace. Two primary reasons behind this are:

  • Many of these works remain unattributed
  • Female weavers lack easy access to modes of international communication

Anyone interested in viewing these carpets in person can visit the largest online archive of Afghan war rugs maintained by New York-based artist Kevin Sudeith.

Artists worldwide baffled and intrigued by war carpets

Upon encountering the war rugs online, a New York-based artist Leah Dixon said:

The idea that these rugs are not only brilliant storytelling platforms but are also being used by people who have been in conflict for hundreds of years absolutely blew my mind.

Inspired by Afghani women, Leah Dixon created her own version of war carpets with yoga mats:

The artist further shared:

The Afghan carpets do not simply commemorate a victory or mourn the departed. They fixate on the physical paraphernalia of warfare and its endless proliferation of deadly merchandise.

Woman's hand weaving carpet

Way forward for the war carpets – peace and harmony

While a carpet or yoga mat is generally conceived as a zone of civilian leisure, these uniquely hybrid objects have made the physical machinery of war enter individuals’ homes in an unexpectedly appealing way. The intricate Afghan rugs break down normative boundaries of war and peace. Their craftsmanship and compositional ingenuity are aesthetically stunning, while the danger they symbolically depict threatens art and civilization itself.

These war carpets make the paradox of peace apparent as when seated on a sumptuous rug, you can never truly be at ease with a grenade by your side. Perhaps the Afghan women creating this art intend to introduce discomfort into daily life, so people start to desire comfort, giving birth to peace and harmony.

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