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'War Stories' exhibits document change, conflict, and memory


The two shows currently on view at Memorial Art Gallery each pack a walloping emotional punch. Using 45 textile works, "Afghan War Rugs" offers a measure of insight into a people and place, and in the exhibit "War Memoranda," photographer Binh Danh and poet Robert Schultz explore the concepts of loss, memory, and renewal.

Through the eyes of anonymous Afghan artists, "Afghan War Rugs: The Modern art of Central Asia" gives visitors the chance to see the impact that ongoing war, weapons dissemination, and rolling modernization has had on the region and its inhabitants.

"Afghanistan was part of the Silk Road, so for hundreds of years it's been a place of trade and commerce and a meeting ground for people," says independent curator Annemarie Sawkins. The region has also, historically and currently, been a war-torn place, enduring conflicts with the British, Soviets, and Americans, among others.

These war rugs come out of a long tradition of hand-crafted, pictorial textiles, with imagery shifting to reflect conflict and modernity encroaching on tribal society. By the 1970's, military motifs and modern infrastructure began to be incorporated in the designs, with abstracted helicopters creeping into floral border patterns. Flowers become grenades, and animals are replaced by tanks. Later armament rugs are entirely overrun by military equipment.

World-wide collectors of Afghan rugs were struck by the incorporation of designs that were antithetical to convention. As demand in the market grew for war rugs, production grew to meet it and traditional designs fell to the wayside, Sawkins explains.

There are five different types of rugs represented in the show. Map rugs feature Afghanistan (with or without armament motifs). One rug acquired in Baghlan, Afghanistan, in 1998 feels utterly contemporary in its design, with the outline of the nation penetrated by colorful guns, trucks, and helicopters literally flowing into the country. The entire picture is patrolled by a border design of tanks.

"Part of what we're seeing in this exhibition is derived from that long tradition of a bellicose society," Sawkins says. The people live in a traditionally tribal society where protecting their clan is of utmost importance, so the appearance of guns — specifically AK-47s — is ubiquitous in the weavings.

Portraiture rugs portray monarchs and military leaders, and armament rugs feature tanks, guns, and landmines. Cityscape rugs acknowledge modernization, and depict monuments, rows of tall buildings, lines of buses on urban streets, and bridges, with imagery typically derived from postcards and leaflets. And hybrid rugs incorporate some combination of these motifs.

Women lead the weaving craft, and are depicted at the loom in large-format photographs on the walls alongside the rugs. Most of the objects come from a private collection, and title cards tell the date and location of purchase, but more details about the provenance aren't necessarily known. No individual artists are credited.

Each rug is the result of a community or family effort, Sawkins says. The creation process involves designing the image, sheering the animal, spinning and dyeing the yarn, building the loom, weaving, and selling the finished product at market.

Some of the smaller rugs were created in refugee camps that have resulted from various conflicts and diaspora.

The stunning objects are characterized by the faded earth tones of natural dyes, derived from plants and minerals, and occasionally peppered with shots of bright artificial color. "When it looks like a Pantone color, it may not be natural," Sawkins says.

Particularly sobering are some doses of post-9/11 imagery. A smallish rug depicting an airplane heading for the Twin Towers is bisected with the words "War Against Terrorist" in a black band, with maps and dates of resulting conflicts in Tora Bora and Iraq. Two rugs featuring American drones each place the iconic shape ominously central, surrounded by smaller versions of the same that fill the picture plane, and the entire border is lined with bombs.

On view in the adjacent Grand Gallery is "War Memoranda: Photography, Walt Whitman, and Renewal by Binh Danh and Robert Schultz." Using 19th century photography techniques, Vietnamese-born artist Binh Dahn depicts the casualties of historical and modern conflicts alongside verses by Walt Whitman and contemporary poet Robert Schultz.

Having fought in wars for or against different ideals, the people depicted in these images were condemned to oblivion but not forgotten. Dahn has resurrected the fallen by printing the portraits of young soldiers, their mourners, gravesites, and places of conflict. Though the faces and graves are specific, the show speaks to the universality of how we process loss, and our efforts toward remembrance.

Conflict that evolves into war is a "topic that has been with us since we've been human," says Marlene Hamann-Whitmore, MAG director of academic programs. This exhibit explores how we move through war, and how we keep the people we have lost in our hearts, she says. "Visualization is a large part of that."

Images of soldiers and sites of the Civil War, Vietnam War, and contemporary conflicts are depicted in chlorophyll prints, daguerreotypes, and cyanotypes. They are paired with the poetry of Whitman, who witnessed war as a journalist and wrote extensively and passionately about mortality, and with Schultz's meditative verse, which often echo the words of Whitman in theme.

Danh has become known for his chlorophyll prints, which are created by exposing a photographic negative over freshly-picked greens. For many of these images, Danh used hosta plants from Whitman's house, presenting broad leaves alongside Schultz's poetry broadsides. Images of soldiers from the Vietnam era were printed on clusters of tall grass strands, echoing the terrain where the young men likely fell.

Resonant of Whitman's verse, this printing technique alludes to our remains being renewed as vegetation that springs forth and sustains other life.

Presented in silvery daguerreotype are the graves of soldiers cut down in contemporary conflicts, along with some verses by both poets. Both the mirror-like daguerreotypes and the highly reflective gloss resin Dahn uses to preserve his leaf prints create an experience that is impossible for viewers to separate themselves from.

"The reflection that you see will be yourself as you look," Hamman-Whitmore says.

Chlorophyll prints by Binh Danh are part of the "War Memoranda" exhibit on view with "Afghan War Rugs" at Memorial Art Gallery through October 16.