Saturday, May 17, 2008

War Rugs

I had the pleasure of attending a reception and cocktail party on Thursday for Australian art historian and war rug expert Nigel Lendon, hosted by the war rug dealer Kevin Sudeith in Queens. Lendon and Sudeith make up the two best sources of information on war rugs on the internet, with their sites and Rugs of War, respectively.

What is a war rug? Semi-nomadic Baluchi weavers started making them in about 1980, shortly after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Traditional rug weavings started to take a new symbology, including representations of the sudden and increasing military presence. Tanks and helicopters started joining floral forms and animals.

When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan after September 11, 2001, a whole new type of war rug came about. American armament replaced Soviet weapons. A whole sub-genre of war rugs -- one of many -- shows the World Trade Center towers being hit by the two planes. They are considered memorials, and they often feature a peace dove carrying an olive branch over American and Afghan flags.

Others look like a typical abstract-patterned rug, until you look closer and realize that a filed of flower and medallion designs is bordered by helicopters. Lendon told me that sometimes it's hard to tell at first whether you're looking at a tank or a teapot, both common motifs now that almost blend together.

Cityscapes are now common -- even Western cities. He mentioned one that showed the Sydney Harbour Bridge -- inexplicable until he saw a travel poster in a market depicting the bridge.

Lendon and Sudeith were on their way to Toronto for an exhibition at the Textile Museum of Canada called "Battleground: War Rugs from Afghanistan". Lendon is giving a talk there this weekend.

My first encounter with war rugs was in about 2003, when I read an article about the subject in a Canadian magazine. I was captivated by the photos of these strange rugs. About a year later, I ran into a small one at a sale at American Rug Laundry in Minneapolis. I still regret not spending the $120 they were asking for it. After a bit of research, I asked about war rugs at a St. Paul dealer and was met with confusion and rudeness. I wondered if such rugs were considered offensive to dealers of traditional Oriental carpets.

I never got the answer to that question, but when I met Kevin Sudeith, it became clear that war rugs are a niche market. He's been profiled in Forbes and NPR. He's an artist who is, coincidentally, originally from Minnesota himself.

Sudeith sells his rugs online, at New York flea markets, and through his home in Long Island City, Queens, just across the river from Midtown Manhattan. His war rugs start at $75 and go up to the thousands, but most are priced in the $200-$800 range. He divides his online catalog into five main categories: "red rugs," which are variations of the rug pictured above (usually red, usually featuring two or more AK-47s flanking patterns of tanks, helicopters, and troop carriers on a field of grenades with bullet or mortar shell borders); "subtle weapons" and "obvious weapons," which speak for themselves; "pictorial," which show city scenes and portraits; and "yellow rugs," which usually show the World Trade Center or maps of Iraq or Afghanistan.

These are, of course, divided for ease of commerce. Sudeith divides them more thoroughly in the section of his website called "War Rug Styles," in which he describes dozens of types from the red Turkmen rugs like mine to rugs woven to serve as warning guides to unexploded ordnance.

Very little is known about the people who actually create these rugs. "It's as if these things had fallen out of the sky," Canadian curator Max Allen told the National Post in April. One hundred twenty of Allen's rugs make up the Canadian Textile Museum's exhibition. He's never even seen a photo of anyone weaving the rugs.

There's a real gap of scholarship about war rugs, which is one of the things Nigel Lendon told me excited him so much about the subject. He and Tim Bonyhady, both professors at the Australian National University, have been working since before 2003, when they launched an exhibition on war rugs in Canberra and Adelaide, and since 2006 under a research grant.

It's apparent that many of these rugs are made for sale to the West now (although Lendon wrote in an early essay, "it seems inconceivable to me that these works may be accounted for solely as commodities"), and many others are copies of earlier designs rather than unique one-offs and new variations.

As Lendon notes in his 2003 exhibition catalog (which can be viewed in its entirety as a PDF here), "For anyone outside the immediate context of a work’s production, understanding the maker’s motivation is a fundamentally speculative exercise." There are so many different weaving styles and traditions in Central Asia and the Middle East. There is a lot yet to be learned.

I like these rugs because they are relatively affordable pieces of functional art. The contrast of multi-million dollar high-tech weaponry and the ancient weaving that depicts it all is dumbfounding. I'm fascinated by the notion that a traditional craft could change its thematic focus organically based on the war around the weavers, rather than the weavers ceasing to create. And I'm amazed at how beautiful the weapons become when they are turned into pieces of a decorative pattern.

The rug at the top of this entry is my own. The Textile Museum of Canada's website has a great database of the rugs from the current exhibition (from which the images below were taken), but the best and easiest source for images of war rugs online has to be Sudeith's website.
From the database: The many “exodus” rugs that depict the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan are the model for rugs like this one, four of which are known to exist. Here the writing in Farsi describes the defeat, not of the Soviets, but of al-Qaeda! The rugs came to light in late 2007. They bear the dates 2001 or 2002, coincident with the arrival of coalition ground forces in Afghanistan.

From the database: Airplanes with bent tails form the border and a centre column on this rug, together with columns of tracked battle tanks and tiny scattered hand grenades disguised as flowers. But columns of domestic objects assert themselves between the columns of weaponry –pots of flowering shrubs and urn-shaped samovars for making tea do their best to resist the military onslaught.

From the database: In the rug business there are nearly as many fanciful stories as there are rugs. One story about these little poster-sized rugs covered with weapons is that, at the time of the Soviet occupation, they were made in Pakistan refugee camps for sale to collectors or aid workers to raise money for the Afghan mujahideen. Perhaps, but given the vast amounts of money and weaponry the Americans were already funneling through Pakistan, this is hard to believe. In any case, two of the rugs here have the name of the northern Afghanistan city Mazar-i Sharif written on them, which implies they were made there, and not in Pakistan. The array of weapons represented includes helicopters [956 is commonly used on war rugs to symbolize the identification numbers that appear on Russian helicopters – over 300 of which were shot down and crashed in Afghanistan], Stinger missile launchers, tanks, fighter aircraft, armoured cars and troop carriers, hand grenades, and the ubiquitous Kalashnikov assault rifle.



Anonymous The Notorious Nitpicker said...

Um...dude, I think "red rugs", "subtle weapons", "obvious weapons", "pictorial", and "yellow rugs" adds up to five, not four.

8:43 PM  
Blogger The Masticator said...

Bravo! I like to test my readers periodically with strategically placed errors, typos, and general inconsistencies. As a reward for spotting this one, I've corrected it.

4:55 PM  
Anonymous kevin said...

I have been in the rug biz over 20 years and remember seeing these rugs for the first time. They are a piece of history that is made for a short piece of time and I only wish I could start collecting them. Who is a reliable resource. Thanks, Kevin.

3:09 PM  

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