Lessons from the Afghan Women Who Weave Modern War into an Ancient Tradition
Photos by Kevin Sudeith. Courtesy of Warrug.com.
Women of Central Asia have been weaving hand-made rugs of intricate design for thousands of years. But in 1979, the carpets began to change radically. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan displaced more than a million citizens and devastated the region. Its effects impacted everyday life so deeply that women in Afghanistan and those living as refugees in Pakistan and Iran began to incorporate icons of war into their carpets. Flowers, birds, and decorative knots were replaced by machine guns, grenades, helicopters, and tanks in what were otherwise traditional weavings. These symbols were at first subtle additions, and were later emphasized for a niche market of Western collectors.
After a brutal decade of guerilla warfare in which many civilians were killed, the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, but a civil war continued between the Afghan army and the Mujahideen throughout the 1990s. By the end of the decade, the Taliban had seized control; the extremist group quickly implemented a severe interpretation of Sharia law. Women’s economic and social independence, as well as their basic access to public life, was grievously curtailed by the practice of purdah, or female seclusion.
Photo by Kevin Sudeith. Courtesy of Warrug.com.
Aniconism was also decreed based on a hadith, or Muslim religious text referring to the life of prophet Muhammed; depicting living creatures became idolatrous. Photography—in addition to most art forms—was also banned. In this context, the flowers and fauna incorporated into many traditional carpet patterns became riskier. Strangely, parachutes and bombs easily took their place. War in the region continued with the American invasion in 2001. Iconography in propaganda leaflets dropped from U.S. military aircrafts began to appear in the women’s carpets, including the image of the burning Twin Towers.
Despite decades of war, ancient pattern techniques that can take months or years to complete are still passed from mother to daughter. Testimony from the makers of these carpets is difficult to obtain, as many of these works remain unattributed, and the female weavers lack easy access to modes of international communication. But the largest online archive of Afghan war rugs, maintained by New York–based artist Kevin Sudeith, offers information and an online store. Still, the weavers’ authorship is often lost when these works go to market, yet their masterful compositions reveal a dark humor and complex commentary on contemporary life.
In the carpets’ compositions, perspectival viewpoints merge and flatten to integrate three-dimensional forms with maps and repeating decorative patterns. Some of the rug designs are based on Charbagh, a quadrilateral layout inspired by the four gardens of Paradise described in the Qur’an. Another genre of rugs depicts national maps of Afghanistan, which may have been influenced by Alighiero Boetti’s map series.The Italian Conceptual artist traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1980s and worked with female weavers, first in Kabul and later in Peshawar, to create brightly colored tapestries depicting world maps with national flags labeled with bold text. In keeping with his interest in chance, Boetti sometimes left the color choices up to the women. While their aesthetics impacted his work, hints of his style are also apparent in some of the war rugs, which feature Roman characters spelling out “USSR,” “Made in Afghanistan,” or “Long Live US Soldiers.”
The New York–based artist Leah Dixon first encountered the war rugs online in 2010. She was intrigued to read that Afghan refugees in Kashmir created some of the first war rugs. Purportedly, Muslims used them as prayer rugs and Hindus used them as yoga mats. This rumored moment of bizarre social cohesion stopped her in her tracks. At the time, Dixon was making figurative paintings while bartending at Welcome to the Johnsons, a Lower East Side dive bar where she frequently served soldiers who had just returned from tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. She began to research contemporary artists who addressed the wars, but nothing she saw could compare to the surreal intensity of the war rugs.
“The idea that these rugs are not only brilliant storytelling platforms, but are also being used by people who have been in conflict for hundreds of years, absolutely blew my mind,” the artist told me when we met near Beverly’s, the bar and popular artist-hangout she co-founded in 2013. Her experiences living and bartending in Lower Manhattan over the past 15 years gave her insight into wide-ranging human stories, with one repeating motif: “Let me count the ways that I want to talk about September 11th,” she said, noting how conversations about the event with patrons from every walk of life have deeply impacted her. As New Yorkers collectively grappled with that trauma over long nights at the bar, the iconic symbol of the Twin Towers became the most shared imagery in the world. “These images’ circulation contributed to the current speed of image and information sharing that has characterized my generation’s experience of childhood into adulthood,” Dixon said. From then on, her work began to explore precarious constructions, propaganda, and the military, in tandem with the sociality of nightlife.
Because many artists shy away from this touchy subject matter, Dixon found unlikely peers in the anonymous rug weavers. The horrors of violence and the destruction of everyday life manifests in these carpets with an absurd levity. Dixon first created her own version in 2010—not woven but cut from colorful yoga mats. She described the work as an homage to the carpet weavers—and a jab at the United States’s commercialized relationship to war.
Photos by Kevin Sudeith. Courtesy of Warrug.com.
Cartoonish, masculinized war motifs settled into the language of her work, which now often incorporates competitive party games, home-improvement objects, and wood models of the Twin Towers scaled to the artist’s height. The suburban connotations and cheery colors of Dixon’s yoga mat sculptures tame the wartime symbolism to a disturbing degree. The Afghan carpets also achieve this effect; they do not simply commemorate a victory or mourn the departed, they fixate on the physical paraphernalia of warfare and its endless proliferation of deadly merchandise.
The reaction to Dixon’s work has been suspiciously enthusiastic at times, much like the Western market for war rugs. “People thought, ‘Wow, you must love yoga,’” Dixon laughed. “I told them, ‘I’ve never done yoga in my life.’” Several companies reached out to Dixon to license images of her works for mass-produced yoga mats—requests that the artist refused.
Dixon’s work gestures to the large-scale depoliticization of the American public during the wars in the Middle East. Her pieces are additionally critical of “self-care culture, which, during this pre-Instagram time, was already spiraling out of control,” she said. These concerns might seem far apart, but concurrent trends fused them together. Mass media normalized the violent reality of the wars, while a cultural turn, brewing since the 1980s, shifted personal responsibility toward the isolated improvement of the self. The promise of health and even spiritual fulfillment continues to fuel consumer crazes of which custom yoga gear is just one example. But the political condition that tethers civic participation to personal spending finds no better example than President George W. Bush’s appeal to the nation after 9/11 to not let fear prevent them from shopping.
Leah Dixon, Imperial Ambitions, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.
Leah Dixon, Don't See a Need for Middlemen I, 2017–19. Courtesy of the artist.
While a carpet or yoga mat is generally conceived as a zone of civilian leisure, these uniquely hybrid objects have made the physical machinery of war enter the home in an unexpectedly appealing way. The intricate Afghan rugs and Dixon’s sporty versions break down normative boundaries of war and peace. Their craftsmanship and compositional ingenuity are aesthetically stunning, while the danger they symbolically depict threatens art and civilization itself.
Dixon has continued to produce yoga mats over the years, but makes sure to linger over their conceptual friction. “Every time I’ve been made uncomfortable in this years-long process of making the American yoga mat war rugs, I’ve remembered how vital they are to my practice,” she said. These objects make the paradox of peace apparent: Even seated on a sumptuous rug, you can never truly be at ease with a grenade by your side. Perhaps the intentional introduction of discomfort into daily life is the true genius of these works. Dixon and the Afghan weavers who inspire her offer a moral imperative in cheeky disguise: to let no room of the house lack vigilance.