"Afghan War Rugs" Hits Enlightenment, Misses American Connection at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art

An unknown maker in Baghlan, Afghanistan, created War Rug with Map of Afghanistan, on a date unknown; acquired in Peshawar, Pakistan, 1998. It's made from knotted wool and measures 71 ¾ x 45 ¼ inches.
An unknown maker in Baghlan, Afghanistan, created War Rug with Map of Afghanistan, on a date unknown; acquired in Peshawar, Pakistan, 1998. It's made from knotted wool and measures 71 ¾ x 45 ¼ inches.
Private collection / Courtesy of SMoCA

Americans have a thing for Persian rugs, which have their roots in the region that makes up modern-day Iran. We love the symmetry of their central designs and detailed borders, which typically sport beautiful medallions or floral patterns that conjure images of idyllic lands.

You'll find a different sort of rug exhibited at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art -- which recently opened "Afghan War Rugs: The Modern Art of Central Asia," featuring more than 40 rugs with motifs that include grenades, helicopters, landmines, tanks, and assault rifles.

It's likely you'll learn more about Afghanistan by exploring this exhibition than you've gleaned watching a decade or more of television news coverage.

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Still, like the Afghan refugees who created several of these works, the exhibition seems out of place at SMoCA -- which typically presents more multi-dimensional, even provocative, fare.

Some who've seen the touring exhibition at venues in Boca Raton and Milwaukee feel a rug depicting an airplane flying toward the Twin Towers (Twin Towers Rug, acquired in Kabul during 2004) glorifies anti-American sentiment, although it's also entirely possible that its maker intended only to record a historical event with significance for her own country. Such concerns demonstrate our own cultural egocentrism -- something that should have inspired SMoCA to supplement this exhibit with works in other mediums exploring America's role in fueling Afghan turmoil.

The show's works and accompanying text panels are presented with a neutral tone void of judgments about America's military involvements in Afghanistan or the weavers' choices of subject matter. Explanatory text panels do effectively set these rugs within their artistic, historical, and cultural contexts.

The rugs were created by weavers living in, or displaced from, Afghanistan -- where the act of rug-making has evolved to reflect the violent trajectory of the country's recent history -- which has included the decade-long Soviet occupation that began in 1979, American support for anti-Soviet Mujahideen who went on to overtake the Afghan government in 1992, the Taliban's installation of an extremist Islamist government in 1996, and the U.S.-led intervention launched in October 2001 after the 9/11 attacks.

These events are woven into the fabric of Afghan society, but also into the rugs that mirror the cultural context of the Afghan people. Like Andy Warhol, who created work infused with images of everyday objects prevalent in American society, those who weave such rugs are turning the objects that saturate their society into conduits for creative expression.

But there's an element of art-meets-commerce here, too. When weavers in Central Asia note that rugs with particular colors or themes are selling especially well, they adjust their rugs accordingly. War Rugs, which comprise just one percent of Afghan rugs, originated as an organic response to conflicts. But weavers, mostly women, may modify their designs based on what soldiers and tourists are buying.

Photographs or videos showing these weavers selling their wares, and the process of making this type of rug (a process that includes raising sheep for wool and building looms), could have enhanced significantly the viewer's understanding of this modern iteration on an ancient craft.


Unknown maker in Pakistan refugee camp, War Rug with Kalashnikovs and Tanks, date unknown; acquired in Peshawar, Pakistan, 1998. Knotted wool, 72 7/8 x 42 7/8 inches.
Unknown maker in Pakistan refugee camp, War Rug with Kalashnikovs and Tanks, date unknown; acquired in Peshawar, Pakistan, 1998. Knotted wool, 72 7/8 x 42 7/8 inches.
Private collection / Courtesy of SMoCA

"Afghan War Rugs" includes geographic rugs depicting maps of Afghanistan or the world, portrait rugs depicting mostly former political leaders, and rugs depicting cityscapes and major monuments. Arizona equivalents might include Rose Mofford or the Hoover Dam, although some may prefer Sheriff Joe Arpaio in his signature pink boxers.

Works of contemporary American art addressing conflicts within our own society, or depicting key players in our own political landscape, would have transformed this exhibition from a benign history lesson to engaging cultural critique. SMoCA missed an opportunity here to juxtapose these rugs against works by graffiti artists and others tackling the prevalence of guns in American culture.

Subject matter for "Afghan War Rugs" is drawn not only from personal experience -- but also from television programming, stories shared by others, and print materials including postcards, newspapers, and propaganda pieces. Some of the most intriguing rugs include outlier images such as geisha or streets in other parts of the world.

Most rugs combine several images, although simpler iconography can be just as powerful in this medium. One small rug resembling our hundred-dollar bill (Hundred Dollar Bill Rug, acquired in Kabul in 2004) inspires sober reflection about the economic costs of waging war and the profit motive's place within our military-industrial complex.

Most exhibited rugs are displayed on gallery walls, some painted with the distinctive blue of Lapis lazuli gemstones found in Afghanistan. Others lie atop simple planks of unfinished plywood raised slightly off the ground, which reinforce their roots in traditional craft and functional role in Afghan society while paying homage to organic materials such as wool and natural dyes often used to make them.

These works are exhibited with a simplicity that allows the art to speak for itself. You needn't buy and read a tome to appreciate their significance, although companion materials including an exhibition brochure and an Afghanistan timeline lend valuable perspective on the lives of Afghan weavers and the factors that have shaped their country's history and culture.

You can read them on the museum's website, explore laminated copies located on gallery benches, or use your smartphone to access them by QR code while touring the exhibition.

Americans are in an odd place when it comes to Afghanistan. Like children caught in a perpetual hokey-pokey, we've got one foot in and another foot out -- readying for a complete drawdown of troops in 2016. Military stories dominate our airwaves, but they're easily tuned out by those rushing to see Bradley Cooper in American Sniper mode.

"Afghan War Rugs" is enlightening, and perfectly timed. But it's a missed opportunity to help Americans explore the violence seething within our own society.

"Afghan War Rugs: The Modern Art of Central Asia" continues through April 19 at SMoCA, 7374 E. 2nd St. in Scottsdale. For more information, call 480-874‑4666 or visit www.smoca.org.

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