War rugs offer a glimpse of changing art in Afghanistan

If your idea of an Oriental rug is one decorated with traditional images of flowers, birds and medallions, it may be time to expand your point of reference at the Penn Museum’s exhibit, “Battleground: War Rugs from Afghanistan.”

From April 30 to July 31, dozens of handmade rugs depicting tanks, bombs, soldiers, helicopters and artillery will be on display at the Museum, signifying what may be one of the most historic changes in the centuries-old art form of rug-making.

War Rugs exhibit

Textile Museum of Canada

Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the people of that nation have lived with more than three decades of international and civil war. The exhibition features a collection of more than 60 rugs, most woven since 1980, organized as a traveling exhibit by the Textile Museum of Canada. The modern artifacts are making their U.S. debut at Penn.

“It is a complete transformation of the Oriental rug market, which has been growing since the 13th century and began growing really fast at the end of the 19th century when Western rug collectors grew interested,” says Brian Spooner, professor of anthropology at Penn and curator for Near East ethnology at the Museum.

Spooner says it is difficult to determine whether the rugs are pro-war art, protest art or simply a money-making answer to a new consumer demand.

An expert on rug weaving and other traditional technologies in Afghanistan, Spooner says for centuries “there was no communication between the people who made the rugs and the people who wanted to buy them in the Western world.”  That, Spooner explains, may be one reason why the designs of the rugs did not change significantly in all that time.

But, when the Soviet Union entered Afghanistan, soldiers came in contact with rug weavers and the artisans realized they could sell their wares directly.

After the Soviets left in 1989, Afghanistan fell into civil war, which led to the rise of the Taliban. In November of 2001, American-led NATO forces entered the region in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. The Western troops provided another new market for the war rugs, many of which feature words in English.

The exhibition will open at 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 30, with a special lecture by Spooner.

The Museum, located at 3260 South St., is open Tuesday and Thursday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. with P.M. @ PENN MUSEUM evening programs offered on select Wednesdays. The Museum is closed Mondays and holidays.

Admission donation is $10 for adults; $7 for senior citizens (65 and above); $6 for children ages 6 to 17 and full-time students with ID; free for members, PennCard holders and children 5 and younger; “pay-what-you-want” the last hour before closing. For more information, visit www.penn.museum.

Originally published on April 21, 2011