'For me the work of 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' (A. Boetti quoted in Alberto Boatto, Alighiero & Boetti, Ravenna 1984, p. 122).
Translation of the top and bottom borders written in Italian:
Left (from top to bottom) ALIGHIERO E BOETTI AFGHANISTAN
Right (from top to bottom) COLLO ROTTO BRACCIA LUNGHE Broken Neck and Long Arms
Translation of the left and right borders written in Farsi:
Top (from left to right): Alighiero and Boetti looks at the clear sky from the window sitting in an Afghan house
Bottom (from left to right): Alighiero and Boetti looks at the ground from the window sitting in an Afghan house
A unique and poignant example of Alighiero e Boetti's extraordinary Mappa series, the brightly woven countries of this work boldly articulate the patterns of countless national flags, creating a dazzling spectacle of colour and symbols. Cast against a brilliant cerulean blue sea, the vibrant countries extend to the very borders of the embroidery. Its selvage woven in a binary of black and white, the Farsi and Italian encryptions running along the parameter represent the East-West dialogue that Mappa embodies, drawing attention to the stark white void left by the absence of Afghanistan's flag, and the unique solitary black box woven outside the border. Taking months to hand embroider by Afghan weavers; the variegated sea of blue visually charts the passage of time, the subtle variations of colour corresponding to the multiple bobbins of silk thread used over the years.
Executed over two years from 1984 through 1986, this work represents a critical point in the artist's career. Elaborately hand-embroidered in Afghanistan, this unique work forms part of the small group of 'Afghan' maps made after the closure of the Afghan borders in December 1979, and is one of the last works to portray Afghanistan in startling white, before the 'Peshawar cycle' of Mappas which would remain a constant in the series from 1986 until the artist's death in 1994.
Created during a period of war and resistance, this work represents a paradigm shift for Boetti, who was forced to entirely restructure his entire artistic practice. Until the time, the artist operated out of the One Hotel in Kabul, which he had founded in 1971. Following the closure of the Afghan border, Boetti was forced to abandon this practice and work remotely from Italy. This work began in his studio in Rome, with the artist outlining the countries in felt-tip pen onto linen, before sending the cloth framework to Afghanistan. Thus the poignant messages adorning the borders act as a surrogate form of communication for Boetti and the weavers; directly commenting on the trans-national dialogue between Boetti and the Afghan people.
Unusually, two dates are boldly inscribed across the perimeter: one representing the works conception in Italy, and its culmination in Kabul. Here, the Afghan weavers incorporate their cultural and political values into the dramatic prose along the border, the date 1986 tying the zeitgeist of the weavers to a specific point in history. The Farsi message reads 'Alighiero e Boetti is sitting in the Afghan house looking through the window and seeing the clear sky Alighiero e Boetti is sitting in the Afghan house looking through the window and the ground 1986', and poetically conjuring images of the artists former presence in Afghanistan. The disjointed Italian phrase vertically reads 'Alighiero e Boetti, Afghanistan Broken Neck, Long Arms 1984' , and is derived from a drawing by the artist dated from 1974 illustrating a disjointed, boneless man slipping over steps of a staircase. A symbol of sufferance, the reference to the sinuous figure suggesting the artist's synaesthesic desire to be all encompassing, all places at once, his long arms cited here engaged by extension in the creative process he initiated in Afghanistan (A. Sauzeau in Alighiero e Boetti, Shaman Showman, 1001, p 161).
A snapshot of the world through the lens of the mid 1990s, Mappa captures a frozen moment in time of a world in flux, depicting countries which no longer exist, and borders which are no longer relevant. The most pertinent variations that would evolve in this series would be the changing state of Afghanistan, reflecting the turmoil at the site of this work's creation, makes the work all the more poignant. The time of this works creation, 1984 through 1986, represents some of the bloodiest years of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. By the time this Mappa was produced, Afghanistan had known half a dozen changes in its flags and since then has known half a dozen more. Some of these changes have been subtle, but nonetheless reflect the turbulent state of flux in which our world exists. Here, the weavers have portrayed their own country in startling white, one of the last examples of the Mappas to do so, Boetti leaving the portrayal of their home nation at the discretion of the Afghan weavers. In contrast, the artist specified that the Namibia territory be left deliberately blank in response to South African occupation.
As Luca Cerazzi has written of this unique and poignant period in the creation of the Mappa, there are many possible explanations for the embroidering of the Afghan flag in white at this time, 'It is possible' he writes, 'that the flag was not embroidered or was embroidered white for mere practical reasons: the uncertainty of the political situation or ignorance on the part of the work co-ordinators: as a form of protest on the part of the Afghans against the Russian invasion: or to represent a desire for peace in the strife of the Afghan political situation, experienced from the viewpoint of the refugees in Peshawar. (Salman) Ali, (Boetti's friend and co-ordinator with the Afghan artisans) even today, cannot provide a precise explanation. Whatever the reason, the white flag of Afghanistan remains a perfect metaphor of the dramatic, tumultuous history of the country in particular, and of world political history in general' (Luca Cerizza quoted in Alighiero e Boetti. Mappa, London, 2008, p. 89).
A work fundamentally engaged with the exploration of borders -both real and perceived- the Mappa series can be seen as organic development from the artist's early work Planisfero politico of 1969, recalling the artists fascination in travel, geography and notions of duality and multiplicity, order and disorder created by borders. Lending from Boetti's conceptual roots, the structured grid-like formation of the borders evokes the artist's early 'magical squares' series, expressive of the artist's earliest interest in cultural, philosophical, mathematical and linguistic puzzles. Mappa have come to reflect the state of the world's flux, the living embodiment of Boetti's creative credo of mettere al mondo il mondo (bringing /setting the world into the world). This is also one of the last Mappas to be based on Van der Grinten projection map, representing a point in time just in advance of when the Robinson projection map would become internationally synonymous image of the globe, which allocates more space to the Southern continents.
Embedded within the Mappa, the Afghan flag is a poignant indicator of the constant flux and change of the world and to what is perhaps the central concept of Boetti's entire oeuvre. As the artist once wrote revealingly on the border of one Mappa, the artist created the series in order to 'erase the distance between Rome and Kabul'. Mappa pushes the acceptable margins of creative chance through an exchange of dialogue between an Italian conceptual artist, and the Afghan weavers he commissioned to execute his vision.
Widely considered to be the seminal body of work conceived by one of the most influential and important artists of his generation, Mappa are included in numerous major museum collections (such as LACMA is Los Angeles and MOMA in New York), and recently highlighted in the major international retrospective of the artist's work this year at Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, Tate Modern in London, and Museum of Modern Art in New York.