Art: Penn museum offers rugs interwoven with Afghan warfare

"Amaryllis Josephinae," by Pierre-Joseph Redouté, part of an exhibition at the American Philosophical Society Museum.
"Amaryllis Josephinae," by Pierre-Joseph Redouté, part of an exhibition at the American Philosophical Society Museum. (Courtesy David Brind)
Posted: May 15, 2011

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan late in 1979, its soldiers couldn't have known they were about to let slip the rugs of war.

Yet in response to the 10-year Soviet occupation, and to the invasion in 2001 by the United States and its allies, Afghan weavers created a new genre of Oriental carpet, the "war rug."

Instead of the traditional flowers and animals, these rugs are decorated with images of military equipment - fighter planes, tanks, assault rifles, bombs, land mines, and bullets, even maimed combatants and civilians.

If you can't imagine such an outlandish concept, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology can show you more than 60 of these rugs, all from the collection of the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto.

No one knows for certain why Afghan weavers began to create these rugs. Perhaps protracted war had so altered their landscape that military imagery seemed to offer an inevitable subject.

The country was littered with wrecked equipment, and weapons were commonplace because fighting between Afghans and occupiers was constant. Like war-rug weaving, it continues.

Max Allen, a Toronto collector who founded the Canadian textile museum (all the rugs in the Penn show were gifts from him) and is the show's guest curator, thinks that the earlier, more technically refined rugs were so inspired, and made for domestic use. Some might even have been commissioned from carpet ateliers.

He believes that the smaller, brighter rugs, which look like American folk art, reflect a response to market opportunities.

The rise of Internet commerce and the global economy made it possible for village weavers, and Afghan exiles in Pakistan and Iran, to get their rugs into international circulation. Today they are sold on eBay, for example.

As the market for war rugs has expanded, quality has inevitably declined, Allen said, especially with rugs made by exiles in Pakistan.

These rugs tend to be small, about the size of bath mats, which makes them appealing as souvenirs. They would be perfect tourist merchandise - if Afghanistan weren't too dangerous for casual travelers.

The earliest war rugs, which appeared shortly after the Soviet invasion, are the most traditional-looking in patterns, colors, and the sublimation of stylized war symbols, and the most sophisticated in craftsmanship. Only at arm's length does the military imagery become apparent.

Later war rugs look more like the work of naive folk artists. Colors are brighter, designs are more pictorial, and images, especially human figures, resemble the blocky, cartoonlike characters in early video games.

Some of these contain text, often a slightly corrupted form of English.

War rugs have become a collecting phenomenon. Yet, Allen said, the hazards of traveling in Afghanistan make it virtually impossible for scholars, collectors, and dealers to obtain much solid information about their origin, including who made them and why.

"Battleground," as the exhibition is titled, requires viewers to form their own judgments about content. As noted, the earlier, more traditionally beautiful designs seem to be saying: This is what I see around me, this is Afghanistan's daily reality.

By contrast, the "folk-art" rugs often carry more explicit messages, most of which are either nationalistic or apparently supportive of the American occupation.

One group of rugs extols Afghan heroes, such as the late King Amanullah Khan and Ahmad Shah Massoud, a revered leader of the resistance to Soviet occupation.

Several rugs depict the downfall of Mohammad Najibullah, the president of the communist government installed by the Soviets when they left Afghanistan in 1989. Najibullah was executed by the Taliban when they took over the country. So is this an anti-Soviet message or a pro-Taliban one?

Perhaps the most striking feature of the war rugs is not only the variety of weapons - the country must be saturated with them - but the accuracy with which they are depicted, indicating how thoroughly the war has permeated Afghan society.

The Kalashnikov assault rifle seems to be a special favorite, practically a new national icon.

"Of Elephants and Roses." Like "Battleground," this small exhibition, at the American Philosophical Society Museum, uses decorative arts to illuminate a significant moment in national history.

Here the nation is France, and the theme is the country's engagement with natural history during a "golden age" of 1790 to 1830.

The major figures are Georges Cuvier, an anatomist who is considered the founder of vertebrate paleontology; Pierre-Joseph Redouté, master botanical artist; and the Empress Josephine, who patronized Redouté and pursued horticultural and zoological experiments, especially the cultivation of roses.

The exhibition uses decorative objects, mainly porcelains; specimens of exotic birds, such as the Australian black swan; teeth of extinct pachyderms; drawings; books; and archival materials to reveal how the French expressed their curiosity about the natural world.

Their investigations were part of the intellectual efflorescence known as the Enlightenment. Cuvier applied scientific rigor to studies of fossils and animal bones; his section includes several massive teeth from members of the elephant family.

Redouté was similarly meticulous when rendering flowers; his watercolors and the books derived from them, especially Les Roses, are still considered masterworks of their kind.

A section devoted to trees includes specimens collected in North America by André Michaux, sent by France's King Louis XVI to find species that could be used to replenish his country's depleted forests.

The section devoted to Josephine and her black swans also includes a preserved specimen of an Australian blue-crowned pigeon, which is as big as a Canada goose.

The exhibition also remembers a giraffe named Zarafa, a gift to King Charles X from the viceroy of Egypt in 1827.

A painting of the animal's passage across France on its way to Paris, mainly of historical interest, and a tender drawing of its head, made after it died by J.C. Werner, memorialize the animal in art.

Art: Rifles and Roses

"Battleground: War Rugs from Afghanistan" continues at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology through July 31. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, to 8 p.m. Wednesdays. Admission: $10 general, $7 for visitors 65 and older, and $6 for visitors 6 to 17 and full-time students with ID. Pay what you wish during the last hour before closing. Information: 215-898-4000 or

"Of Elephants and Roses" continues at the American Philosophical Society Museum, 104 S. Fifth St. (next to Independence Hall), through Dec. 31. Hours through Labor Day are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, to 8 p.m. Fridays. From Sept. 3 to Dec. 31, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays through Sundays. Donation of $1 is requested. Information 215-440-3440 or

Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or Read his recent work at


comments powered by Disqus