- Weavings of War, Fabrics of Memory
Weavings of War, Fabrics of Memory is an exhibition of international textiles spanning a number of countries and ethnic/linguistic groups. Bound together by the themes of war, armed conflict, displacement, and rupture, works in the exhibit include post-apartheid South African memory cloths, Hmong story cloths, arpilleras from Chile and Peru, and war rugs from Central Asia. I brought the exhibit to Logan, Utah, in the fall of 2007 and organized lectures and films around it. It was displayed at the Thatcher-Young Mansion, the final stop on its three-year tour. An exhibit catalogue of the same title was edited by Ariel Zeitlin Cooke and Marsha MacDowell (Michigan State University Press, 2005) and contains essays by Zeitlin Cooke, MacDowell, James E. Young, and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, as well as artist profiles.
What makes the pieces in this exhibit unique is that their iconography features modern warfare and violence particular to their regions of origin. Scenes of executions and ethnic cleansings, as well as military motifs such as tanks, grenades, and helicopters are woven, stitched, or embroidered into fabric. Hmong-embroidered textiles, for example, illustrate in brightly colored threads villagers being massacred by Pathêt Lao soldiers. One portion of a South African memory cloth shows a person being "necklaced"—that is, set on fire by placing a burning tire around the neck. In U.S. contexts, perhaps the most politically charged objects are the 9/11 rugs, although they are not the exhibit's primary focus. 9/11 rugs are usually made in Afghanistan or Pakistan and depict the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. As Zeitlin Cooke observes in the exhibition catalogue, the rugs emerged on the international market only a few months after the World Trade Center was destroyed (p. 61). One rug displayed in the exhibit is set in red, white, and blue colors and shows each Twin Tower with an airplane crashing into it, sending out dust or flames. A helicopter rests atop one building. The U.S. and Afghanistan flags are depicted side by side in the middle; a dove of peace rests along the bottom by the letters "USA." At the top is woven "11 September in 2001." The other rug is similar, but specifically identifies the airplanes as "American" and "USA." It also includes the words, "The Terrors were in America." All of the displayed items draw on traditional textile methods to illustrate modern theaters of terror.
The exhibit demonstrates how the textiles function as documentaries to record the experiences of ordinary people. The curators smartly [End Page 349] frame the objects as survivor stories, rendered in pictures instead of words. They do not represent the perspective of the military, social elites, or the literati but rather the perspective of a sector of society that otherwise is denied access to public forums—displaced, largely poor, semiliterate or nonliterate women and men. The 9/11 rugs are not strictly documentary, but they also can be understood as survivor stories. According to collector Kevin Sudeith (personal communication), the sources for these rugs are not...