‘Alighiero Boetti in 1363 revives the spirit of Afghanistan’
—ENGLISH TRANSLATION OF THE INSCRIPTION ON THE UPPER BORDER OF THE PRESENT WORK
‘Alighiero Boetti puts the dress of Afghanistan on his body and breathes the Afghan air’
—ENGLISH TRANSLATION OF THE INSCRIPTION ON THE LOWER BORDER OF THE PRESENT WORK
‘For me, the embroidered Mappa is the ultimate in beauty. For that work I did nothing, chose nothing, in the sense that: the world is made as it is, not as I designed it, the flags are those that exist, and I did not design them; in short, I did absolutely nothing; when the basic idea, the concept, emerges, everything else requires no choosing’
‘Ultimately, what remains remarkable, and radical, about Boetti’s Mappe ... is the various ways in which they manage to challenge the authority of the map while providing the pleasure many people take in looking at them’
Of all of Boetti’s many diverse creations, his Mappe or world maps are the simplest and most elegant encapsulation, within one single and seemingly familiar image, of the entire, part-mystical, part-conceptual, aesthetic that informed all the artist’s work from the late 1960s until his death in 1994. Radiant and ultimately optimistic images of the political world-map as a fascinatingly diverse and colourful single entity held in a state of perpetual flux, these works are powerful and prophetic icons of the fluid, fast-paced and perpetually-changing nature of the contemporary world.
Boetti’s series of Mappe derived from a visit that he made to Afghanistan in 1971. Partly inspired by his eighteenth-century ancestor Giovan Battista Boetti - a Dominican monk who, on a visit to Constantinople had converted to Islam and, after changing his name to Sheikh Mansur had led the Chechen people in revolt against Catherine the Great - Boetti had decided to undertake a similar voyage of discovery with the aim of creatively collaborating with a distinctly Eastern culture. In 1971 he decided upon Afghanistan. The logical expansion of the Mappe’s concept of a unified world comprised of artificially divided parts was, after all, to re-enact its apparent unity and diversity in the actions of his own life. By physically traversing these borders, and then effectively negating them by establishing a cultural interchange, Boetti sought to transcend the artifice of the world’s geopolitical division. This Mappa is a notable example in that its twinned message surrounding the work has been written entirely in Farsi: the upper border reads ‘Alighiero Boetti in 1363 [the date of his visit according to the Farsi calendar] revives the spirit of Afghanistan’, whilst the lower reads ‘Alighiero Boetti puts the dress of Afghanistan on his body and breathes the Afghan air’.
The Mappe originally evolved from an early work by Boetti entitled ‘Twelve forms from June ’67 Onwards’, which presented the outlines of twelve countries in a state of political crisis or military conflict in 1967. ‘What interested me in these drawings,’ Boetti remarked, was the fact that these outlines ‘were not spawned by my imagination, but prompted by artillery attacks, air raids and diplomatic negotiations’ (A. Boetti, quoted in Alighiero Boetti, exh. cat., Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt Am Main, 1998, p. 65). First, in his blueprint-like drawing Planisphero politico, and ultimately in the embroidered Mappe themselves, Boetti expanded this concept to include the whole world and the constantly-changing passage of human history as it seemed to write itself across the world map. Creating painstakingly hand-crafted embroidered images that depict the political world map as it exists at a specific moment in time, but rendered in a work which itself took between one and two years to produce, the Mappe are a powerful graphic expression of time as well as of humanity’s own temporal relationship with a divided world.
In Afghanistan – much like his ancestor – Boetti was to take on his own Eastern alter-ego, becoming the character known to many as Ali Ghiero. On his second visit to the country in 1971, he established his ‘One’ hotel in Kabul and commissioned the first of what would become the ongoing and continuous series of Mappe. In this way, as in his postal works – and years before telecommunications and the creation of the internet would shrink the world – Boetti’s global concept of art and humanity began to expand through the mechanisms of trade and information exchange that were already extant. Commissioning the production of his Mappe from local women weavers also opened a new commercial East-West dialogue that was, atypically, not based on exploitative trade but on a spirit of cross-cultural collaboration and which ultimately, in fact, was to have an important influence on both Afghanistan and Europe. Among the first artists to have his work manufactured by assistants in the non-mechanised archaic and folk art handicraft tradition of a developing country, the Mappe represent a bridging of the modern and the ancient worlds as much as they do a crossing of the traditional East-West divide. At the same time, in Afghanistan, Boetti’s commissioning of the Mappe eventually had the effect of re-invigorating the ancient weaving tradition in Afghanistan that had been dying out.
Boetti made his Mappe in three distinct phases. The first of these lasted from their original conception in 1971 until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Boetti’s regular practice was for his assistant Rinaldo Rossi to acquire maps from Stamfords map shop in London and then, back in Italy, to prepare an acetate of the Mappa prior to its being sent off to Kabul for ‘manufacture’. The various stages in the production of these Mappe was often overseen by Boetti himself who frequently visited Afghanistan during the decade. When, following 1979, the production of the Mappe, now in Quetta, could no longer be supervised so easily, much clearer instructions had to be given on the canvases. At this time the borders and flag designs would often be traced onto the canvas and patches of colour actually silkscreened before being embroidered. The third and last phase lasted from 1986 to 1994 when Boetti was again able to travel to meet his collaborators, now living in Peshawar in Pakistan or alternatively, to send others to oversee the work on his behalf. Common to all three phases of the Mappe’s production was the element of time. Sometimes Boetti would bring maps back with him to Rome: other times they would be posted, but, significantly, there was always a delay, a temporal as well as geographical space, between the date when a map was prepared and the date when it was sent back. This was an important aspect that related the production and making of the Mappe to their central concept - the depiction of time and place. The Mappe were made in order to ‘erase the distance between Rome and Kabul’, Boetti once wrote on the border of one Mappa. In these works, the artist’s innate sense of the inherent unity and diversity of all things extended into a real East-West cultural and commercial dialogue that transcended the spatial and temporal difference between the two Western and Eastern nations. In this sense, as Luca Cerizza has written, the Mappe relate to the classical myth of Penelope and the odyssey of her tapestry, now taken to extremes. Like Penelope’s tapestry, Boetti’s embroidered maps are representations of ‘Form always in flux; image continuously constructed and reconstructed, a perpetually open, potentially infinite work that changes with the passing of time’ (L. Cerizza, Alighiero e Boetti. Mappa, London 2008, p. 66).