the afghan rug

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The full text of one of the articles gathered in the homonymous book edited by Companhia Editora Nacional

By Walnice Nogueira Galvão*

The black market put up for sale pieces from the Archaeological Museum of Kabul, demolished by the American bombing. This fact gave rise to the exhibition from Afghanistan, coming from Barcelona to the Guimet Museum, in Paris, after some pieces were purchased by institutions that declare themselves mere guardians, until the museum reopens. This is the case of the Hirayama Foundation, in Tokyo, and the Spach Society (Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage), recently created, which, with the support of Unesco, deposited parts of the so-called Bagram Treasure in Guimet. The aim is to rescue a memory and an identity of rich diversity. Right at the entrance, drawing attention to the present, the works of various ethnic groups of today's Afghans: sumptuous silks dyed in flaming blots, by the Uzbeks; hammered silver jewelry inlaid with carnelian, the dowry of Turkmen brides, fortune carried on the body by women of a nomadic people; upturned sheepskin coats and satin back-stitched, from the Pashtans.

The latter are linked to children's readings, through Mahbub Ali, the pashtan with a beard dyed with henna as red as the mane and tail of the horses he traded. Appears in Who is, by Rudyard Kipling (1901), and in the film of the same name (dir. Victor Saville, 1950), with Dean Stockwell; Erroll Flynn lends him his charm and charisma. He is a nice figure, ready to get his little friend out of trouble.

Located at the crossroads of trade and migration routes, Afghanistan, as much as any other country in those parts, or even in Europe, was part of successive empires. It was Persian, it was Greek, it was Mongolian, it was Turkish, it was Muslim, and so on. Surrounded by civilizations of outstanding character – India, China and Iran – it shares with them many artistic manifestations. Thus, it shares with Pakistan the Hellenistic-Buddhist art of Gandhara (XNUMXst to XNUMXrd centuries), in which it is curious to see statues of Indian gods carrying chlamyds with Greek sculpture drapery.

The 38-meter Buddhas destroyed in the death throes of the Taliban regime were in Bamiyan, near Kabul, an obligatory stage on the Silk Road in antiquity. That's where, high up in the mountains, you'll find the opulence of 12 caves with mural paintings. We owe André Malraux the pioneering role in valuing (and, incidentally, plundering) the aesthetics of Afghan works, when he organized an exhibition in Paris in 1930; his collection lent the “Prince of Flowers” ​​to the present exhibition.

Brought to light only in the mid-1970s, the Bactrian Bronze Age civilization of necropolises and fortresses (which evolved from 2000 to 1800 BC between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan) is the source of a remarkable material culture, the result of trades with Mesopotamia, Persia and the Indus Valley.

Another focus is the archaeological site of Hadda (15th and XNUMXth centuries), near Jelalabad, with its XNUMX stucco and clay statues, unmixed Buddhist like the monasteries they populate, all with the same floor plan: a central courtyard whose fulcrum is a giant stupa, surrounded by several other smaller votive stupas. High-relief Buddha colossi line the surrounding walls.

Later, but no less relevant, would be the turn of Islamic art, introduced by the Arabs at the end of the first millennium and confirmed by the dynasty founded by Tamerlane in the fourteenth century. There is little time, therefore, for a country with such an ancient chronology, and which was part of the conquests of Cyrus, Alexander the Great, Seleucus, the Parthians, the Huns, the Scythians, Genghis Khan, the British Empire, and so on. onwards, even after becoming independent in 1747.

Holding an exhibition like this, at a time when the country – after having resisted Russian harassment for more than 20 years and the civil war fomented by the Americans – is suffering attacks from the most formidable war machine on the planet, is equivalent to a claim to its presence in the history of humanity. In addition to recognizing its own face, forged in the heritage of a plural identity like a mosaic. And, so as not to claim old-fashionedness or nostalgia, three screens in the lobby show non-stop videos of today's Afghanistan, with its raggedy among rubble.  

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When we read the expressions used by the periodicals or hear the rage of the big shots, the impression of déjà vu accentuates. Aside from the barbarities that result in an insult to intelligence – such as the fight between good and evil, and so on –, we cannot deny that the US onslaught takes on the contours of a clash between angels of light and powers of darkness, of civilization against barbarism, of reason against religious fanaticism. Or, if we are more realistic, the rich against the poor.

Fanatic is always the other, and it is easier to label him than to inquire into his reasons. Anyone who sees those poor devils in Afghanistan abandoning their villages already in ruins, carrying their meager possessions, while the most powerful nation in the world pulverizes them without mercy, bombing rubble, finds it difficult to accept that they are the incarnation of the devil. But in our world, a world of progress, science, knowledge, urbanity, full of trinkets and electronic marvels, there is only room for one fundamentalism – that of the market. No other god than consumption. And only one gospel, the digital one. Any dissent or mere disagreement is met with a bullet. Hence the strategic sense of an exhibition like this, giving a face and a history to the Afghans.

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The so-called Bactriana Treasure was found again, hidden underground as it was in the Afghan presidential palace: 20 pieces of solid gold found by a Russian archaeologist in 1978, north of Kabul. It was found in five tombs of women, probably princesses, decorating them. In number of pieces, it is larger than the inventory of Tutankhamun's tomb. How he escaped is a miracle. Now it is going to be studied, after having spent a century kidnapped and even given up for lost.

Meanwhile, news of the looting of the Museum of Baghdad, depository of millenary spoils from the sources of civilization – from Sumerians, Chaldeans, Babylonians, Assyrians –, came to be added in an accounting of damages and losses to that of the Museum of Kabul, devastated by the invading bombing . All the more to note, in such a scenario, the irruption of an artistic testimony hitherto unpublished.

Among these spoils, the carpet occupies a prominent position, which for centuries was the only furniture in a civilization of tents. In addition to being cozy when sleeping, sitting and walking, covering an uneven floor, it serves as a bed, cover, sofa, table, screen, wall, ceiling, curtain. Although commonly called lost, is not linked to nationalities as it precedes them, and may come from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, India, or even China. The art of tapestry, creation of the East, is several times millenary. Obedience to the Koranic prohibition of figuration – Allah's monopoly, in prevention of idolatry – is not inflexible in this art. But that is why the wonderful mosques scattered around the world, and the equally dazzling carpets, only work with abstract designs to do justice to the Prophet's prohibition: it is God's privilege to create beings, and man should not dispute this privilege. The ornamentation of the temples is due to the tiles and surahs of the Book, in its elegant writing that spreads over the walls, in the unsurpassed art of calligraphy developed by Islam.

 In the rugs, even in the geometric designs (the “arabesques”), flora predominates and, to a lesser extent, fauna, which are recognizable, although stylized. One of the high points in the history of art escapes the western conception that demands originality, instead applying itself to copying traditional lines and repeating them as faithfully as possible.

The most common is the one that brings the garden into the tent or house. The dimensions of the piece, determined by the loom, impose the rectangle, whose parallel sides indicate the walls that contain the profusion of vegetation in the midst of which the bestiary stands out in silhouette. And, composing a mandala, triggered by the centripetal dynamics of the rectangle's shape, there is a central medallion with the sketch of a font, which can be repeated in the four corners of the carpet; at other times, instead of one, there are three fountains in a straight line, in the middle, between garlands. By way of contrast and for the sake of comforting the spirit, it is proposed to deny the surrounding nature of the desert, transferring to the recess of the dwelling a simulacrum of an oasis woven by the human hand. 

Mankind's oldest literary work, the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, creation of Iraq and, as is known, source of Homer and the Bible, speaks of gardens. In different versions, a tree appears in which a serpent guards a flower that holds immortality, as well as an orchard in which beings and plants are made of precious stones.

The chronicles keep the memory of the palace in Ctesiphon, seat of the Sassanid dynasty (then in Persia, today in Iraq and very close to Baghdad), whose main hall boasted the enormous Spring Carpet, which, if not historically documented, would pass for one more of fictions by Jorge Luis Borges. The work reproduced a formal garden with all the minutiae of its grid, streams winding between hedges, bowers, fountains, flower beds, fruit trees, birds and animals populating the avenues, gravel walkways, hedges and clumps, rows of palm trees. A real treasure for all to see, it was of incalculable value: fruits and songbirds were encrusted with precious stones, gold and silver threads adorned the figures. With its pomp, the piece materially embodied the king's power and the opulence of his kingdom. But the Primavera Carpet also proclaimed the investiture of the monarch who, by divine right, had jurisdiction over nature, over fertility and over abundance, of which he was a pledge before his subjects and before the powers on high. More than a symbol or emblem, it was a “reduced model” of the king's political and cosmic attributes.

In this way, the art of tapestry is better understood when one considers that for these desert peoples the idea of ​​paradise was inseparable from the notion of garden, apparently also a Persian creation (in parallel with the hanging gardens of Babylon). The word itself is Persian, with the meaning of secluded garden, or walled garden, a term that the Greek lexicon would absorb (paradeisos).

Therefore, the disappearance that can now be seen in Afghan carpets, and for the first time in history, of themes as intricate as the “thousand flowers” ​​or the “tree of life” – linked to peaceful yearnings that emphasize the vital continuity, implicit in the vegetation cycle – is very serious and disfigures the face of the tapestry like a scar. Now you can see the edges of tanks and missiles where, for millennia, effigies of nature's strength have stood out. The figure that came to dominate the woven pattern – and proportionately on a much larger scale – is the icon of the entire freedom fighter, from Palestine to Chechnya, passing through Afghanistan: the Kalashnikov rifle, known as the AK-47, the most widespread weapon in the world. Resulting in works in which the rigid norms of tapestry are subverted, leaving those who contemplate them with horror.

If the garden rug affirmed a positivity to many degrees of aesthetic and cultural elaboration, on the contrary, the “death machine” rug would imply a loss of the capacity to imagine and sublimate. Rejecting its commitment to the garden, the rug started to reproduce only the immediate, the symbolization tending to zero. The crudeness of that armored destruction that falls from the skies entails the loss of the meaning and function of art, perverting the carpet that was previously intended to beautify and brighten everyday life. Modernity got there, and it's not a pretty thing to see.

*Walnice Nogueira Galvão Professor Emeritus at FFLCH-USP

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