Nomadic tribes living in the area of today’s Afghanistan perfected the art of knotting rugs – today the Afghan rug is well known all around the world.
However, invasions and wars gave birth to a totally new and bizarre version of rugs!
Why did Kalashnikovs and bombs become a motive on Afghan rugs? And, how is this development linked to Conflictfood’s projects?
The knotting of rugs is a centuries-old tradition in Afghanistan. Worldwide, Afghan rugs are highly valued and they have been important export commodities of the country for a long time. Back in time nomads produced the first woven and knotted rugs and ‘Kilim’ as a substitute for animal hide. They were considered a handy piece of furniture because they could be easily rolled up and packed on the nomad’s horses. After arriving on a new resting place rugs were used in versatile ways as comfortable floor covering, ‘wall’ or ‘entrance door’ of the tents.
Every tribe had its own specific pattern and colour scheme – just like European family crests.
The traditional art of knotting rugs is one of the oldest cultural achievements of humankind. In 2010 it was included in the UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The first designs of the traditional carpets were quite simple. In contrast to the diversity of shapes in paintings and pottery, the rectangular structure of the weaving frame only allowed the production of basic geometric forms – for thousands of years rectangles, squares, hexagons and octagons were dominating the design of rugs. The structured character of these forms simultaneously created repetitions of hexagons and octagons within the spaces and gaps in between.
Over time the range of geometric patterns was complemented with characteristic symbols related to the climate, mythology and religion as well as the every-day-life experiences of the artists. For knowledgeable nomads different rugs became pictograms, cult items or cultural objects.
The diversity of patterns and motives, the cultural networking of the tribes and the different climate conditions lead to the development of traditional applications of colour, motives, techniques and proportions that were unique for each and every tribe.
Later on the canon of motives was further expanded. In the Persian and Ottoman Empire carpet designers borrowed ideas from book illumination and ceramics depicting floral patterns, courtly splendour, opulent curves and rosettes. Moreover images of hunts and gardens became popular and for the first time silk and cotton were used to produce carpets. Huge sizes to fit the enormous halls of the palaces replaced the former typically produced smaller sized versions of the tent interiors.
On both sides, the courtly production and the nomadic tradition mutually enriched each other with their specific styles and designs. But, with the downfall of the Ottoman Empire and the Afghan invasion of Persia the courtly style of rug production abruptly ended.
From luxury to mass production
With the ending of the 19th century the rug production was subject to a second change. Through the Viennese World Exhibition in 1873 the Oriental rug became world famous. Unimaginable interest and an increase in orders fuelled the trade with the rugs. Thereby, material and patterns were mostly dictated by market demands.
In the 1920s most of the nomads were settling down. Since then rugs have been mainly ordered at big manufactures and traded as mass-produced goods.
As from 1960 copies of traditional patterns also developed in European third countries like Romania and Bulgaria – from 1970 in Pakistan and India and later on even in China.
Thus, due to all those cultural influences the diversity of patterns and colours was and is constantly growing. Annually new types of rugs are produced as an attempt to capture market niches and comply with the consumers taste.
During the Sowjet-Afghan war in the 1980s approximately one-and-a-half million people died, at least five million had to flee their home country. Most of them went to Pakistan and knotting rugs was a possibility to earn for their livings in a foreign country.
Exactly this war provoked a new extraordinary category of contemporary art – for the first time Afghan rugs pictured the horrors of war. That is how the so-called war rugs emerged.
Instead of pomegranates they picture hand grenades, instead of flowers they expose warplanes and Kalashnikovs.
Initially weapons were only depicted at the borders of the rugs, but soon they moved as the main theme to the centre of the artistic pieces. Not only should the rugs be a proof of the personally experienced heroic actions, rather the aim of the artist is to rise the awareness of the world public about the enemy’s military supremacy – tanks encircle a mosque, the enemy’s troops invade a town district and heavy weapons compete with light firearms.
The rapid development of the motives on the rugs documents the direct interaction between the everyday war context and art. After 2001 the rugs depict the NATO-invasion and whole editions show the attacks on the World Trade Center. Recently also drones and drone attacks were included in the patterns of the rugs.
Although these knotted pictures are a source of the experienced omnipresence of lethal weapons, the suffering and psychological vulnerability of the Afghan people, they also embody traditional values giving hope and advocating peace.
This art of resistance is an integral form of expression allowing the artists and his community to psychologically process their war experiences and flight.
In this way the war rugs became knotted documents of time, psychograms and images against oblivion.
Conflictfood is keeping the tradition
During our travels through Afghanistan we found the war rugs on markets and carpet shops again and again. Unfortunately, all of them were machine-made cheap goods. The original pieces are already belonging to art collectors and achieve high prices on international auctions.
Everyone has to decide for himself whether war rugs are pretentious kitsch or traditional art pieces. To us – the team of Conflictfood – they exert a strange fascination, which finally inspired us to integrate them into the graphic design of our saffron packaging.
Together with our graphic designer Lisa Baur, we picked up the traditional pattern in conformity with the war rug designs. In the working process we developed various new versions of the pattern and constantly tried to improve them.
Finally, we decided in favour of a specific one – at a first glance the pattern is inspired by the traditional Afghan structure of rugs. It takes a second look to see the small grenades, rifles, warplanes situated around the saffron flowers.