From the more than 50 years of conflict and military intervention in Afghanistan has emerged a surprising textile phenomenon—war rugs. A mash-up of centuries-old techniques and modern symbols of war that include AK-47 assault rifles and artillery tanks, these complex, visually stunning rugs are woven by Afghan women and were originally marketed to visiting troops.
War rugs—which can take up to one year to weave—make up just 1 percent of the rugs produced in Afghanistan and are not exhibited often in the United States. An exhibition opening Saturday at Florida’s Boca Museum of Art, however, will offer a rare opportunity to view more than 40 of these rugs up close. Titled “Afghan War Rugs: The Contemporary Art of Central Asia,” the show—which traveled to the Boca Museum from the Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum in Milwaukee—was curated by Annemarie Sawkins and Enrico Mascelloni.
While the exact origin of Afghan war rugs is unknown, many historians trace the tradition to the mid-20th century, after the 1947 invention of the Kalashnikov assault rifle, or AK-47. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Afghan weavers found that combat-inspired rugs were marketable to Russian troops, and later, beginning in 2001, to American troops. The rugs made their way into more mainstream markets and are now collected by buyers around the world.
Guns and other weapons were likely the impetus for the creation of war rugs, but other motifs like maps, local landmarks, and portraits are also popular among weavers and buyers. The jewel-tone Portrait Rug (Amānullāh Khan), 1985, for example, depicts the leader who ruled Afghanistan from 1919 to 1929. Amānullāh, who lead the country to independence from Britain, is considered by many Afghanis to be one of the country’s first modern leaders. By framing the portrait with toy-like images of contemporary artillery, the artist (who is unknown) positioned him as such. Pictorial rugs like this one were so popular that weavers continued their production even while under the control of the Taliban, whose members oppose idolatry.
Inspired by postcards, photographs, and propaganda posters, Afghanistan’s nomadic and semi-nomadic weavers also depict feats of architecture and civil engineering. One rug in this show features one of Afghanistan’s major engineering projects, the Naghlu Dam. The dam, which supports Afghanistan’s largest power plant—is a symbol of progress.
On the rug, throngs of low-flying helicopters and advancing tanks encircle the dam—an earnest reminder that military presence has become part of the country’s landscape. “Wrapped up in the three British wars, the Soviet invasion, the American invasion, the civil wars, and the conflicts,” says Sawkins, “is the war rug.”