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enjoy picks: Alighiero Boetti

mumok collects

Alighiero Boetti
La Mappa del Mondo, 1972
Embroidery on linen, 180 × 220 cm
On loan from the Austrian Ludwig Foundation, since 2001

In the late 1960s, Italian artist Alighiero Boetti attempted to distance himself from Arte povera and all of its theatrical material aesthetics. He had just been named one of the movement’s most important protagonists, and yet a work from 1969 seems like a very radical reversal. It is done in pencil on paper, and Boetti drew over the sheets along the lines of the squared paper until the entire surface was completely covered. This may seem like an absurd act but is in fact the attempt to use minimal means to test out a balancing act between strict adherence to rules, monotonous consistency, and the opportunities brought by chance. Cimento dell’armonia e dell’invenzione shows how on twenty-five different sheets of paper slight irregularities of the hand, varying degrees of pressure, and other factors, lead to minimal deviations that the artist cannot control and that produce an optical effect which makes these drawings literally shine out with life.

With his so utterly playful approach to “simple” ideas, Boetti asked fundamental questions of art production in his time. These questions challenge notions of originality, obsessively follow apparently senseless rules, use writing, diagrams, and graphic series as means of expression, delegate authorship, and give the idea priority over its implementation. Boetti deliberately used distance from artistic mastery as a form of “deskilling.” The simplification of artistic means and clumsy work by hand also resulted in the invention of a kind of double persona. Boetti changed his name into “Alighiero e Boetti” (Alighiero and Boetti), thereby enacting an ironic double identity that presents the self as another, not least as the expression of the synchronicity of conscious and unconscious processes.

On March 15, 1971, Boetti went for the first time to Afghanistan. This was clearly a rather spontaneous decision. He was not the only one, as the opportunity of exploring the world via safe ways had led to the famous hippie trail leading via various routes from Europe to Bangkok and making Afghanistan a popular destination. In the fall, Boetti was back in Kabul where with his Afghan friend Gholan Dastaghir he opened the One Hotel. The name was the result of an attraction to numbers and series of numbers and also of the ambiguities of language—Boetti was living in room 11. On this second visit in 1971 Boetti brought a piece of cloth with him on which he had drawn a political landscape and which he then had embroidered in Afghanistan—the first Mappa. From then, Boetti went to Afghanistan twice a year, staying in his hotel in Kabul, and calling himself Ali Ghiero to keep things simple. In 1979, the invasion by the Soviet Union put an end to these trips and to the Mappe series. The One Hotel was closed and it is unknown what became of Gholan Dastaghir. In 1987, Boetti came across embroiderers in a Pakistani refugee camp in Peshawar and began a larger production of embroidered Mappe and woven carpets, which were traditionally made by men. The project only ended when Boetti died in 1994.

Boetti said that the portfolio required nothing of him. He designed nothing since the map of the world already existed, and he did nothing, as the works were made by others. For him, this was what made them so beautiful.(1) The embroideries, which were initially received with some skepticism in Italy, challenged traditional ideas of art. They combine different media and traditions of representation, and their cartographic element with its aspirations of “correctness” encounters artisanal crafts. The decorative tapestry and its making by third parties contrast to the stark and reduced visual imagery of Arte povera, which worked with raw materials like stone, glass, hemp, and coal. The Mappe brought a colorful anarchic and also delicate aspect into Italian art, also by showing that there were always other artistic traditions in other places with other heritages.  

During his first visit to the embroiderers, Boetti asked them to do a small piece for him and was then surprised that they added a trim that was not in his original pattern. For following works, he determined the appearance of this framing and worked out a system of the color distribution for the letters and the background, so that the same combination would never recur in another piece. Later works gave the embroiderers the freedom to add their own comments in free areas of the cloth. They decided many things themselves anyway, such as the colors of the oceans. Depending on the size, work on one Mappa, of which about 200 remain today, might take up to a year, and the women were paid fairly and gained a secure living during this time. Boetti himself hardly ever met them, as contacts in the traditional social structures of Afghanistan were via male intermediaries. Dastaghir passed the commissions on to two women, Fatimah und Abibah, who then put teams of embroiderers together.(2)

The Mappa are most easily understood using the information on the trims, working from outside to inside, or from the periphery to the center of the image. If you twist your neck and take the trouble to read the texts on the trims, then numerical lists and philosophical allusions can be discerned: ALIGHIERO BOETTI FECE PER METTERE AL MONDO IL MONDO A KABUL CON ABIBA E FATIMA NELL’ ANNO 1000 900 72 (Alighiero Boetti made [this] in order to bring the world to the world with Abiba and Fatima in Kabul in the year 1972). In the culture of tapestry and embroidery, the trim is an indispensable frame that delineates the borders of the image and that can also have its own meaning and message. Here, the trim provides an interpretation for the interior, the actual theme, but without ever being an exhaustive key, since QUANDO NON SI PRENDERA PIU LA RINCORSA E VICEVERSA remains a puzzling statement. You have to take steps (rincorsa) in various directions in order to be able to read the text—from below, from the right, or from the left.

The center does not explain itself. It is not comprehensible without its frame in which rules, their playful reversal, language, various forms of notation and delegated authorship are all intended to “bring the world to the world” (METTERE AL MONDO IL MONDO) in an emancipatory project. The trim as a “parergon” (an embellishment) is not possible without the center, while the reverse is also true, as readings of the embroidered map (the “ergon”) as a work via the trim take it beyond its function as a mere map.(3) The crooked hints on the frame explain the map as a representation of the world that adheres to an abstract system of rules which is arbitrarily posited, wishing to create a world order that nonetheless remains in a state of permanent flux. The parergon opens up a historical, economic, and political context concerning the creation of these works, making direct connections between, for example, the control that the artist relinquishes over the works’ production and the arbitrary nature of a map as a picture of the world. The interpretative work done by the anonymous embroiderers comments on the status quo of this view of the world, which perhaps already became obsolete during the manufacturing. A map thus always remains a fiction, and the knowledge it provides is always relative.

La Mappa del Mondo at mumok, presently on show in the exhibition Enjoy – The mumok Collection in Change, is dated 1972 and thus is one of the very first in the series. The outline of Afghanistan and its national flag can be seen, but they are very small. In 1972, this flag was made of three vertical strips in black, red, and green. In the middle there is a mosque with a prayer corner in a garland of corn. With the Soviet invasion in 1979, this emblem was set against a unified red background, so that the flag was adapted to that of the Soviet Union. The volatile history of the country means that no national flag has been so frequently changed than that of Afghanistan.(4) Up to very recently the flag looked nearly the same as the one of 1972, until on August 15, 2021, the declaration of an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan the (map of) world again became a very different one.

Jörg Wolfert


2    Mark Godfrey, “Boetti and Afghanistan,” in Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan, ed. by Lynne Cooke et al., London 2012.

3    See Jacques Derrida, Craig Owens, “The Parergon,” in October, vol. 9, 1979, pp. 24 f.

4    To compare the flags of Afghanistan see here.