Afghanistan has a tradition of weaving rugs that goes back thousands of years. On the tables of tribal leaders and under the knees of humble farmers in prayer, the rugs show birds, flowers, and sheep.
Throughout the 20th century, Afghanistan has known more war than peace. The rugs on display at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology replace pastoral symbols with hand grenades, AK-47s, and Soviet tanks.
“At first glance it looks like an oriental carpet,” said Brian Spooner, the curator of near Asian ethnology at the museum. “Only when you get up close to it you see it has some unusual things on it.”
Rugs are traditionally made for local purposes, such as mosques and marriage dowries. Those are the rugs coveted by collectors seeking authenticity. Rug dealers like to keep weavers away from buyers, lest they cater to collector taste and ruin the cultural purity of the rug.
But because Afghanistan has been in near-constant armed struggle for decades, rural weavers have limited access to foreign collectors.
“Weavers lost their livelihood, and these foreign soldiers turned up with money,” explains Spooner. “Would you like a rug? What would you like on it? So the weavers would start weaving things that they think would be of direct interest for whom they would be weaving the rug.”
There are lots of questions about the weavers, their commercial motivations, and the message behind their images. Spooner says there is very little ethnographic research in this field because of the danger involved. He doesn’t know the reason why one of the rugs depicts the two towers of the World Trade Center with an approaching airplane, or who the intended buyer would be.
“This is the big question–is it protest art?” says Spooner. “Everybody wants to know that this shows the people really are against the war, or really are for the war. I think they’re just trying to sell something. These are soldiers, they must be proud of what they do, they’ll want to see what they are doing on a carpet, I’ll put it on a carpet for them.”
The quality of the carpet ranges from exquisite abstractions of weapons of war, to folk-art portraits of Afghan heroes, to roughly rendered 9/11 reminders with spelling errors.
“There’s one around here that is particularly good,” said Spooner, seeking out an enormous rug with purple, blue and blood-red thread woven into tiny airplanes, hand grenades, and surface-to-air missiles. “This is a superb piece. I wouldn’t want it in my living room, but it really is a collector’s item.”