Anti-Soviet Realism

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In late 1989 the last troops of the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan had left after a decade of resistance by the various forces of the mujihadeen. During this period of time one finds an extraordinary profusion of visual media opposing the Soviet occupation. Contradictions abound in the visual record of this unhappy decade. The non-traditional narrative carpets of this period constitute a form of indigenous modernism which occurs independent of other modes of contemporary visual art occurring elsewhere in the world. However the rug shown here is an exception to the rule. One of only two known examples, each of which differs slightly from the other, this remarkable image is clearly derived from the Socialist Realist style of the post-WW2 era, in a complex pictorial montage which depicts the heroic resistance of the mujahideen against the military might of Soviet heavy armour.

What makes the this carpet so unusual, and surprising, is the way it breaks with (almost) all the conventions of carpet tradition. It is proof (if we needed convincing) that carpet weavers could indeed “make anything.” Its design is familiar to a Western modernist eye insofar as it deliberately combines a number of models of representation in a mode of simultaneity – not unlike its 20th century precursors of cubist collage and photomontage. The production of an explicitly “Western” representation in celebration of the defeat of the Soviets makes another kind of claim for modernity – or rather, for a modernity that is not dependent on the exercise of Soviet military power.

In this image the two Soviet tanks rendered in perspectival precision are represented on fire in the foreground of the Darul Aman Palace – itself subsequently destroyed during the civil war of the mid 90s. The spatial devices of these forms lead the eye to the left of the image, where a clean shaven Afghan youth wearing a pakol and bearing a flag bearing the inscription Allahu Akbar! stands in front of the Paghman Victory Arch, which was built in 1919 to celebrate the defeat of that other Imperial Power, Great Britain. In the frame below the boy a horseman also carries a flag on which is inscribed Allah. The rest of the frame contains supplementary images which function like the predella on a pre-Rennaisance Italian altarpiece. These are composed of five or six naturalistic vignettes showing scenes of warfare, repeated left and right, in different combinations.

Between 1978 and 2004 Afghanistan changed its flag eleven times. Only in 1992 did the Republic of Afghanistan have a flag with these words inscribed on it. The source of one of these rugs suggested that they were made by prisoners, and that they were commissioned (ordered) to celebrate the defeat of the Soviets. The last “puppet” dictator, Mohammad Najibullah, who had been installed by the Soviet regime in 1986, was finally ousted in April 1992.

If the carpet was in fact designed to celebrate the victory over the Soviets, at the moment just prior to the civil war (the Palace and the Victory Arch are shown as being still intact), it does so by representing a kind of David and Goliath account of the decade of warfare that has taken place. The Soviet tanks are no match for  Afghan warrior tradition, represented by the men on horseback, and the barehanded mujihadeen who have set the tanks on fire. And this is not yet a visual culture subject to the dictates of the Taliban – under whose rule no man would be permitted to show an unshaven face, even if such a representation of a human being was permissible in the first place.  Such a confusion of signifiers is almost postmodern in character. In its distinctive and atypical style (by comparison to all the other modes of war rugs and carpets produced in this period) it is as if this one sets out to challenge the viewer by asking us to reconcile so many overlapping visual and thematic contradictions occurring within a medium not normally associated with naturalistic representation. Nevertheless, it represents a particular point in the design of war carpets that signals the extremity of the artists’ capacity to cross over between such discrepant visual and cultural traditions.

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