Islamic Art

Afghanistan’s Carpets of War

Are Afghan War Rugs a response to war and trauma, or a market-driven macabre souvenir?

Afghan War Rug, | Drill Hall Gallery, ANU

There is a persistent narrative around the Afghan War Rug: weavers affected by war weave their geography and lived experiences into their rugs, replacing medallions with tanks and guns. Emphasis is put on the women weavers, finding their voice through rug-making, such as in the following quote from Annemarie Sawkins, co-curator of The Museum of International Folk Art’s “From Combat to Carpet: The Art of Afghan War Rugs” exhibition:

War rugs “are the production of women artists, and of communities speaking globally not just locally”

However, this may not be the case.

Whilst there certainly was a resurgence of rugmaking in the 1960s that brought new craftsmen to the art of weaving, the increased production also likely brought new middlemen into the fray, with a keen eye for new business opportunities. The radically new images of weaponry were well received by the market, encouraging the sellers and therefore weavers to increase production and diversify designs.

Despite their popularity and critical acclaim, only 1% of rugs produced in Afghanistan have war motifs, their scarcity thus making them of particular interest to collectors and curators.

First gaining international attention following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 (although some war rugs have been found to pre-date this), the war rugs reflect the long history of foreign invasion into Afghanistan. With each subsequent foreign force to invade the designs have changed and adapted, from tanks and AK-47s to modern drones.

Afghan War Rug | The Conversation

The contents of the rugs are varied in that they not only reflect and document the invasions of Afghanistan, puppet regimes, and machines of war, but also its geography, portraits of national heroes and its engineering accomplishments.

Furthermore, some war rugs contain an element of nostalgia — such as those depicting King Amanullah Khan (as below), who ruled Afghanistan from 1919–1929. Highly regarded for his modernist reforms as well as victory over the British in the third Anglo-Afghan War, he was a popular motif following the coup d’etat led by Mohammed Daoud Khan in 1973.

Unknown artist, portrait rug of King Amanullah Khan with armaments, Afghanistan. From Combat to Carpet: The Art of Afghan War Rugs, The Museum of International Folk Art (MOIFA)

As mentioned earlier, the motifs continue to develop and change, with drones first seen on rugs since 2014. The change of designs with the new technology may not be the result of the lived experiences of the weaver, but rather driven by the demand of the buyer.

Often sold as souvenir items to the serving military, the rugs could therefore be argued to be representations of the lived lives of the servicemen instead. As evidence, many of the rugs are made following a pattern, given to them by middlemen and dealers, and produced for market demand. Therefore as the market changes, so too do the designs.

The narrative of victimhood and rugmaking as an avenue of self-expression, therefore, becomes a marketing tool that buys into the global market of handicrafts.

The design and production of Afghan War Rugs are therefore much more complex than a simple cottage industry. How they will continue to evolve following the withdrawal of international servicemen and the reinstation of the Taliban remains to be seen…

Red, white, and blue Drone Rug with Turkmen Border | Warrug.com

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Rosalind is an Australia-based doctor and Fellow of the RACGP. She is currently studying for her Masters in Islamic Studies and Classical Arabic.

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Rosalind Noor

Rosalind Noor

Rosalind is an Australia-based doctor and Fellow of the RACGP. She is currently studying for her Masters in Islamic Studies and Classical Arabic.

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