The Weavings of War: An Exhibition Review

By George O'Bannon

The Weavings of War exhibition opened on September 6 and runs through October 5, 1997 at the Puffin Room, located at 435 Broome Street in the Soho district in New York, New York. It focuses on a type of textile that has been produced by various groups from around the world, who were responding to horribly destructive events on their culture.

It includes 11 so-called Afghan war rugs, 3 Tai Lue weavings from Thailand, 3 Hmong story cloths, 2 Vietnamese story cloths, a Maa mantle, a Bahnar baby carrier, 5 Chilean arpilleras, 11 Peruvian arpilleras, a Palestinian head shawl, and an Armenian rug. What all of these weavings from Afghanistan/Pakistan, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Chile, Peru, Israel/Egypt, and the Caucasus have in common is that they record events of war which the maker has experienced.

Tai Lue Door Hanging (detail)Collection of Ariel Zeitlin

The preparation of the exhibition has taken more than seven years. The moving force behind it and curator of the exhibit is Ariel Zeitlin. Among her many tasks have been identifying pieces, gathering information about them, obtaining funding, identifying a willing exhibitor, and finally installing the exhibit. It was certainly worth the effort, for it can tell us many things about the motivations of the makers of textiles and the reasons for the existence of "odd" textiles or weavings which exist within otherwise traditional textile products.

The exhibition opened on Saturday evening, September 6 and was followed the following morning by a roundtable discussion. The participants in the discussion were from a very varied background, but all had knowledge or interest in these textiles. It was particularly important that a maker of one of the exhibited pieces and two designers of the Hmong story cloths were participants.

Juana Huytalla-Mendez is a Peruvian highlands Indian who made one of the arpilleras in the exhibition. Arpillera is the term applied to appliques that were made in both Chile and Peru. In Chile, they were made by women whose family members were killed or disappeared during the Pinochet Government. In Peru, they were made mostly by Indians whose villages were attacked and destroyed, people killed or imprisoned, by either the Shining Path or the Peruvian Government army. The makers recorded events or created political statements about what happened or was happening.

Matanza en el Pueblo (Murder in the Village). By Angelina T.. Peruvian Arpillera, 1990s, collection of Ariel Zeitlin.

Juana told her personal story of her village being attacked by the Shining Path, people being killed, her mother disappearing, the family moving to Lima and the trials of trying to live there, of searching for her mother, and the loss of many family members. Her exhibited arpillera told of a day in 1985, when the Shining Path attacked, her aunt was killed, and people were beheaded in the street. The bright, colorful cloth with houses, streets, vegetation, mountains, and many people recorded this event.

Hmong Storycloth (detail). Artist Unknown. Collection of Susan Shapiro

Yamy and Nhia Vang are among Hmong refugees whose family has been involved in the drawing of Hmong story cloths. These started when the Hmong left Laos for Thailand, where refugee camps were set up. The Hmong have made traditional cloths whose patterns and colors identified the clans of the Hmong. These are geometric and abstract appliques.

The two women told how the patterns represented certain aspects of life, and how traditionally, a woman would combine these patterns to say certain things such as her desire for many children and prosperity for her family. The story cloths were a departure from this tradition because they were pictorial and mostly embroidery. Their purpose was to record the uprooting of the Hmong and their journey to the Thai refugee camps and perhaps eventually to the U.S.

The other participants contributed information and opinion about how these textiles evolved, their relationship to traditional textiles, the commercial impetus for their production, and the numbers produced. With reference to the latter, everyone stressed that these represented a very small percentage of the textiles or weavings produced by these groups. For example, the percentage of Afghan war rugs woven in the Pakistan refugee camps are very small compared to overall rug production. The Hmong were producing much larger numbers of traditional appliques than story cloths.

A recurring theme was that these textiles represent a need to record tragic, disruptive events that were visited on a traditional culture; the therapeutic need for the markers to work through their grief; and as a political statement to tell the world about these events. Making them to sell as a way of survival was also a motivating force, but not every weaver made these textiles. Most agreed, however, that these will not likely be produced much beyond the end of the political events which produced them, and that the makers will return to their traditional forms of textile expression.

These are not always easy textiles to view. Until one sees what is actually being recorded in them, one may think what a lovely, cheerful piece because of the colors and naive, folk quality of the images. Others such as a war rug filled with tanks or an arpillera done mostly with black images of grieving women's faces are obvious statements about war and death.

In viewing the war rugs, it is obvious that a traumatic event has occurred for rug weavers in Afghanistan. Although the refugees may eventually return to their lands, it is unlikely that the rugs they produce will be comparable to those produced before events surrounding the Russian invasion and now civil war. They have experimented with new designs, used new colors, and learned new materials with which to weave. When they return, they will probably not have the same breeds of sheep, the same dye sources, or event the same lifestyle. It is through such traumatic events that changes have occurred in rug production in the past. These events change not only the weavers but the rugs themselves.

Turkoman Jeep-Trapping, 51"x12" Collection of Will Powers

The sponsoring organization of the exhibition is City Lore, a folklife center dedicated to documenting, presenting, and interpreting the urbanization of folk culture. The Puffin Foundation, one of the financial sponsors of the exhibition, sponsors avant garde and cutting edge art and cultural exhibitions. The Weavings of War was too hot a topic for the more mainstream textile or weaving institutions. But it can tell us a lot about the motivations of weavers and why textiles historically have experienced dramatic changes.


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