University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Rugs and Facebook: “Battleground War Rugs from Afghanistan”

By: Gabrielle Niu

April 4, 2011

The big white helicopters on this patterned rug, among the fighter jets, hand grenades and tanks, are Soviet Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters. Made in Afghanistan, 1980s, 203 x 119 cm. Photo © Textile Museum of Canada.

With the political uprisings that have swept across the Middle East and Northern Africa in the past few months, we see the important role that social media has played in elucidating the general public as well as in creating and portraying a cohesive national voice for the people themselves during times of conflict.  Without the immediacy of media or of Facebook and Twitter, however, people in the past have found other ways to record and express the shared experiences of national tumult and upheaval.

Starting 30 April 2011 and running through 31 July 2011, the travelling exhibition Battleground War Rugs from Afghanistan will be running at the Penn Museum. The exhibition is coming to Penn from the Textile Museum of Canada where curator Max Allen has used this exhibition to highlight how three decades of Afghani violence and warfare have influenced and ultimately transformed the imagery and iconography of the traditional Oriental rug. As Allen prefaces in his curatorial essay, rugs from Afghanistan traditionally have depicted flowers or birds in geometric patterns, woven with techniques and materials that reflected a specific region or ethnic group. With the Soviet invasion of 1970, followed by ten years of civil war, and most recently the global war on terrorism, bombs, helicopters, and guns have found themselves woven into the designs of Afghanistan’s rugs.

This rug shows the most important piece of weaponry to an Afghan guerilla fighter—the AK-47. Because of its durability and ease of use, the Kalashnikov, in its various forms, remains the most widely used assault rifle in the world. Made in Afghanistan, 2001-2007, 85 x 62 cm. Photo © Textile Museum of Canada.

Originally the weavers, primarily women, used the rugs in their own communities as a medium to record and express the violence and warfare in their lives, weaving guns and tanks into intricate geometric designs. However, as the war rugs gained popularity with western audiences, the war imagery became bolder and more commercialized, depicting towns with helicopters circling overhead or blatant images of weaponry. We see in these rugs how some Afghanis have taken the shared experiences of catastrophe and woven them into tangible artifacts of war. In this way, these rugs serve as tangible evidence to preserve and visualize the Afghanistan war experience.

  • İ find these war rugs really interesting, a friend of mine picked one up in a thrift shop and had it in their lounge for weeks without noticing the AK47’s and helicopters incorparated in the design!

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