‘Map of the World - The nonsensical course of Life’ (English translation of the inscriptions on the borders of the present work).
‘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’ (M. Godfrey, Alighiero e Boetti, London 2011, p. 248).
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. Vivid and vibrant in its rich embroidered colours, this large Mappa from 1988 is a unique work that carries the philosophical title L’insensata corsa della vita (The Nonsensical Course of Life).
‘I love’ the Mappe or Plansiferi (Planispheres) as they were originally called, Boetti once told Mirella Bandini, ‘The last one has just been completed after nearly two years’ work: again. It’s based on the work on maps with the borders changed…Doing these embroideries, with four women working on the canvas in Afghanistan, where they are the best embroidresses in the world…is a way of recovering something. I love the work‘ (A. Boetti, ‘Interview with Mirella Bandini’, 1972, reproduced in Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972 exh. cat, Tate, London, 2001, p. 190).
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).
Boetti’s Mappe originally evolved from an early work 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 fur 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 at a specific moment in time but which are themselves made over a long period (between one and two years in most cases), 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.
After the creation of the concept of the Mappe in his Political Planisphere, the logical expansion of this concept of a unified world divided into colourful abstract parts, had been to attempt to fuse those divisions and transcend their artifice by actually physically crossing such borders in the active and participatory form of travel and the establishment of cultural interchange. Boetti 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 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 was beginning to expand his unified and global concept of art and humanity through the mechanisms of trade and information exchange that were already extant. In the commissioning of the production of his Mappe from local women weavers for example, Boetti effectively opened a new commercial East-West dialogue not based on exploitative trade but on a spirit of cross-cultural collaboration that ultimately had an important influence for both Afghanistan and Europe. Among the first artists not only to have his work manufactured by assistants but also in the non-mechanised archaic and folk art handicraft tradition of a ‘Third World’ 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.
During the Russian invasion of the country in 1979 and the later period of Communist-backed government relevant to this work of 1988, the continuing manufacture of the Mappe 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 the Mappe and their constant need to be updated to the latest changes to the political world map, political information about the wider world entered into the traditionally closed and highly insular spaces of Afghan society in a kind of clandestine way.
The importance of this trans-global cross-cultural dialogue lies at the heart of the Mappe and is often asserted in these works 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.
The messages on this Mappa read at the top: ‘Needlework by Alighiero Boetti, Italian Artist which has been done with the collaboration of Abdoljalil Afghani in the city of Peshawar in Pakistan. The calligraphy of the fabric is done by Mohammad Yassin’. On the bottom the inscription reads: ‘Alighiero Boetti met Abdoljalil for the first time in the year 88 and asked for his collaboration in the feld of the art of needlework which is the artifact of the people of the North of Afghanistan’. The title Boetti himself has bestowed upon the work is L’insensata corsa della vita (The Nonsensical Course of Life) It reads vertically both upwards and downwards in separately coloured lettering along each side of the map.
These personal messages establish a bridge of communication that transcends the sense of division, longing and separation that was felt by both Boetti and his Afghan partners during this difficult period of displacement after the Soviet invasion. An inscription on another Mappa from this period for example reads similarly: ‘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 by M. Godfrey in Alighiero e Boetti, London 2013, p. 243).
As images of time and of the unpredictable history of man too, Boetti’s Mappe are also collectively, if also inadvertently, specifically expressive of the turbulent history of Afghanistan between the years of their creation. Of the many changing fags representing Afghanistan, this Mappa for example, displays the second fag of the ‘Republic of Afghanistan’ used by the country between 1987 and 1989. Like other Mappe from this period therefore, it records the last years of the Communist-backed presidency of Dr. Najibullah who was then appealing to the United Nations at this time for help before the taking of Kabul by the US-backed Mujahadin.
This work is one of a series of Mappe that were 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 this work’s manufacture is, of course, another important refection on the fluid nature of man-made lines and borders that these works aim to express. The poignant title, The Nonsensical Course of Life, that Boetti has bestowed upon this work appears, in this respect, to be a refection upon the pointlessness of such man-made divisions.