‘The two Farsi messages commemorate Boetti’s visit to the Afghan city of Herat with his son Matteo in 1977 (or 1355 according the Farsi calendar). The two inscriptions read: “The production of Alighiero Boetti in Herat in 1355” and “Alighiero Boetti visited Herat in the year 1355”’.
‘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’ (A. Boetti, 1974, quoted in A. Boatto, Alighiero & Boetti, Ravenna 1984, p. 122).
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, Boetti’s 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 of these works, ‘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, 1974, quoted in A. Boatto, Alighiero & Boetti, Ravenna 1984, p. 122).
This Mappa is a notable example in that its twinned message surrounding the work has been written entirely in Farsi. The elegant Farsi script extends fluidly across the border of coloured embroidered squares upon which is more usually written the letters that comprise the words of Boetti’s own message written in Italian. In this case however, the two Farsi messages commemorate Boetti’s visit to the Afghan city of Herat in 1977 (or 1355 according the Farsi calendar). The two inscriptions read: ‘The production of Alighiero Boetti in Herat in 1355’ and ‘Alighiero Boetti visited Herat in the year 1355’. Completed in 1990 and dominated by a large field of neatly embroidered rectangular patches of grey-white that define the world’s oceans, this 219 cm long Mappa is therefore a rich and comparatively rare example from this most popular of all Boetti’s series of works. All of Boetti’s first Mappe, made in the 1970s, were works that showed the world’s oceans in various shades of conventional blue. But after 1979, and his receiving of a Mappa that, by mistake, had been made by his Afghan collaborators with purple oceans, Boetti chose to welcome such errors in production and thereafter allowed his Eastern collaborators to choose whatever colour they wanted for his Mappa’s oceans. In this way, as has recently been pointed out, many of the oceans of Boetti’s later Mappe, as in this example from 1990, became coloured in a way that made the oceans of the earth ‘spaces beyond the control of the nation states, spaces of imagined freedom’ (M. Godfrey, Alighiero e Boetti, London 2011, p. 247).
This Mappa, with its authoritative-looking greyish-white oceans, also contains a number of other idiosyncrasies that would have appealed to Boetti not only because they reveal the open-ended nature of the collaboration that went into the making of these works but also because they help to make the generic nature of the imagery individual and unique. As with many maps created in the late 1980s, the map of Namibia in this work has been rendered ‘flagless’ in a nondescript, brilliant white because, during these years, the country was under a state of civil war and correspondingly had no flag. In addition to this, the red thread that Boetti’s collaborators have used to render Russia, China, Denmark and the Eastern part of Canada is of a slightly different colour to that used elsewhere in the map. Such slight but distinctive and unique variation in colour is also noticeable in the darker shade of grey-white used to render the central Mediterranean and certain eastern parts of the Indian Ocean.
Boetti’s Mappe originally evolved from an early work of the artist’s entitled ‘Twelve forms from June ’67 Onwards’ that presented the outlines of twelve countries in a state of political crisis or military conflict in the year, 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 Political Planisphere, 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 takes a long time (between one and two years in most cases) to produce, the Mappe are a powerful graphic expression of time as well as of humanity’s own temporal relationship with a divided concept of the world. As in this Mappa, many of the inscriptions around the edges of the works not only make each work unique, but also refer directly to the concept of time and duration as a way of reinforcing this central aspect of these otherwise geo-political works.
Boetti’s series of Mappe derived from a visit that Boetti made to Afghanistan in 1971. In part inspired by an 18th Century ancestor of his, 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. An attempt to transcend the artifice of the geopolitical division of the world by physically crossing these borders and then effectively negating them through such travel and the establishment of cultural interchange and collaboration between such divided cultures and ways of life was a way of extending the underlying concept of the Mappe into life and thereby making it real.
Like his ancestor, in Afghanistan, Boetti was to take on his own Eastern alter-ego, becoming the character known to many as Ali Ghiero, and on his second visit to the country later in 1971 he there 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 aesthetic of a unified and global concept of art and humanity began to expand through the mechanisms of trade and information exchange that were already extant. The commissioning of 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 for 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 ‘Third World’ country, the Mappe represent therefore 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.
During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the later period of Communist-backed government relevant to this work of 1990, the continuing manufacture of Boetti’s Mappe in exile even inspired the creation of a new tradition of weaving propagandistic geo-political carpets and kilims that protested the Soviet 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 the Mappe and their constant need to be updated to the latest changes to the political world map, political information about the wider world was able to enter into the traditionally closed and highly insular spaces of Afghan society in a kind of clandestine way.
Along with their physical articulation of time and its effect on the geo-political structuring of the world, the importance of this trans-global cross-cultural dialogue lies at the heart of the Mappe and is often asserted in these embroideries through the twinned messages, inscriptions and titles written in Italian and Farsi that Boetti chose to use as their borders or frames. Using phrases split into their own individual letters and often set on a differently coloured background in the manner of his Arazzo, these statements not only established a cross-cultural sense of unity and diversity but also pointed to the same inherent unity and diversity existing within the properties of words and language. In the years of separation after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, these messages also became, as in this work, a poignant dialogue of remembrance of better times past between Boetti and his collaborators.
Clearly recalling one of Boetti’s last visits to Afghanistan in 1977 when the artist travelled to the country with his son Matteo, and thereafter to the sacred city of Herat, such personal messages were important elements of the Mappe of the 1980s and early ‘90s that continued the bridge of communication between East and West during this period of separation between Boetti and his collaborators. In their often nostalgic expression of a shared longing to return to Afghanistan they are, like the union-in-diversity image of the Mappa itself, ultimately aimed at attempting to transcend the overriding sense of division and longing that was felt by both Boetti and his Afghan partners during the years of displacement after the Soviet invasion. Fondly recalling Boetti’s presence in Afghanistan many years before and during happier times, the inscription on this Mappa is a typical example. Another, more poignant and plaintive inscription on another Mappa from this period for example reads: ‘The needlework of Alighiero e Boetti an Italian artist was produced in collaboration with Abduljalil Afghan in the city of Peshawar in Pakistan. It is important to note that this work was hand crafted by un-named Afghan women in the refugee camps in the city of Peshawar in Pakistan. These women had to leave behind their beloved homes in Afghanistan due to fear from the invading Russians’ (Inscription quoted in M. Godfrey, Alighiero e Boetti, London 2013, p. 243).
As this inscription points out, this Mappa too was made by refugees from the Afghan war with whom Boetti had re-established contact when they resettled over the border in Peshawar. The manner and location of its manufacture is, of course, another important reflection on the fluid nature of man-made lines and borders that these works express. As images of time and of the unpredictable history of man, Boetti’s Mappe are also collectively, if also inadvertently, specifically expressive of the turbulent history of Afghanistan during the twenty or so years of their creation. Of the many changing flags representing Afghanistan during this period, this Mappa of 1990, displays the flag of the Soviet supported ‘Republic of Afghanistan’ used by the country between 1987 and 1992. Like other Mappe from this period therefore, it is a work that records the very last years of the Communist-backed presidency of Dr Najibullah who, at this time, was appealing to the United Nations for help before the taking of the Afghan capital of Kabul by the US-backed Mujahadin in 1992.