Art

In Venice, Nothing Hidden Under These Rugs

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 17, 2005

VENICE -- Last in a series about the national pavilions at the Venice Biennale.

International art festivals such as the Venice Biennale, which launched here last weekend, are meant to expose us to the wide range of art that's made around the world. What's kind of sad these days is how it all feels more or less the same.

In the front room of the pavilion given over to Afghanistan -- it's that country's first time at the Biennale -- there's a video projection that could have been made by any with-it artist anywhere. It's more or less about Afghan life, but its appeal is built around the ideas and techniques dear to Western art-world tastes.

The pavilion's back room, however, gives the Biennale's only sampling of a more fully foreign artistic culture. It's full of lovely geometric rugs designed by Afghan artist and entrepreneur Rahim Walizada, executed with the help of underprivileged, disempowered Afghan women. (A wall text explains that Walizada's project gives them paying work that their culture condones, and that they can do it at home if they're not able to leave the house.)

The rugs are very attractive -- but also not that new or special. They take traditional local forms and colors and simplify them to achieve the look of early European abstract art. (Would it be better if they didn't? Can we insist that distant peoples' tastes stay thoroughly exotic and "primitive" just because that gives us more of a frisson than seeing forms they've chosen to borrow from us?)

What makes these rugs important is the directness with which they're shown. "Here are the kinds of things that we make that look good," the exhibition seems to say, "and that answer some of our current local needs. Do with them what you will."

Even though the rugs are clearly meant as export goods, their straight-on presentation feels like respectful ethnography. That's a contrast to the globe-trotting, fashion-conscious shopping that rules elsewhere in the Biennale.


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