This beautiful, hand-embroidered tapestry from 1984 forms part of Alighiero Boetti’s most celebrated series – the Mappe (Maps), which occupied the artist for over two decades of his career. Based on up-to-date cartographic records, these richly detailed, boldly coloured textiles were produced by weavers in Kabul, Afghanistan, following Boetti’s directions. They show the Earth’s landmasses fragmented into various countries, kingdoms and unions, with each unique work documenting the geopolitical landscape at the moment of its conception. The nations can be identified by their flags’ distinct patterns, which, often only partially visible within each territory’s outline, create a dazzling mélee of colour and graphic symbols. The present Mappa is particularly striking, with the countries set adrift in an ocean of sumptuous Tyrian purple. The dual concepts of ordine e disordine (order and disorder) which so fascinated Boetti are perfectly embodied in this image of the earth, as the intricate, highly detailed order of cartography dissolves into a vibrant profusion of unstable borders, redefined territories and fractured flags, revealing the general state of flux in which the world exists. Indeed, considered together, the Mappe series can be seen as a dramatic critical statement of the political games played out on the world stage, highlighting the arbitrary nature of the man-made divisions which alter between tapestries – sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically – in response to changing regimes, periods of conflict, and shifting power structures around the globe.
Boetti’s Mappe began in 1971, when he hand-drew and coloured flags over two lithographs based on the 16th-century design of the Gerardus Mercator Planisphere. After these first maps on paper, embroidery would become his primary medium. The artist would typically have the cloth with the general outline of the map produced in Italy before sending it to Afghanistan to be woven. Throughout the 1970s, he visited the country on a regular basis to inspect the tapestries as they progressed, often slightly adjusting his designs or providing instruction on colour choice and the detailing of flags. Following the Soviet invasion of 1979, access to the region became increasingly difficult, and Boetti was forced to re-structure his working process: from the early 1980s onwards the designs were drawn in Italy in a far more detailed and legible format before being sent east, making it easier for the craftswomen to follow the pattern with as little direction as possible. The Farsi text that frames many of the works was devised by the weavers’ supervisors, who were led by Boetti’s friend Dastaghir. They often express their fondness for the artist, with whom they had a warm personal relationship. At the upper and lower edges of the present Mappa, the inscriptions conjure a wistful image of Boetti back in Afghanistan: they read ‘Alighiero Boetti, sitting in the Afghan house, looks at the earth from the window’, and ‘Alighiero Boetti, sitting in the Afghan house, looks at the sky from the window.’
As Mark Godfrey has observed, ‘It sounds at first like a problematic way of producing art – using local labour and craft techniques to make works for a Western market – but Boetti’s approach was much more nuanced. Fascinated by the new approaches to colour in Afghan culture, he encouraged the producers to make their own decisions as they embroidered his word squares or maps. They became co-producers rather than fabricators’ (M. Godfrey, ‘Giving Time to Time’, Tate Etc., 24 June 2019). Indeed, alongside the idiosyncrasies produced by the weavers’ hand-crafting and their geographical disconnect from Boetti, their own creative decisions were central to his project. He did not dictate the colours of the oceans, and was delighted when the first finished tapestries arrived with waters of green, yellow, black, grey and purple as well as blue. ‘Their choices of colour from the designs of my colour schemes resulted in the combinations of colour possibilities that were impossible to predict’, he said. ‘The element of surprise is like the disorder invading the formal order of the grid’ (A. Boetti, quoted in Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan, exh. cat. Tate Gallery, London, 2012, p. 166).
Shifts in shade and detail introduce further variation within the present Mappa, from incursions of blue into the Mediterranean Sea to a bar of pale lilac at the lower right, where the purple thread seems to have run out. The ocean’s painterly, variegated violet visually charts the passage of time, its rhythms of tone and texture corresponding to the multiple bobbins of silk used at different stages in the map’s creation. Time is a central theme in the Mappe as a whole. While each of Boetti’s designs was shaped by the particular historical moment of its conception, the intricate tapestries had a lengthy gestation period, each taking up to two years to complete. By the time they were finished and returned to the artist, the details of the maps were thus often significantly out of date. In this composition, Boetti records a snapshot of the world from before 1984, including countries that no longer exist, borders that are no longer relevant and flags that have changed colour, design and meaning in the interim years. The expansive spread of the former Soviet Union dominates the right hand side of the tapestry, engulfing vast swathes of the continent in bright red, while the Yugoslavian flag still flies over the Balkan Peninsula. In Africa, the flaming torch of Zaire’s flag blazes at the centre of the country now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. To its west we see the flag of Upper Volta, which faded from existence even as the embroiderers were working: the country would adopt an entirely new flag in August 1984, when it changed its name to Burkina Faso.
The sense of historic instability is perhaps most powerfully evoked by the two countries which remain ‘flagless’, appearing as blank, white spaces within the map. In the southwestern corner of Africa, Namibia is deliberately left unfilled in recognition of the country’s ambiguous status at the time, as it remained embroiled in a brutal fight for independence from its South African neighbours. The shape of Afghanistan is also blank. In contrast to the absence of Namibia’s flag, whose omission Boetti requested in expression of his stance against the South African occupation, this choice was made by the embroiderers of the tapestry themselves. Instructed by the artist to decide on the visual representation of their homeland, they chose to leave the Afghan flag white, reflecting their uncertainty about the country’s status in the wake of the Soviet invasion. In this way, the empty space highlights the personal situation of the embroiderers and becomes a poignant marker of the very real effects that the machinations of power and conflict have on ordinary people. From such potent political details to the joyful freedom of its purple sea, Mappa challenges the authority of the map as an objective and neutral bearer of information, capturing instead the beautiful order and disorder of human life in a new, truly international vision.