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From combat to carpet

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Paisleys swirl into tanks. A cypress tree bends into a missile. A pomegranate disguises a grenade.

Afghan war rugs combine traditional motifs with weaponry reflecting the long history of foreign involvement in Afghanistan.

Open at Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art, the traveling exhibition “From Combat to Carpet” showcases about 40 handwoven rugs with war-related themes collected across the last 40 years. The museum is supplementing the exhibit with rugs from its own permanent collection.

Prolonged periods of political instability devastated Afghanistan’s centuries-old rug trade, yet rug making remains a cornerstone of the national economy. In 2019, the hand-woven carpet industry counted as the nation’s second largest employer.

To some, war rugs represent cultural opportunism. But some of these textiles read “Life without art is death” and “My wish is on my loom.”

It all started with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, said MOIFA curator Carrie Hertz.

“The technology is little altered; it’s kind of a new iconography,” she said.

The Soviet invasion resulted in a massive refugee crisis as millions fled into neighboring Pakistan and Iran.

“They took their weaving traditions with them,” Hertz said. “It became a means of survival.”

Prompted by decades of traders and invaders, weavers adapted traditional imagery and compositions, translating them into depictions of world maps, tourist sites, weapons and military figures. They proved popular with occupying military personnel, journalists, foreign aid workers, international collectors and contemporary art curators. As the decades unfolded, weavers updated popular imagery and themes to reflect current events and changing technologies, as well as the tastes of potential buyers.

After 2001, weavers began adding stars and stripes or U.S. dollar bills to appeal to Americans.

“Suddenly, there are new markets that pop up,” Hertz said. “Then they get on the radar of art collectors. The more the U.S. has been involved in Afghanistan, the more you see English. They don’t know English, but they understand the buyers do.”

Portrait rugs show the image of Amanullah Khan, the sovereign of the Kingdom of Afghanistan from 1919 to 1929.

Tanks rim the borders of a rug’s map of the country populated by helicopters, guns and anti-aircraft vehicles. This might mark the celebration of Afghanistan on the world stage. Another weaving features rows of airplanes and helicopters where flowers and vines might have trailed.

One shows planes aimed at the Twin Towers with an anti-Taliban message; another shows banners of the U.S. and Afghanistan connected by a dove of peace. A lack of anti-American sentiment might stem from the knowledge that Americans are the biggest collectors, Hertz said.

“Some of them are exquisitely woven,” she added.

The meaning of the rugs depends on the weaver. Are they a celebration of modernity or a rejection of war? Are they witnesses to shared trauma or the commercialization of violence? Or do they represent testaments to ingenuity and a spirit of survival?

“Part of it is reflecting one’s environment,” Hertz said. “If there are military walking around with machine guns, that’s the only thing you know.”

This exhibition debuted at the Villa Terrace Decorative Art Museum in Milwaukee. It has been traveling throughout the U.S.

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