War rugs evoke mystery
by Edward Osborne
Here in the west, the feel of the times is reflected in a few forms of media. Our songs, our movies and our art often address the issues our culture is coping with. In Afghanistan, those issues can be seen in weaving. The turbulent history of the country finds its way into “war rugs” woven with patterns of weapons and vehicles. The Military Museums in Calgary — Western Canada’s largest such museum — is currently displaying the Unravelling the Yarns: War Rugs and Soldiers exhibit in the Founders Gallery, which features a number of rugs from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The first few seem like regular throw rugs, except where one would expect geometric patterns, there are brightly coloured tanks and helicopters. They are stylized to the point of being barely recognizable, and if they were on the floor of a room you would be unlikely to notice them. As you walk through the gallery, the images change; rugs featuring AK-47s, rocket launchers, and maps of Afghanistan adorn the walls.
A chronology emerges, with rugs from the invasion in 1980 through the Soviet occupation, the civil war and the American overthrow of the Taliban. The new rugs are very different, with graphic images of the twin towers or American fighter jets on a thick poster-like mat. While the early rugs were a very personal response to the culture of war that gripped the country, these new posters are designed with foreigners as the primary purchasers. They are bright and shocking, but somewhat cheap in their manufacture.
The rugs come from the collection of Robert Fyke, a Calgary collector who aggregated 48 different pieces before his death in 2009. The majority of his items came from a dealer named Ijaz who traveled to Pakistan on a regular basis to purchase silks and other textiles. There are a few other collectors in Calgary, and many soldiers with one or two rugs of their own, but the Fyke collection is the largest of its kind.
Spliced into the exhibit are a number of demonstration weapons and equipment, all disabled and displayed next to their woven representations. Michele Hardy, curator of the Military Museums, chose which rugs would be displayed, while Sgt. Chris Mavin chose the props and designed a diorama of “shura.” Shura is the Arabic word for consultation, and most of the meetings and negotiations in Afghanistan take place seated around a rug or mat. While war rugs are not used for this purpose, the presence of a rug is an invitation to conversation.
“These are really weapons of the weak,” Hardy said. “These objects are there to provoke discussion.”
The actual intention of the war rugs is often vague or difficult to interpret. Right now the makers are anonymous, and their distribution method is shrouded at best. But Hardy hypothesizes that “one day, there will be a better sense of what their maker’s incentives were.” Until then, the expressions of war-torn Afghanistan can be viewed in the Military Museums Founder’s Gallery until January 2011 and are available online.
War as functional art not uncommon
Afghanistan is not the only place to record their trials in thread. Plenty of Palestinian tapestries and blankets have featured weap- ons of the Israeli occupation, and before that Hmong story cloths recorded a peoples’ flight from their homeland in Southeast Asia.
When Chile was under the brutal rule of Augusto Pinochet, more than 3,000 people were abducted or murdered by the government. One of the only outlets for the political protests of the oppressed populace were a series of burlap tapestries known as arpilleras. In the same tradition, women in Afghanistan may be weaving these war rugs as a way to have their voices heard.