Feb 23rd, 2011
I love how despite seeing thousands upon thousands of images every day, there are still some that cause us to stop, stare and digest. That’s what happened when I came across the piece about the work of Barbara Koenen via a link from The Examiner, which recently had a fantastic interview with Koenen about her work.
From the interview:
DG: How did you come up with the idea of combining the concept of Afghani war rugs with that of sand mandalas?
BK: I was already doing transitory work, as paintings, installations and actions using materials that would deterioriate or be swept away. But when 9/11 happened, I thought about the war rugs and it just made sense as a practice that could begin to respond to the horror of the attack, and bring in some historical context about why it might have happened. The war rugs were a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1970s. America backed the resistance fighters, supplying weapons and making promises of other support. But the US pulled out after the Soviets left, and the Taliban took over and turned the country into a despotic place. So our betrayal was in some ways responsible for the later attack. It is important for us to understand this, and to work for peace. So, combining the war rug imagery with the Tibetan meditative practice felt like as appropriate a response as I could think of at the time.
What I perhaps love most about Koenen’s work is the way that kitchen ingredients take the place of warp and weft and turn war imagery into something delicate and finite. Strong imagery turned powdery and wispy, shining brighter with the fact that at any moment, the whole piece could be erased with a swipe of a hand or brush.
Given the fact that these rugs tell stories from the lives of Afghans, the high illiteracy rate in Afghanistan and the lack of infrastructure, the real rugs, their real power is also powdery and wispy, as soldiers bring back handcrafted rugs made by Afghans for the soldiers, turning the war into a commodity instead of a backdrop of life. As the rugs leave Afghanistan as souvenirs they disappear into the ether much like spices do when you spill a bit while making pie.
But then again, I’m fascinated with war rugs, with their storytelling, their history, their capturing of culture in a society where history books and museums and archives fade into the background when war is a daily reality. And what better to honor those pieces than Koenen’s rugs, as they perfectly gather those questions and problems with spices and time.