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Fragrant re-imagining of Afghan war rugs: An interview with artist Barbara Koenen

Interview with ArtPrize artist, Barbara Koenen about her piece The War Rugs Project, being exhibited at the GRAM for ArtPrize 2011 reveals the artist's inspirations and hopes for her work.
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The War Rug Project will be up at GRAM through October 9. 

At 2pm on October 9th, Koenen will publicly pull prints of the rug, both destroying the piece and recording its short life.

Walk up the stairs to the second floor of the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM), and you will be greeted by complex layers of aromas that range from grandma’s apple pie to Tandoori chicken to boudoir sachets. Sunday at the GRAM, artist Barbara Koenen completed the finishing touches of her ArtPrize entry, The War Rug Project. Since Thursday, Koenen has been painstakingly arranging spices atop a carefully planned template whose design replicates that of an "Afghan war rug."

I was anxious to talk with Koenen as these war rugs first confounded me when I was in Kabul. Seven years ago, Kabul’s bazaars tossed me like a ship in a tempest. Children pushed up against me with outdated postcards, veiled elderly women tugged at my blouse, promising a “special price” for their embroidered tablecloths, and a dizzying array of silver jewelry, carved knives, and hand-painted silk soon became a blur. But the rugs were impossible to miss. Perhaps from a peripheral glance they appeared like your traditional Persian rugs. But it didn’t take close examination to notice that the familiar imagery of flora, fauna and geometric patterns were replaced with tanks, AK-47s and planes crashing into the Twin Towers. Part kitsch-part document, the uncomfortably relevant textiles demanded consideration. Koenen’s response to this imagery provides what art in the wake of war seldom does: a quiet, contemplative offering.

Koenen sums up her process:

Adopting the practice of the Tibetan Buddhist monks who make elaborate sand mandalas that they then destroy, I began to reconstruct Afghan War Rugs like mandalas, using spices instead of sand. A meditation, they take up to a week to complete. With fringe and popper firecrackers attached, the rugs exist only temporarily. They are touched, inhaled, even walked on.


Below is my interview with the artist which took place after her talk at the GRAM on the 10th anniversary of 9/11:

Tori Pelz: The 9/11 tragedy drew attention to a part of the world many Americans knew little about. You’ve been making your Afghan War Rugs since shortly after that event. In the past ten years, national attention to Afghanistan has waned and perhaps wearied. What keeps you engaged in this culture—or has this project become about something bigger than Afghanistan?

Barbara Koenen: Well, [the US] went into Afghanistan to rebuild, bring education, to help… That’s been lost. I continue to do these rugs so we don’t forget about women’s rights, the human issues. You know, the women that make these rugs have little to no interaction with the outside world, unless they have a male escort. Doing these rugs is a way to make sure their voices are heard. We’ve spent too much money to forget…

TP: Would you talk about the role of tradition in your work? You reference traditional women’s work in the weaving of the original rugs, and you borrow from Tibetan spiritual practice of sand mandalas, at the heart of which is impermanence. How does your work mediate these different traditions?

BK: [Making the rugs] feels like a more traditional art form that what I normally do. As an artist, I like paint, colors… For this project, it’s been important to draw on different traditions. America is a melting pot, a blend of various traditions. In borrowing from these traditions, it’s important to be respectful in the representation.

[It’s important to note that Koenen’s rugs are more or less literal translations of the original rugs’ designs. Colors may vary, but she stays faithful to the imagery and style represented.]

Also, I’m making a political statement—about ambiguity and complexity.

TP: You speak of spices in terms of an offering, as they are often viewed in Eastern traditions. And you certainly borrow directly from Buddhist sand painting, the process itself which is a prayer. Do you see yourself as a sort of spiritual mediator, or even shaman, like Joseph Beuys or Wolfgang Laib?

BK: That would be very presumptuous. It’s not me. But I think there are elements in the work that do that.

TP:  I’m thinking of a piece you did earlier, The Gumdrop Trees in Skokie. You were invited to do a public sculpture in Skokie, IL, a vibrantly Jewish area that had once been the site of a contentious Nazi rally that prompted a Supreme Court Case on the Freedom of Speech. In this work, you adorn thorny trees with colorful gumdrops.  You state that your intention for the piece was to “counterpoint the gravity of Stokie’s History and reputation.” Is that what you’re doing with the War Rug’s--with your use of innocuous, even appetizing materials—are you softening the subject matter?

TP: There’s definitely an element of playfulness and absurdity. The rugs themselves are cartoonish. And then, yeah, I’ve added the toy poppers. So yeah. That’s what I’m doing.

TP: Regarding the prints of your spice rugs, with each successive print, visual information is lost, a deterioration that Walter Benjamin might claim is loss of “aura,” that authenticity of the original.  But you comment that the one of the wonderful things that happens in this process of pulling the prints is that the weapons disintegrate.  Do you see this disintegration as a hopeful statement—or does the loss of information mourn a compromised tradition or perhaps the fading of the Afghan women’s voices?

BK: I see it as hopeful, although I’m cynical. I don’t see the prints as the women’s voices. They’re more about recording the process. Before we started pulling prints, we’d sweep up the spices, like the monks would do after finishing a sand painting. It was just, oh, because that’s what they did. But I’m not a monk. I’m an artist. Pulling the prints was about bringing the rugs back into an art context. And it’s interesting to see what happens to the image. Some say they see the shroud of Turin [in the prints], which I find interesting.

TP: Do you have an ideal location for one of the War Rugs? 

BK: I’ve always thought colleges or universities would be a good setting, where people learn and talk about things. Or Artwork Projects in Chicago [an organization that teams up with UNESCO]. To have them viewed in international contexts would be amazing.

TP: Do you have a desire to visit Afghanistan?

BK: Maybe. Someday. I’m not there. I’m here, so I have to do the work here.


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