Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994)
Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994)


Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994)
signed 'Alighiero e Boetti' (on the overlap)
embroidered tapestry
45 3/8 x 69¾in. (115 x 177cm.)
Executed in 1983-84
Private Collection, Belgium.
Anon. sale, Christie's London, 27 June 1991, lot 42.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.

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Lot Essay

This work is registered in the Archivio Alighiero Boetti, Rome, under no. 4025.

Boetti's Mappe - the embroidered series of world maps that he made between 1971 and 1994 in partnership with Afghan women living in Kabul and later as refugees in Peshawar - are the best-known and most-loved of all his works. Reflective of the constantly changing patterns of the political world map as it changes through time, and also of a long-running and intensely personal East/West dialogue that ultimately determined much of the course of Boetti's art and life, they present a profound vision of the world as a vast, holistic and intercommunicative entity. This embroidered work on a linen support is a rare Mappa, with silver-grey thread for the seas and all the nations coloured according to their flags; the Mappa is also titled and dated, by one of Boetti's celebrated self-negating aphorisms as being 'smettere in moto' or 'stopped in motion' in Kabul in 1984. Originating therefore, amidst the troubled period of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the mid- 1980s, it is a work that, with its alternate inscription in Farsi about the lonely path of the artist, is a particularly poignant example, poetically invoking a sense of Boetti's belief that art and journeying were twinned enterprises intrinsically related to one another.

Of all of Boetti's many diverse creations, the Mappe are the simplest and most elegant encapsulation, within one single and seemingly familiar image, of the artist's enduring, part mystic, part conceptual, aesthetic that informed all his work from the late 1960s to his premature death in 1994. Radiant and ultimately optimistic images of the political world map as a fascinatingly diverse single entity held in a state of perpetual flux, the Mappe have also, in recent years, increasingly come to be seen as powerful and even perhaps prophetic icons of the fluid, fast-paced and perpetually-changing globalised image of the world in the 21st century. 'For me', Boetti said, '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.' (Alighiero e Boetti, 1974, quoted in A. Boatto, Alighiero & Boetti, Ravenna 1984, p. 122).

The time and place of this silver-grey Mappa's execution are written running down the side of the world map in two black and white inscriptions written in Itailan and segmented in the manner of Boetti's Arazzi into their alphabetical component parts. Entitling the work as 'authored' by Boetti and 'stopped in motion', in Kabul in 1984, these inscriptions refer to the dominant theme of the series: time. They are in effect, linguistic indications of how the fluid ever-changing nationalistic flags and borders of the world - especially those of Afghanistan at this time - have here been fixed in time or, as Boetti preferred to put it, 'stopped in motion'. These phrases, split, like the world map, into their constituent alphabetical parts, reiterate Boetti's ever-present theme of 'ordine e disordine' - the order and disorder - that lies inherent within all things including, as these black and white letters indicate, the structure of all language.

Also written in black on white in a Farsi script along the top of this Mappa, and quite possibly intended as a personal message to Boetti from the Afghan (women) embroiderers and (men) calligraphers who partnered him in the creation of these works, is the phrase 'Starting on the path, two artists walk towards the desert. The long and unchanging path of the desert, guests of Alighiero Boetti'.
It is one that poetically invokes several of the key themes of Boetti's art. Boetti had often himself invoked the practice of art as a hard and lonely path through a desert. One of the inscriptions on a Mappa from 1983 for example reads, 'there are many people who start on the way to thinking about art, but only a few remain on this path'. Here, this notion of art as a path and of the journey playing an important role in the artist's life, as indeed it did for Boetti, who until 1979 had journeyed regularly between Rome and Kabul, is invoked with the concept of two artists setting out on their own path as guests of Alighiero.

This dialogue, formalised in this Mappa and expressive of the symbiotic and twinned kind of relationship existing at the heart of so much in Boetti's art, is not only indicative of the strong personal as well as professional links between his own art and life but also between him and the people and country of Afghanistan.

Completed in 1984, five years after the Soviet invasion of the country had effectively prohibited Boetti's regular visits to his friends and collaborators in Kabul and at a time of great disruption and uncertainty in Afghanistan, this inscription is therefore all the more poignant. It effectively indicates that, in spite of all the troubles, the continued (though admittedly at this time, disrupted and erratic) production of Boetti's Mappe and the cross-cultural dialogue they engendered, in the end continued to unite and transcend this temporary division between Afghanistan and the outside world.

These works were made, Boetti once wrote revealingly on the border of one Mappa, in order to 'erase the distance between Rome and Kabul'. Essentially images of time and also of the unpredictable history of man, his Mappe therefore also inadvertently became particularly expressive works of the turbulent history of Afghanistan in the late twentieth century.

Boetti had first visited Afghanistan in 1971, and on his second visit later that year, had established his 'One' hotel in Kabul and commissioned the first of what would become an ongoing and continuous series of Mappe. This commissioning of the production of his Mappe from local women effectively opened what was perhaps the first commercial East-West dialogue of the twentieth century, not to be based on exploitative trade but on a spirit of cross-cultural collaboration. Indeed, in Afghanistan, Boetti's commissioning of the Mappe eventually had the effect of re-invigorating the ancient handicraft tradition of embroidery, originating from Bukhara but which was almost dying out in Kabul. During the Russian invasion in 1979 and throughout the period of Communist-backed government when this work was made, Boetti's continuing manufacture of the Mappe in Kabul, and later in Pakistan from 1985 amongst Afghan people in exile even inspired the creation of a new tradition of weaving: propagandistic geo-political carpets and kilims protesting the occupation. In cultural terms too, the Mappe, besides providing economic sustenance to many Afghan families, also came to prove instructional; introducing all who saw them, to the first world maps, and indeed, sometimes, the very first maps that many of them had ever seen. Through the continued production of Boetti's Mappe at this time and their constant need to be updated to the latest changes to the political world map, political information about the wider world also entered into the traditionally closed and highly insular spaces of Afghan society and refugees in a kind of clandestine way.

This Mappa is one of several executed around 1983/84 in which,
on account of the continuing confusion and political uncertainty in
Afghanistan and amongst handicraft people still able and willing to
work for Boetti at this time, the artist allowed the Afghan artisans
to choose and add the problematic image of their own country. In
many of the 1983 Mappe, for example, the Afghan, rather confused
about the current political status of their own country, left the flag of Afghanistan white. In this work instead, the needle work offers
the red flag (of Peoples Democratic Party that ruled the country until 1979 and beyond that period), with the name Khalq meaning the

This red flag emblazoned with the words 'the people' is powerfully evocative of the troubled times in which this Mappa was made, and indeed of the political purpose of the series as a whole. As Luca Cerizza has written of this unique and poignant period in the creation of the Mappe, this uncertainty in the embroidering of their own country's flag, 'remains a perfect metaphor of the dramatic, tumultuous history of the country in particular, and of world political history in general.' (L. Cerizza, Alighiero e Boetti. Mappa, London 2008, p. 89)

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