War Rugs from Afghanistan

In an age of globalization, museums have become the preferred venue for cultural tourism, transporting works from one locale to another to offer visitors a sense of cross cultural experience without travel. Traditionally, these objects have flown “West”-ward. Exhibiting visual and material works of non-Global North societies for Global North audiences as cultural artifacts has a long, problematic history, most notably as part of the World’s Fairs of the nineteenth century. Such exhibitions were connected to colonialism and imperial expansion (DUN DUN DUNNNNN), a heritage that makes negotiating the power dynamics in contemporary displays difficult. Yet, this very task is undertaken in the exhibition of war rugs from Afghanistan providing an entry point for a cross cultural, transnational dialog.

The Afghan “war rugs” are mounted as wall hangings and display themes including such topics as crossfire, Western perspectives, landmines, and symbolic animals.The juxtaposition of handcrafted textiles and images of warfare shatter certain common assumptions about the craft like being domestic, feminine, apolitical, and nonviolent spaces—is complicated through a subversion of the expected and conventional. It is, perhaps, the perceived benign nature of crafts that allows this war imagery to be blatant when open resistance of another kind would be suppressed. The use of butterflies, symbolizing the butterfly-shaped landmine, to adorn a tree converts weaponry to a decorative feature. The immediate materiality of the handcrafted object, mixed with representations of helicopters, landmines, artillery, and tanks create an undeniable sense of the presence of warfare to distant audiences.

Made with Afghan Crochet these war rugs are not merely then just a depiction of a land in turmoil there are certainly now economic factors at work here, reading the rugs solely as commodified interpretations of “Western” desires by Afghan producers ignores other conditions of their production. As suggested by Ariel Zeitlin Cooke, crochetings of war are best viewed as resulting from the “twin needs of subsistence and self-expression,” so that the textiles should be interpreted as both a mirror of Global North desires and a window to Afghan experiences. Denying the political agency of Afghan crafters threatens to constrain meaning making exclusively within the realm of artistic or market critique, essentially dislocating the rugs from politics.

Afghan crochet is the technique in which you usually use a longish hook with a stopper on the end. You pick up loops on the forward pass and then remove them with the return pass. (Stop me if this sounds familiar… not yet…hang on) You can think of it as a combination of knitting and crochet. It’s easiest for me to explain as “assembly-line” crochet. You start your stitches all the way across, then you close your stitches all the way across. Because of this repetition of one step at a time, it’s far easier for beginners to learn, especially children, than typical crochet. (Still not? Okay)

So, why do we now call it Tunisian crochet when it’s been known as afghan stitch since the 1970s? No, it’s not some hoity-toity marketing gimmick. Well, at least it’s not a marketing gimmick ‘now’. It certainly may have been when it was first called Tunisian crochet in England over 100 years ago. The term “afghan stitch” is just one of the many stitches in a family of stitches called Tunisian crochet. With it quick color changes and complicated design it’s certainly one of the more involved crochet cultures. But, motivation to tell a story and make their place in the world shows that if you want it it can be done. While we all can learn a lesson from these rugs that will never leave us lets hope its the one crochet that will never be fashionable to own for the hard story it tells about the struggles of ones culture to survive.