Unknown maker in Afghanistan, Twin Towers Rug, after 2001; acquired in Kabul, Afghanistan, 2004. Knotted wool, 32 ¼ x 22 ¾ inches. Private collection. Image courtesy of SMoCA

Unknown maker in Afghanistan, “Twin Towers Rug,” after 2001, acquired in Kabul, Afghanistan, private collection, 2004, knotted wool, 32 ¼ x 22 ¾ inches (all images courtesy SMoCA unless noted)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — War and conflict have long had a role in the production of art. Today, there are many artists actively engaging with contemporary wars and their resulting traumas. At the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA), these themes are on display in an exhibition that hybridizes current, geo-political issues with the ancient craft of Afghan rug weaving. Afghan War Rugs: The Modern Art of Central Asia features a collection of approximately 40 rugs ranging in date from around the 1970s through the events of September 11, 2001, depicting the violent history of Afghanistan’s past 30 war-riddled years.

Installation view, "Afghan  War Rugs: The Art of Central Asia" at SMoCA. All images courtesy of the author for Hyperallergic

Installation view, ‘Afghan War Rugs: The Art of Central Asia’ at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Organized and curated by Enrico Mascelloni and Annemarie Sawkins, Afghan War Rugs, which was previously on view at the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum, Milwaukee, and the Boca Raton Museum of Art, Florida, is a survey of cultural production steeped in an incredible tension, one between aesthetic beauty and violent subject matter. Entering the War Rugs gallery rooms, one is greeted with rugs both hung on walls as well as on low plinths that appear to be floating, playing on an orientalist stereotype of the Middle Eastern trope of the flying/magic carpet. Whether that was subconscious or deliberate on the part of the curators is unclear; however, it inadvertently inserts a dominate Western gaze onto the objects in the exhibition. The curation is clean – no frills, bells, or whistles. Simple white cube gallery set-up with the occasional pop of a cobalt blue wall, which instantly brought to mind the so-called ‘green on blue’ attacks that have been occurring in the country between Afghan forces and the Coalition.

Unknown maker in Western Afghanistan, War Rug with Peacocks, date unknown; acquired in Peshawar, Pakistan, 1994. Knotted wool, 57 1/2 x 33 1/2 inches. Private collection. Image courtesy of SMoCA

Unknown maker in West Afghanistan, “War Rug with Peacocks,” date unknown; acquired in Peshawar, Pakistan, 1994, knotted wool, 57 1/2 x 33 1/2 inches

The pieces in the exhibition, all rendered with rich hues and texture, come from private collections built from visits to markets in Kabul, Mazar-i Sharif, Heart, as well as the Pakistani cities Islamabad and Peshawar. The makers of the rugs, traditionally made by women in Afghanistan, are unknown. Though the dates are indeterminable, there is a range of dates associated with the works due to subject matter specific to certain leaders and events in the history of Afghanistan. The traditional composition and aesthetic of the rugs is for the most part intact. In fact, if you weren’t looking closely at them, at a glance they would appear to be any other rug one may see at an open-air market in Kabul. On closer inspection, the imagery that would normally be columns of geometric and floral patterns are replaced with Soviet and U.S. tanks, weaponry, fighter jets, missiles, helicopters, world maps showing a skewed perception of Afghanistan’s geographic presence, and political portraits. The stylized renditions of mechanisms of war are haunting. They illustrate how deeply the trauma of war has permeated the psyche of the population. The rugs are personal observations of the effects of war, effects that have become dominant subject matter in the cottage industries of Afghanistan.

Unknown maker in Afghanistan, Portrait Rug (Amanullah Khan), date unknown; acquired in Peshawar, Pakistan, 1985. Knotted wool, 53 1/4 x 33 1/2 inches. Private collection. Image courtesy of SMoCA

Unknown maker in Afghanistan, “Portrait Rug (Amanullah Khan),” date unknown, acquired in Peshawar, Pakistan, 1985, knotted wool, 53 1/4 x 33 1/2 inches (click to enlarge)

A country bordered by six other nations (Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and China), the war rug is a phenomenon unique to Afghanistan. The rugs weave narratives specific to events in Afghanistan’s recent history, including the Taliban’s takeover of the country in 1996, the Soviet invasion in 1979, and, illustrated in the most recent rug of the exhibition, the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

The exhibition is impactful. It puts on display an extraordinarily violent history of war manifested in the threads of a traditionally feminine craft. There are criticisms to be made of the curation, however. Though the show does allow the rugs to speak for themselves as it were, it is a bit lackluster and like any other museum show. Perhaps it was the harsh, full-flood lighting, making the space feel too clinical and lacking in any sense of intimacy with what is a fairly intimate medium — one that is between the weaver and the loom and that is generally produced for the interior of a residence. That emotional element is lost here. It may be somewhat hubristic on my part to criticize these elements in such an exhibition with such heavy subject matter, however. Despite the few disagreements I have with the curation, the exhibition is sound and ensconced within the work and weight of trauma. The determination of the weavers to spin these tales is far greater than anything that could be said by me.

Afghan War Rugs: The Modern Art of Central Asia continues at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art through April 19. 

Erin Joyce is a writer and curator of contemporary art and has organized over 35 exhibitions across the US. She was a winner of the 2023 Rabkin Prize for arts journalism from The Dorothea and Leo Rabkin...