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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
HOME / STORY

Battleground Art

Bart Gazzola
Published Wednesday March 4, 02:09 am
Afghanistan exhibit shows the horrors of war

BATTLEGROUND: WAR RUGS FROM AFGHANISTAN

Runs to March 22

Mendel 

 

The Mendel often presents clusters of shows with complementary conceptual frameworks (Shaping Saskatchewan speaking to The Automatiste Revolution, for example, or Sympathetic Magic troubling the nationalist images presented in A Vital Force: A Canadian Group of Painters). For the next-to-last exhibitions at the gallery, three current shows revolve around a similar geopolitical concern.

 

Although Deep Weather by Ursula Biemann (in the back gallery) was recently in the Montréal Bienale, and Monique Martin and Cathryn Miller’s The Absolute Way of Things is appealing (especially Martin’s interventions outside the gallery, along the river), what dominates is Battleground: War Rugs from Afghanistan.

 

The works in the front gallery space are numerous (118 in total), but there are excellent guide sheets. There’s also a panel explaining the recurring images of tanks, guns and various other military ordnance that speaks to how these rugs primarily date from 1979 and later. That marks the date of the Soviet invasion, an empire blundering onto the rock that sinks them.

 

There are sections with evocative titles: “Maps of Identity”, “A Garden of Weapons”, “Crossfire” and “Looming Disaster”. The works are anonymous, numbered without names.

 

Considering the nomadic nature of the peoples who produced these works — either due to the gruelling civil war following Soviet withdrawal, or the resultant Taliban government, or the latest round of invasion / occupations resulting in displacement to refugee camps (one rug has a camp name woven into it, and several depict them) — this is unsurprising.

 

Shauna McCabe, director of the Textile Museum of Canada which originated the exhibition, was eloquent when speaking at the opening reception: for a weaver who’s lost their home, these rugs ARE Afghanistan.

 

The words of the didactic panel: “When the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Afghan weavers found their world turned upside down, the sky and the earth thick with weaponry. On their rugs flowers turned into cluster bombs, birds turned into airplanes. The disaster continued with 10 years of brutal civil war. And it continues today as international forces battle in an ancient land that has exploded. Battleground: War Rugs from Afghanistan presents catastrophe turned into art.”

 

There are older pieces (some that date back to its time under British rule), and there’s also a work that in its pictorial composition seems to reference CNN’s split screen / scrolling text format. Near the front entrance is a work that depicts the murder and castration — in an extremely minimal but horrifying manner — of a past political leader. Many rugs act as accurate (if subjective) records of a bloody and horrifying history. The Mujahideen were financed by the American empire against the Soviet one, and birthed al-Qaeda, and the beat goes on.

 

Other rugs display the aforementioned tanks, aircraft and weapons in a manner that indicates intimate experience. An Mi-24 Hind attack helicopter, a Makarov automatic pistol, a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a BTR-60 PB armoured troop carrier: you don’t need to decode these metaphors, in fine art-historical manner, like a dog symbolizing fidelity. One large rug depicts 473 different pieces of military ordnance.

 

(Or you could be like the moron who wandered in while I was there, commenting “Wow, they must really like tanks” — sure, the same way Ruth Cuthand’s beaded works indicate how fond First Nations are of diseases.)

 

There are portraits of Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was from the prophet Muhammad’s inner circle (with a personal role played in the post-prophet Sunni / Shi’a sectarian rift). And Amanullah Khan, king of Afghanistan from 1919 to 1929, whose ideas regarding educating women, eschewing veils and polygamy made him more modern than some of the current GOP. And of course, with the Soviet offensive dominating the narrative, we have Ahmad Shah Massoud, a legend who fought against the USSR. His illustrious career as an insurgent — and later, defense minister in the first independent government — didn’t forestall his assassination by al-Qaeda in 2001.

 

Perhaps the reason why Battleground stands above the other exhibitions I’ve mentioned is because it occupies the same space as an exhibition from St. Thomas More College more than a decade ago: Los Arpilleras of Chile, where “women whose husbands, sons, or brothers were killed or imprisoned by the government met each week… on the outskirts of Santiago, where they shared their burdens and stitched small but meaningful tapestries. Their handwork told the outside world of their hunger, fear, unemployment, housing shortages, and their missing men folk who are still referred to in Chile as the ‘disappeared’ and ‘detained.’ Arpilleras served to document and denounce oppression in a country where all normal channels of free expression were closed.”

 

There’s a rawness to both Arpilleras and Battleground: a history of “empire” written by the invaded, whether under the Union Jack or “The War on Terror” or the current neo-liberal dance (as in the Mendel exhibition Under a Petroliferous Moon several years ago), with all the same old steps.

 

This is where Biemann’s Deep Weather — juxtaposing the tar sands of Alberta with peoples and places in Bangladesh ravaged by climate change, with its whispered voice and gigantic projection — fits. (“And the acid wind hissing… populations among the coastal areas drown in their sleep.”) I don’t consider this work to be art so much as a PSA brought to you by the Suzuki Foundation, perhaps: but the monumentality of the work and the manner in which it still has an intimacy, with the hushed voice and darkness, makes it an appealing act of social consciousness.

 

This is also where Miller and Martin’s interest in the “newly recognized loss of bee populations and the historical links between bees and humans” fits. There’s been a number of news stories on the decline of bees, the human causes and the impending backlash that it will have on our own species. I can’t help but sense the same zealous march to destruction that the USSR undertook in 1979, before that all failed in 1989, in our willful ignorance of empire.

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