President Najibullah

Carpet Bombings

After the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afgan rug makers strayed from the mostly geometric forms they had depicted for centuries, and began weaving figurative designs. These images were not traditional either—they were flags, helicopters, tanks, grenades, and other accoutrements of the soldiers they wanted as their customers. Initially the Western market ignored these creations, which did not fit with their concept of what “authentic” Afgan rugs should be.

But eventually dealers and scholars took notice, and now an exhibition featuring some spectacular examples of this hybrid genre has arrived at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia. This rug, woven between 2001-2007, depicts President Najibullah, who led Afghanistan when the Soviet army withdrew in 1989, as a puppet managed by a hand with a hammer and sickle. The figures riding on camels across the bottom of the rug are refugees.

Curators stress they have not decoded much of the iconography on these carpets. The weavers, who came from ethnic regions with their own distinctive materials, iconography, and techniques, had shared styles in refugee camps and elsewhere, meaning that the old categories for sorting and interpreting their work are no longer useful. And these days, weavers are just as likely to be influenced by images from television or foreign magazines as they are by historical antecedents.

“People see these things and jump to the conclusion that it’s protest art,” says Penn Museum curator Brian Spooner. “I don’t think we have any evidence at all. I think it’s also that people try and please the international customer.”

The weavers the museum worked with offered the staff a carpet with an image of President Nixon as a gift, Spooner recounts. “That didn’t go down very well here,” he says. “So we compromised, and they wove us a small carpet with the museum logo on it.”

Photo © Textile Museum of Canada.