Afghan War Rugs: A Conversation With Max Allen
From Feb. 15 to 18, the Volunteer Association of the Textile Museum of Canada will offer 48 Afghan war rugs for sale to the public. The rugs were generously donated to the Association by Max Allen, Museum co-founder, collector, and curator of the exhibition, Battleground: War Rugs from Afghanistan. Mr. Allen, who has collected some 500 war rugs over the years, spoke to Angela Kryhul about the historical significance of the rugs, and how they help us to understand the lives and culture of the weavers.
Angela Kryhul: Describe how you first discovered Afghan war rugs.
Max Allen: I remember the first war rug I’d ever seen. There was a Going Out of Business sale at a rug store at Bay St. and Yorkville Ave. in Toronto. They had an enormous number of rugs piled on the floor and when I looked through them, I came across an astounding rug. It had helicopters in it, and I thought ‘Good Lord, what’s this?’ It was from Afghanistan. I decided I had to look through every rug in the store–they had 10 war rugs and I bought them all. One thing led to another, including the exhibition (Battleground: War Rugs from Afghanistan, April 2008-January 2009).
Angela Kryhul: Afghan war rugs depict maps, bombs, guns… why did the weavers choose these images?
Max Allen: It’s been the tradition in oriental rug making for people to depict things that are important to them–either real things, like flowers and birds, or ideas about things, such as paradise. The war rugs are like that, too. The war machinery on the rugs is something that the environment in Afghanistan was full of during the Soviet occupation (1979-89), so that instead of flowers many of the rugs have hand grenades. Instead of birds, there are airplanes.
A second thing that happened during this time was that a large number of Afghan people were displaced because of the bombings and the landmines, and so forth. Many went eastward toward Pakistan, and some went westward to Iran. Some of them saw things they’d never seen before–cities, vehicles, roads, buildings, the whole apparatus of urban life. It must have been quite astounding, and so the rugs began to reflect that, too.
“This is sort of a combination of Analytic Cubism and Synthetic Cubism. There’s a very odd manipulation of the space here. In the lower left-hand corner, there are the back ends of cars. There are eagles coming down from the sky. The buildings in the background are kind of flattened. There’s just an extraordinary mixture of ways of showing objects in space.” – Max Allen
Angela Kryhul: Who were the weavers of war rugs? Women? Men?
Max Allen: When Afghans first arrived in the refugee camps, there was nothing to do. Men who’d made their living raising sheep didn’t have any sheep. The women taught the men in their families how to make rugs. It was easy to get hold of wool and dyes from entrepreneurs who would resell the rugs. So, men learned to weave rugs. Before that, and I presume afterwards, it was women’s work. Textiles are always women’s work… well, 99% of the time.
Angela Kryhul: Did you meet the people who made the rugs?
Max Allen: Oh, goodness, no! The people who made them are so far removed from the channels of commerce, there’s no way to get to the weavers. The dealers, of course, won’t tell you how and where they got them.
“This is Rustam (a mythic warrior immortalized by the 10th century poet Firdowsi in his epic called the Shahnameh). The thing that looks like a snake tied in a knot is a dragon. And standing on the dragon is Rustam’s horse, Rakhsh. The story is that Rustam is on a journey during which he has to accomplish a number of deeds. When he and his horse lay down for a nap, the dragon comes out of the ground and is going to kill them both. Rakhsh makes a huge amount of noise, but by the time Rustam wakes up, the dragon has gone. This happens a second time, and Rakhsh becomes annoyed. The third time, Rakhsh jumps on the dragon, Rustam wakes up to see a great fight going on and helps the horse kill the dragon. You can see how it relates to Afghanistan today.” – Max Allen
Angela Kryhul: Can you tell how old the rugs are?
Max Allen: Sometimes there are dates on them, which you can either believe, or not, as you wish. It’s always a problem with rugs. The earliest ones are the most eccentric. There was one in the Battleground show that had an enormous airplane and a huge horse, and both were drawn as if Picasso had had at them. Once the weavers started making rugs by the hundreds to meet commercial requirements, lots were made that were alike. Dozens of small ones with maps and AK-47s were made. They tended to become clichéd as more and more were made. The early ones were individualistic, the later rugs look more like mass-produced postcards.
And they weren’t drawn first. They were done on the loom, often sideways from the way the image would be seen right side up. That’s another interesting thing, to me, about the landscape rugs. They’re woven 90 degrees from the way they’re meant to be seen–you have to think of this image sideways while you’re making it.
“That’s Omar Khayyám on the right, reciting poetry and playing music. The figure in the middle is a woman dancing. There are two women sitting and holding roosters on their laps. And that gypsy caravan on the left reflects the idea that the Roma originated in Afghanistan.” – Max Allen
Angela Kryhul: What is the historical significance of the war rugs?
Max Allen: The war rugs are the most important cultural artifacts made in a non-Western country in the 20th century. Plain and simple. Why? Because they’re an unprecedented cultural record of modernity. They do everything that television news does for us. They even have subtitles, sometimes. They are pictures of enormous cultural upheaval, as it’s happening.
And there aren’t any more. For a couple of years, the Internet dealers had lots of interesting ones. There aren’t many now–just the little ones with the map of Afghanistan, with a couple of rifles in the corner. But that’s it. There was a limited supply. And there are maybe only six significant collectors of war rugs in the world.
“A significant number of rugs that were made during the various Afghan wars show the map of Afghanistan with the provinces laid out and often named in a way that’s not especially literate. One assumes that the weaver couldn’t write, but copied a map as best they could. This rug is like that, and I think the impulse behind these rugs is 'Let Afghanistan be Afghanistan.' It’s like a slogan: This is Afghanistan.” – Max Allen
Angela Kryhul: Describe your favourite rugs.
Max Allen: One is the rug with the enormous airplane and a horse. Another is a map rug, but it shows Uncle Sam’s hat as a cornucopia with AK-47s coming out of it. It’s an astonishing idea–someone really amazing must have thought it up.
Woven Images of Afghanistan II – A Rug Sale
Wed. Feb. 15, 5-7 pm (Opening and reception)
Thurs. Feb. 16, 11am – 4 pm
Fri. Feb. 17, 11am – 4 pm
Sat. Feb. 18, 11 am – 4 pm
Textile Museum of Canada
55 Centre Avenue, Toronto
(1 block east of the St. Patrick subway)
2nd Floor East Gallery
Proceeds from the sale will be used to benefit and sustain the Museum’s collection of textiles from around the world.
Angela Kryhul is principal of Kryhul Media Group which offers content strategy, project management and editing & writing services.