Anti-Soviet Realism


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. Continue reading →

The Great Game

Nobody knows just when a board game titled “Safe Travel through Afghanistan” was invented. Most likely, it was some time in the 60s or 70s, when it was safe to travel in Afghanistan.  Not earlier, given the presence of the Ariana Boeing 727 in the center of the image. Nevertheless, here it is, reproduced in the form of a carpet, probably made in the last few years.

Perhaps it was some mad spirit of ironic optimism that caused this to be transformed into a furry picture?  Or some lost-in-translation lack of understanding of the contemporary implications of the original graphic? Whatever, it certainly confuses one’s understanding of the emblematic use of the map of Afghanistan in all its other different political contexts. No matter what was its makers’ intent, iconophilia here shares it with you (wherever you may be) in our well-intentioned and peaceful tradition of greetings for the festive season…

(and thanks to Rob Little for the photograph).

art without artists

…not the way Anton Vidokle writes about it in e-flux. Or the fascination with the Outsider/Insider. If you’re still with me, see here for those who are simply anonymous.

new street art in Kandahar ups the ante…

Some months ago I wrote about the growing phenomenon of “street art” at the KAF base in Kandahar, in south-eastern Afghanistan. There was even a response to the incarceration of Ai Weiwei here and there on the concrete blast walls.  Now we find the Australian official war artist Ben Quilty getting in on the act. His variation on the Australian coat of arms is a radical challenge to iconographic analysis. While the Australian War Memorial has mentioned his mural in passing in last week’s pre-publicity, we are yet to see them publish a photograph of the work, or to offer an account of the meaning of its symbolism. The inclusion of skulls and serpents (locally symbolising the infidel crusader) may pose a challenge to officialdom. This may yet prove to be the most radical “war art” yet. We look forward to the official account. Here’s what they say thus far… (This photograph was published in Air Force: the official newspaper of the Royal Australian Air Force, (Vol 53, No 22, Nov 24, 2001, p.17).

And this is the first version of the image: the one above has (for better or worse) been made specific to the KAF context:

Ben Quilty, Landcruiser, 2007, Chinese Ink and Gouache on Aquari paper, 188 x 282cm (from the QUT Ben Quilty Interpretative Guide)

This text by Don Walker accompanies the image: “It’s an old trick. Take a universal, publicly owned snatch of melody, fanfare, phrase or image and pervert it. Ben Quilty has used the Australian coat of arms, an image so official and hoary it’s almost invisible, and mounted it on a mesa piled with skulls. The shield-bearers are presented as road-kill, the kangaroo muzzle flattened by a double bogie. Between them now is a cairn of skulls knitted by worms and lies. The crest is a convict shackle, looking as though it was cut from a kerosene tin, just to make it clear that not all the bones belonged to Indigenous Australians. Like most people, Ben Quilty defies caricature. A bogan who chose to pursue a degree in Aboriginal culture. A petrolhead who buys his art supplies at Bunnings, yet carries tiny notebooks full of the most exquisite pen-and-ink sketches of Venice done in his recent youth. Close in, where Quilty works, his paintings look like a bad paving job. Step back twenty feet and he’s caught the whole sorry tale, a country built by the survivors of pogroms, massacres and land clearances elsewhere, who found a haven here on land cleared by massacres of our own.”

The image and text above was found here. We’re waiting to hear the AWM’s version…


yet another Boetti effect?

Our translation of the Arabic texts above does not substantiate the claim made in the subtext on this page. The words on the atlas are the names of countries and oceans.  The text above the map on the left wall reads: “What do my enemies do to me, I, [with] my paradise and my orchard…” And above the map on the left the text appears to read: “The Crusaders’ occupation [and the] Muslim’s initiatives”

The former quote would seem to be a version of a text attributed to Ibn Taymiyyah: “What can my enemies do to me? My paradise and garden are in my chest, and do not leave me. My imprisonment is seclusion with Allah, and my death is martyrdom, and my expulsion is tourism.” While it is said that the thoughts of Ibn Taymiyyah have been influential on contemporary fundamentalist thought in Islam, such as Wahhabism and Salafism, the murals above could hardly be seen as targeting instructions…

And Boetti? Clearly, this Mappa has nothing to do with Alighiero Boetti, but it’s a provocative thought, given the claims of contemporary writers to his influence on other aspects of Afghan culture. Relax, we won’t be claiming a connection to al-Qaeda. On the other hand, it is of interest to see how atlas images circulate within Afghanistan.

(This page is from John F. Burns and Ian Fisher (Photographs by Tyler Hicks) Histories are Mirrors: The Path of Conflict through Afghanistan and Iraq. Umbrage Editions, New York.)

pixelated portraiture

The knotted carpet is the oldest form of digital art. While a good likeness is hard to achieve when the medium is inherently pixelated, a “portrait” such as this may serve many causes.

The text above these three figures is not easy to translate. However this triple portrait is said to be of the turn-of-century King, Habibullah Khan, and his two successors, his brother Nasrullah Khan (who ruled for a week after his brother’s hunting accident assassination) and his third son Amanullah Khan, who lasted until 1929. Amanullah Khan is now revered as the moderniser who was responsible for disposing of the British in 1921.

Afghan carpet makers still produce images of Amanullah, now updated with modern militaria to reference the current conflict. Such imagery serves as an evocation of a more peaceful past, as history morphs into allegory, and as the roles of historical figures become mythologised.

Art & War

See what art means to the Marines. Read this review by Carol Kino in the NYT.

Guttenfelder iPhotographs Afghanistan

These David Guttenfelder photographs for The Denver Post were taken with his iPhone. Compelling viewing. Somehow the social and political complexity of Afghanistan seems to make sense from above…

the landscape of war

There are too many ground zeros in Afghanistan… This is how the dead are buried near Kandahar.

See how Michael Yon photographs the war in Afghanistan. Despite the constraints of being embedded, his work conveys a very real sense of the human experience of the conflict. Being embedded means photography is never at the front line, and therefore it is almost impossible to reproduce the actual experience of war. The still, quiet, clean precision of the camera can only allude to the full sensorium of the war environment. In such circumstances, limited by what he can’t show the viewer, Michael has to find other subjects in order to build a complex set of visual narratives which combine to provide the stimulus for the viewer to imagine what can’t be conveyed by imagery alone. See how he finds imagery to evoke such absences.  And see how he captures the sometimes bizarre effects of the technology of contemporary warfare.

This is from his tiger-vision photographs of a medical evacuation of an Afghan casualty. Only the containers are familiar. Nothing else makes sense. The helicopter’s rotor blades light up as they churn through the dust.

Michael Yon was recently chosen by Times Online as one of the “40 bloggers who count.” Go to his site when you have a quiet moment and you’ll see why. (Images copyright Michael Yon here reproduced with permission and thanks.) Read more? Go to D.B.Grady’s biographical story about Yon in The Atlantic.

the camera in Afghanistan

Michael Yon was recently listed in the Times Online 40 bloggers who count. See why.