On the wall in the narrow, arched second floor corridor of Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum two rugs hang side by side. At a glance the similarities are more noticeable than the differences. Three groupings of large figures run vertically down the center of a space bounded by a precisely framed and detailed border design. The rug on the left is darker overall and more earthy in coloration, while the one on the right has a brighter, light tan background. This, combined with a simpler background design makes the figures on the right pop out more emphatically. The overall composition is the same, however, and the shapes and clothing styles of the central figures are nearly identical.
They are beautiful as well as exquisitely crafted, made with hand-spun and dyed, tightly knotted wool. Admirable for their utility as well as the quality of design and workmanship, a superficial appreciation might accrue to a cursory inspection. “Nice colors,” I overheard a visitor say in passing at the exhibit opening last night.
If your examination of these two remarkable rugs ended there you would miss what is arguably the most important feature of the rugs and a telling if visually subtle contrast between the two. The figures on the left hold guitars and other musical instruments, while those on the right grip assault rifles, rocket launchers, and other weapons. Furthermore, in the background on the left are stylized flowers, birds and other animals. The right includes clearly articulated tanks and warplanes.
The exhibit is called “Afghan war rugs: the modern art of central asia.” It will be on display at Villa Terrace through January 6, 2014. The rugs vary in size. Some are no larger than a small doormat; others hang floor to ceiling. Most are figurative and contain graphic depictions of modern weapons and warfare, as suggested in the title.
For anyone familiar with the typical rugs of central Asia, reactions to these are likely to include surprise if not shock. Many are far less subtle than the ones described above. In a room nearby, for example, is one that could easily elicit a strong emotional reaction. The top half depicts the New York skyline. The twin towers of the World Trade Center stand tall against a serenely blue sky. That sky also contains a single jet airliner flying directly towards the nearer tower. In the bottom half are a precisely detailed helicopter, an M1 Abrams tank, a soldier with upraised assault rifle, a surface-to-air rocket launcher, and several warplanes. These all overlie a map of Afghanistan. Dividing the two panels is a black band containing the words “waragainst-terrorist.” The parallel design leaves little room for interpretation of the bold pronouncement.
Most of the rugs in the exhibit are fairly recent creations, the oldest ones having been made in the 1970s. Seeing modern weaponry, depictions of contemporary cityscapes, as well as obvious references to 9/11 and the familiar war in Afghanistan, it is tempting to conclude that the grim subject matter is a recent development and a reaction to the country’s wars with first Russia and then the United States. Indeed, the wall texts and the essays in an accompanying brochure examine the history of these and other conflicts and include descriptions of specific weaponry employed by the various parties involved. Many of these weapons are depicted with great accuracy in the rugs.
However, at least one of the wall panels explained that the presence of weapons and the war-related imagery in Afghanistan’s artistic output predates recent events and is attributable to a more general belligerence based on tribal culture. “The long-standing martial traditions of the Pashtun (ethnic Afghans) guaranteed their social importance. Weapons were awarded upon puberty, and were a central decorative element with a powerful aesthetic charge for men and their homes….”
This exhibit of Afghan war rugs is not only well worth a visit. I believe it presents a truly unique body of work that combines idiosyncratic themes, ethnographic depth, and aesthetic quality. Villa Terrace is the premier venue for this exhibit in the United States. Milwaukeeans are lucky to have the opportunity to see it.
For more information go to Villa Terrace.