Warp, Weft, and War

An exhibit of textiles from the many cultures that inhabit Afghanistan is running currently at the Textile Museum of Canada. Visitors can examine closely such diverse items as a Kirghiz head ornament for a camel to don in a bridal procession in Northern Afghanistan, or a 19th century wool and cotton ensi–a door cover for a yurt, the wooden-framed circular dwelling clad with felts and built by nomadic people such as those inhabiting the Turkmenistan region. The textiles on display include examples of Turkmen, Hazara, Pushtun, Uzbek, Kirghiz, Tajik, Baluch, and Kazakh provenance, among other ethnicities. They reflect aspects of urban life, mountain dwelling, and nomadic culture. In addition, the exhibit includes the story of an migr Afghan family who has established a successful carpet business in downtown Toronto.

Living in Afghanistan exposes visitors to a “land of textiles”–a part of the world where, even in the 20th and 21st centuries, home-made textiles are widely produced and worn. Fabrications of wool, cotton and silk are fashioned using different weaving techniques for rugs and kilims. Embroideries on felt and felt-making techniques are used for clothing, to furnish dwellings, to cover animals in caravanserai, and as artworks to be sold at bazaars to generate extra income. Ceremonial suzanis for bridal dowries and interior decoration represent some of the most intricate thread-work.

Afghanistan is one of only a handful of areas in the world where most people still dress in traditional clothing. The exhibit shows various caps and hats, storage bags and pouches, Uzbek women’s paranjas and coats for men, a Tajik urban veiling cloak, examples of the Turkmen chyrpy (a black veiling cloak), Pushtu vests, dresses, and shirts among other pieces from both the 19th and 20th centuries. The curators note that paintings from 15th century Herat reveal that garments had remained almost the same from the 15th to the 19th centuries.

Afghanistan’s recent exposure in the mainstream media has done little to educate the West about the diverse populations that inhabit Central Asia in and around the Afghan borders. Ravaged by civil war, foreign invasion and ethnic rivalry, it is no surprise that textiles, so important to so many of the region’s cultures, reflect strife: on view are two Baluch war rugs from the mid-1980s depicting tanks and Kalashnikovs, helicopters and grenades; sadly, objects of everyday life.

Living in Afghanistan runs to October 12 at the Textile Museum of Canada in Toronto. (416) 599-5321 or visit www.textilemuseum.ca