For seven centuries, the Turkmen weavers of Afghanistan have been crafting rugs prized for their intricate geometric patterns. In the past 20 years or so, pictorial elements have been added to these designs, including images of weapons. A few expressions of this disturbing shift in sensibility may be seen at Middlebury's Vermont Folklife Center in an exhibit entitled "Weavings of War: Fabrics of Memory."
Also on display are rugs made by Baluch refugees from Afghanistan, in which traditional motifs of gazelles and peacocks have been replaced by tanks and AK-47 assault rifles. A couple of stylized weavings depict the hijacked jets slamming into the World Trade Center. A text panel accompanying one of these September 11 textiles notes, "The artist says she wove it for money, not to celebrate the destruction, as some have speculated."
Visitors to this exhibit will come away saddened by what it suggests about the impact of modern warfare on long-insulated tribal cultures. This is not the sort of show one expects to see at the Folklife Center -- which is why "Weavings of War" may generate some much-needed attention for this Vermont institution.
Bringing this first-of-its kind, cross-cultural show to Middlebury is a coup for a 20-year-old center specializing in preservation of the spoken word. Meg Ostrum, a Montpelier-based consultant to the Folklife Center, serves as project director for the exhibit, which will make stops at several academic museums around the country over the next two years. The Folklife Center is co-producing the tour and provides its debut venue.
The exhibit, comprising about 50 weavings and appliques from Asia, South America and Africa, has its origins in a smaller show that hung briefly in a Soho gallery in New York in the mid-1990s. In the aftermath of 9/11, Ostrum explains, Folklife Center staff recalled that display as they considered ways of illustrating the effects of war on textile cultures in various parts of the world. Ostrum then contacted City Lore, the New York equivalent of the Folklife Center and the organizer of the Soho show. The two institutions, along with the Michigan State University Museum, collaborated on this updated and expanded version.
"The Vermont Folklife Center typically focuses on folk culture in the state," Ostrum says, "but we also recognize that Vermont is not an island. There's been a great influx of refugees from war-torn places in the last two decades, and while this show doesn't include pieces they've made, it does reflect their experiences."
A few Vermonters who fled war in Laos in the 1970s will take part in an April 26 panel discussion at Middlebury College. This is one of a series of talks, films and performances the college is hosting during the next six weeks in conjunction with "Weavings of War."
The arrangement with the college is part of Folklife Center efforts to reach out to Vermont organizations and school groups that might find the show pertinent -- and no doubt poignant. But it's difficult to imagine a contingent of middle-schoolers making their way through the center's gallery without bumping into mannequins modeling war-themed sarongs, or brushing against a Montagnard blanket hung from the ceiling. The small partitioned area is crammed with works that need more expansive display in order to be fully appreciated.
The quality of the pieces is also uneven. In general, the show deteriorates aesthetically as it proceeds from section to section. Its stunning first half, featuring the Turkmen rugs and a half-dozen "story cloths" made by Hmong weavers in Southeast Asia, is followed by a grouping of "memory cloths" by South African women who were given materials, stipends and apparently limited instruction by workshop organizers at an arts center in Durban. The resultant vignettes of life under apartheid may prove moving, but the compositions themselves are too childlike to be considered charming.
"Weavings of War" concludes with a colorful sampling of Peruvian and Chilean arpilleras -- small patchworks with cloth figures attached in soft bas-relief. A few of these pieces by Quechua weavers in the Andes present pictorial narratives of warfare similar to the story cloths made by Hmong refugees half a world away.
These remarkable folk documents assembled in camps in Thailand record memories of battle and flight. Fabricated by female members of hill tribes that sided with the U.S. during the Southeast Asian conflagrations, the story cloths depict scenes of violence, terror and loss. They include no propagandistic commentary; none is needed, as the images alone eloquently express revulsion and sorrow.
One silky-looking fabric, actually mixed-fiber floss embroidery, narrates in pictographic form a skirmish in Laos, from its opening salvo to the burial of one of its participants. In another Hmong textile of this type, soldiers parachute into battle as kneeling guerrillas fire at one another across a blood-splattered field. A third piece uses stitched words and images to tell the sad story of a Hmong nurse who befriended an American GI.
With the exception of the Afghan textiles, almost all the war weavings are the work of women. The show's catalogue points out that this medium, "because of its feminine connotations," can serve as "a relatively safe forum for dangerous or provocative ideas." The almost exclusively male authorities in these societies tend to be less alert to subversive messages in craft objects created by women.
Catalogue co-editor Ariel Zeitlin Cooke also notes that war textiles have appeared only in cultures where "the production of cloth is already a pervasive, deeply significant medium." They are thus part of a long continuum as well as a profound expression of social identity. As Ka Lan, a Montagnard weaver from the Maa hill tribe in central Vietnam, noted in an interview, "If I don't weave, I'm no longer Maa."