Müllerschön, Nicola

Guest Author of June 2011

Nicola Müllerschön was a participant in the first Global Studies session at the ZKM in 2010; today, we would like to present her case study on the production of Alighiero Boetti’s Mappe del mondo, a series of embroidered textile works from the 1970s to the 1990s produced initially in Afghanistan and then later in refugee camps in Pakistan. Their craft aesthetic and the use of fragments of Persian script make these “maps of the world” seem like objects of global art no longer tied to the paradigms of Western art production: the totality of the depiction of the world on the map corresponds to the incorporation of the techniques and the creative achievement of the Afghan women who embroidered the maps. In contrast to the studio production of works of art common in Europe and the United States, Boetti’s world maps refer explicitly to their collaborative origins; nevertheless, one can hardly speak of emancipating the Afghan production of art, since the embroiderers remain anonymous and thus a clear hierarchy of the author and producers of the work is maintained. It took a documentary by the American photographer Randi Malkin Steinberger that was exhibited together with a series of world maps in 2009 to reveal the complexity of the narratives of the production, presentation, and reception of these works in their respective locations.

Versatile Collaborations: Narratives of Alighiero Boetti’s Afghan Embroideries

Art history loves the furtive glance into the artist’s studio. The place where art is made is both a nucleus and an accessory to the process of artistic creation, promising an authenticity that evaporates on the institutional stages of galleries, museums, and other exhibition spaces. The studio—as space, material, and anecdote—is absent in the museum presentation and thus an expression of privileged access. When a view into the studio is permitted, it initiates a play of gathering clues, bearing witness, and masquerading1. The strategies for artistic presentation of the studio are as diverse as they are legendary and are often recorded in collections of photographs published for precisely this purpose. Studio photographs from the second half of the twentieth century show the artist at work, the artist posing, and the non-present artist. The writing of the history of Action painting was influenced by Hans Namuth’s photographs of Jackson Pollock employing all his physical force to hurl the can of paint over the canvas; Gerhard Richter ran through all the possible attitudes and gestures for photo shoots in his studio in Düsseldorf; and Francis Bacon’s messy studio did not even require the presence of the artist to convey the creative chaos as symbol of the untamed maverick2. What all these examples have in common is the artist’s self-image as protagonist and guardian of his own myth3.

The circumstances are often different with artists who have their works produced by other people and in other places. At the latest since Sol LeWitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art (1969), the execution of a work has been declared to be a secondary concern, and the studio splintered into a wide variety of manifestations. For a long time, we have been accustomed to the circumstance that the actors and locations involved in the planning are different to those of production. Art historians are not interested in the steelworks where sculptures by Richard Serra or Donald Judd are produced4 nor in the copy shops where the “removable” installations of Felix Gonzalez-Torres were printed. In such cases, no one would ever consider authorship a problem or question the hierarchies of the division of labor and hence the role of the artist as someone who commissions work from others.

But what attention is paid to the outsourcing of production outside of the Western cartography of art? This constellation applies to the oeuvre of the Italian artist Alighiero Boetti, most of which was produced in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If works by European conceptual artists are produced in Asia, the site of production becomes a minefield of cultural implications that causes art critics to adopt different strategies for dealing with intercultural authorship. Boetti is a paradigmatic case study for this, since his production model is revealed to be a complex, even diffuse relationship of collaboration and delegation that contains various narrative styles. The South-Central Asia context of their production is not just the point of departure for Boetti’s works but also fulfills different ideological functions in the commentaries of art critics and curators. The spectrum ranges from vague references to their provenance to affirmative approaches of a postcolonial-influenced critique that tries to take into account the polyphony of the various participants and to make multiple subject positions visible5.

When Boetti first visited to Kabul in 1971, he encountered embroidery as something women did everyday. Until 1979 he traveled to Afghanistan regularly and commissioned embroideries based on his own designs, which were produced by Afghan women working at home—and without the artist present. After the Soviet invasion, this production was interrupted, but was resumed again in the early 1980s in Afghan refugee camps in the Pakistani border city of Peshawar. In 1988, as many as five hundred embroiderers were working for Boetti6. In this way countless embroidered images were produced as unique works in series, and they quickly became popular collector’s pieces. Boetti’s textiles set new records on the international art market and are celebrated as icons of global art7. In a press release of 2008, the auction house Sotheby’s included them among its “Top Ten Lots by % of High Estimate.”8

Souren Melikian, a critic writing in the New York Times, compared the market success of Boetti’s works to the international sites of their production and the participation of various actors in their manufacture: “An embroidery titled ‘Tutto’ was inscribed ‘Peshawar’ on the overlap, reminding viewers that it was woven in Pakistan. This sold for £205,250 […], extraordinary for a work designed not by the artist, but by Boetti’s assistants under his supervision, and, what is more, executed in Asia. Another Boetti-sponsored embroidery later brought £457,250. The world map in bright colors, ‘Mappa del Mondo—L’Insensata Corsa della Vitta,’ has two calligraphic borders inscribed in Persian, the cultural language used by many in the Pashtun elite. These designate the embroidery as the joint work of ‘Ali Kabir [whose name Sotheby’s did not bother to read or mention] and Boetti,’ note that it is a ‘collaborative work with Abdul-Jalil Afghani’ (not mentioned either) ‘executed in the city of Peshawar in Pakistan,’ and finally name the calligrapher Muhammad Riyasin (likewise ignored).”9

Melikian criticizes the auction house for not mentioning the names of those who actually produced the work and whose names are visible on the textiles. By pointing out that the works were designed by assistants under Boetti’s direction and made by embroiderers and calligraphers in Pakistan Melikian raises the question as to how the artistic subject and collaborative work is understood.

The Mappa del mondo, or Mappa for short, is the artist’s signature piece and exists in hundreds of versions10. The design is based on the principle of transferring a hand-colored political map of the world (Planisfero Politico, 1969) of the sort used by schools to embroidery. The areas of the countries are filled in with the patterns of the respective national flags, so that the embroidered fabrics have a patchwork-like, allover structure. The colors of the areas of the seas differ: the oceans of the early examples from the 1970s are blue or hatched in blue; in the later Mappe of the 1980s and 1990s, Boetti allowed the embroiderers to choose the color of the sea, and some used yellow, pink, or black threads as well. All the maps have continuous inscriptions, most of which give Boetti’s name, a date, and a specification of place, for example: “Alighiero Boetti Kabul Afghanistan nel 1983.”

In 2009/2010, twenty-six of these world maps were exhibited in New York. At the epicenter of the international art market, the Gladstone Gallery, they were exhibited in a large monographic exhibition for the first time. Their presentation in the White Cube left no doubt about the status of the works as prestigious tapestries. The continuation of the exhibition on the gallery’s upper floor, however, was more ambiguous. In the middle of the room lay a knotted wool carpet, another work by Boetti, and photographs were on view on the walls all around it. The photographs show Afghan women and girls sitting amid boxes of yarn and holding embroidery hoops to work the fabrics of the Mappe lying in their laps. In some of the photographs the viewer sees children running around, watching the women embroider; in others, men in offices spread out the finished products.

The pictures were taken by the American photographer Randi Malkin Steinberger, who had worked with Boetti in Rome previously. In 1990 she traveled to Peshawar with one of Boetti’s assistants to document the producers and production sites of the embroidery11. Because men were not allowed in to the workplaces of the Afghan women, Malkin Steinberger was the only person to see these hidden venues. During her day in the camp, she took several hundred photographs. They are quick snapshots intended to capture as much as possible of the people and their actions, as they are the only documents that bear witness to the production process. It was only from these photographs that Boetti himself learned how his works were produced. Some of the photos show him in his studio in Rome inspecting the recently arrived deliveries which his two collaborators had brought with them on their return flight from Peshawar to Rome.

The discrepancy between the level of the presentation of the work and the level of the photographic commentary, which conveys to visitors to the gallery only a vague notion of these hermetic workshops, reveals the chasm between the contexts of the production and the reception of the works. In the apotheosis of the museum situation, the anonymously produced Afghan pieces of needlework become insignias of Italian Conceptual art; at the same time the revelation of their production sites interferes with this reading by delivering a statement on a blind spot in their history. Thus, the photographs are not merely an appendix, additional background information about the “real” exhibition, but become an integral component of Boetti’s oeuvre.

The exhibition at the Gladstone Gallery was the first time Malkin Steinberger’s photographs were shown12. This making-visible coincided with a second strategy of transparency: the inscriptions on the world maps, which are frequently in Persian, were translated into English on the exhibition flyers, so that visitors who could not read Persian would understand them. Both the presentation of the photographs from Peshawar and the translation of the inscriptions are indications of a shift in perspective in the reception of Boetti’s work that emphasizes the intercultural aspect of his art13.

One Mappa from 1989 gives details about the production process and the people who participated in its, as well as their relationship to Boetti as the person who commissioned the work. The inscription reads: “The needlework of Alighiero e Boetti, an Italian artist, was produced in collaboration with Shahvali Afghan in the city of Peshawar in Pakistan. It is important to note that this work was hand crafted by un-named women who had emigrated from their beloved country Afghanistan to the Islamic country of Pakistan. These women have been living in these conditions for the past 10 years. This world map was drafted by the Italian artist Alighiero Boetti. We hope that this embroidered work of art, which is an ancient Afghan handy craft, is acceptable to art lovers. The handwriting of the text was performed by Mohammed Yasin Navabi Afghan calligrapher on Saturday 12/12/1368 (Afghan calendar).”

The concept of multiple authorship as a collaboration between various participants is undisputed in the inscription cited here: Boetti and Shahvali, as well as the calligrapher Mohammed Yasin Navabi, are named as partners in the collaboration. Shahvali, or Shavilil according to a different transcription, was Boetti’s coordinator and hence indispensible local business partner in Peshawar14. The Afghan women are characterized more specifically through this sketch of their living conditions. The work is represented as the result of a collaborative effort, though only to those who can read Persian. Hence the target audience of the works of art—the Western art-goers—is largely excluded from access to this information and has to rely on translations. The rhetoric reversal of a power structure based on inclusion and exclusion turns the signature into a code.

There is no form of collaboration at all, said Boetti in an interview with Bruno Corà in 1982. There is no contact to others, just the visualization of different, anonymous realities—nameless yet each with his or her own name. According to Boetti, there is their reality and his reality15. Boetti’s reality was presented at documenta 5 in Kassel in 1972. Harald Szeemann, who had earlier invited the artist to participate in the exhibition When Attitudes Become Form at the Kunsthalle Bern in 1969, exhibited one of the very first world maps in the legendary section Individuelle Mythologien [Individual Mythologies]. The documenta catalog includes the information “Alighiero Boetti, Arazzo, 1971, tapestry produced in Afghanistan, smaller version.”16 This caption makes it clear that at the time the work was neither conceived as a series with a specific name nor was it thought necessary to include its provenance in a commentary. The description “smaller version” refers to a specific precursor, which at the time was the only world map of this sort by Boetti. The border running around the map is written in Italian and Persian. On the lower left edge, in Italian in the Latin alphabet, it reads: “Eleven thousand eleven hundred eleven colors for Alighiero Boetti in Kabul, Afghanistan, in the autumn of nineteen hundred seventy-one.”17 As author, Boetti provided the text but is at the same time the addressee of his own message, to whom, as the person who commissioned it, an inexhaustible palette of colors is offered.

Boetti’s dealer Gian Enzo Sperone encouraged him to have more world maps embroidered as they were in great demand from collectors. Thereupon Boetti initiated serial production whose transaction between Afghanistan and Italy represented a logistical challenge and also required the collaboration of a growing number of participants. Boetti’s role was that of a director delegating various steps in the production to different collaborators. The topos of the studio separated into two manifestations: In Rome the studio was an office from which Boetti and his assistants organized his activities; in Kabul and Peshawar, it was the workshops to which the artist had only indirect access. In Peshawar, two antiquities dealers, Jalil and the aforementioned Shavilil, coordinated the distribution of the work at the refugee camps from their office, which was located above their store18.

If we recall the interest of American artists of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Carl Andre and Robert Morris, in factory production and the resulting partnerships between artists and factory owners19, the difference to Boetti’s model of production is obvious: Boetti remained a distanced observer. In his artist’s book Accanto al Pantheon, this attitude is evident: bound in red cloth with the title embossed on the cover in gold letters the book is a collage-like collection of essays by various authors and photographs taken by Randi Malkin Steinberger in Boetti’s studio in 198920. The title refers to the studio’s location opposite the Pantheon in Rome and serves as an effective emotive formula. Alongside detail shots of objects that function as reference systems, the book includes a photograph of Boetti that cites all the attributes of an internationally networked businessman: with crossed legs he sits on the boss’s chair at his desk, wearing a suit and tie; in his left hand he is holding the telephone receiver; in his right, a cigarette. At his feet lies one of his works: a watercolor from the airplane series.

As a global player, Boetti traveled to Paris that same year, in 1989, to participate in the exhibition Magiciens de la terre [Earth’s Magicians] at the Centre Pompidou21. The curatorial approach of showing Western and non-Western artists as equals, together in one exhibition, was implemented by Boetti’s contribution in a convincing way: it consisted of embroidered alphabet characters created in the refugee camps of Peshawar with poems in Farsi and Italian by the Sufi master Berang Ramazan. The work’s title, Poésie de Maître Berang Ramazan, has a special significance within Boetti’s oeuvre, since it was the first title to contain the name of one of the participants. By explicitly naming the Sufi master as the author of the poems, first it establishes an analogy to Boetti as the author of the work of art; second, a hierarchical demarcation from the Afghan women is established, since they remain at the level of anonymous producers.

Boetti did not go to the exhibition opening alone, but ensured that the Sufi master Berang Ramazan received a plane ticket to Paris as well. The exhibition’s political incentive was thus fulfilled, and at the same time the ideological split between Western intellectualism and Eastern mysticism was reinforced. Whereas documenta 5, as an international exhibition platform, was still limited to Western artists who were certified as having “individual mythologies,” Magiciens de la terre advocated the vague notion of a global magic. The exhibition triggered a number of critical commentaries. Rasheed Araeen was a key figure in this, exposing the selection criteria of Western curators as exotic formulas of evocation, attributing an urban modernism to the West and an indigenous authenticity to the Third World, and hence perpetuating the marginalizing strategies of colonialism22.

To criticize Boetti’s artistic strategy and the associated division of labor as a stereotypically colonial gesture is an obvious one, but it is an oversimplification. Rather, Boetti’s approach is related to the forms of conceptual works of art since the late 1960s when, according to the art historian Sabeth Buchmann, “the capitalist imperative of production was in the throes of a deep crisis.”23 With the availability of new topographies, it was possible to explore opportunities for expanding the framework of artistic action. It was therefore “unavoidable not to see the concept and topos of ‘conceptual production’ in terms of an increased awareness of Western culture’s complicity in the history and politics of (neo)colonialism.”24

The three exhibitions in which Boetti’s works were shown—the solo exhibition at the Gladstone Gallery in New York in 2009/2010, the group exhibition Magiciens de la terre in Paris in 1989, and the large-scale exhibition documenta 5 in Kassel in 1972—should be regarded as three exemplary forms of reception. Boetti’s Afghan embroideries are the products of globalization processes and at same time forms of expression and communicators of their ideological implications. The different forms of presentation reflect not only different constellations of power and interests, but also reveal that its narratives are flexible and open to adaptation. The history of art moves within contemporary discussions of methodology, lurching between world art history and global art history. In its attempt to do justice to art’s global production, it focuses on so-called peripheries25. In this context, Randi Malkin Steinberger’s photographs of Afghan refugee camps are a rich seam of information, and hence it is not surprising that a great deal of attention has been paid to them recently. To appreciate Boetti’s precious tapestries not in the sterile white cube but only on the peripheries, demonstrates the pleasure of discovering contaminations—of art and its histories.

Translated from the German by Steven Lindberg.

1 Cf. Brian O’Doherty, Studio and Cube: On the Relationship between Where Art Is Made and Where Art Is Displayed, Princeton Architectural Press, Temple Hoyne Buell Center, Columbia University, New York, 2007. Cf. also the conference volume Michael Diers and Monika Wagner (eds.), Topos Atelier. Werkstatt und Wissensform, Akademie Verlag, Berlin, 2010. The editors show the different ways the studio functions and ask which manifestations of the studio produce which artistic methods. These same approaches are pursued in the anthology Wouter Davidts and Kim Paice (eds.), The Fall of the Studio: Artists at Work, Valiz, Amsterdam, 2009.

2 Cf. Renate Buschmann and Daniel Marzona (eds.), Inside the Studio. Erika Kiffl fotografiert Gerhard Richter, DuMont, Cologne, 2008; John Edwards and Perry Ogden, 7 Reece Mews: Francis Bacon’s Studio, Thames & Hudson, London, 2001; Margarita Cappock, Francis Bacon’s Studio, Merrell, London, New York, 2005.

3 Cf. Monika Wagner, “Der kreative Akt als öffentliches Ereignis,” in: Michael Diers and Monika Wagner (eds.), Topos Atelier. Werkstatt und Wissensform, Akademie Verlag, Berlin, 2010, pp. 45–58; Wolfgang Ullrich, “‘Erwin anrufen’ – oder, wie wird künstlerische Kreativität (mit)geteilt? Das Atelier als Standortvorteil,” in: Diers/Wagner 2010, pp. 199–219.

4 One exception is the research of Dietmar Rübel, who has analyzed Richard Serra’s productions in steel as an attempt to visualize industrial production processes and their structural transformation. Cf. Dietmar Rübel, “Fabriken als Erkenntnisorte. Richard Serra und der Gang in die Produktion,” in: Diers/Wagner 2010, pp. 111–135.

5 An outstanding survey of the methods and relocations of postcolonial discourse in art history may be found in Viktoria Schmidt-Linsenhoff, Ästhetik der Differenz. Postkoloniale Perspektiven vom 16. bis 21. Jahrhundert. 15 Fallstudien, Jonas, Marburg, 2010.

6 Cf. Alighiero Boetti, “Afghanistan,” interview with Alighiero Boetti by Nicolas Bourriaud, in: Alighiero e Boetti. Ordre et désordre du monde. Œuvres 1967–1990, exhib. cat., FRAC Bourgogne, Dijon, 2003, p. 74. [The entire interview was first published in: Documents, 1, Paris, October 1992.]

7 Cf. Sotheby’s 20th Century Italian Art, London, 16 October 2006, auct. cat., Sotheby’s, London, 2006, pp. 94–97. The auction price for Tutto was 568,000 pounds sterling.

8 Cf. Sotheby’s Art Market Review for the auction Contemporary Art, London, 07/01/2008–07/02/2008, accessed 04/01/2011.

9 Souren Melikian, “Cool-headed Buyers Are Running the Auctions,” in: The New York Times, 10/23/2008, accessed 04/01/2011.

10 Among the many publications on Boetti’s Mappa, Luca Cerizza’s study is of particular interest; it was published in the the Afterall Books series of monographs on significant works of contemporary art: cf. Luca Cerizza, Alighiero Boetti. Mappa, Afterall Books, London, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2008.

11 I am referring to my interview with Randi Malkin Steinberger of 07/17/2010, in which she spoke of the context in which the photographs were taken and of her stay in Peshawar.

12 The only publication in which several of these photographs were published previously is Alighiero Boetti, Mimmo Paladino. Dieci Arazzi, exhib. cat., Galleria Mazzoli, Modena, 1992. Boetti and Malkin Steinberger are already planning a publication with selected photographs. It will be published in 2011 under the title Boetti by Afghan People.

13 Cf. Sarat Maharaj, “A Double-Cressing Visible Grammar: Around and about the Work of Alighiero e Boetti,” in: Lynne Cooke and Karen Kelly (eds.), Robert Lehman Lectures on Contemporary Art, 2, Dia Art Foundation, New York, 2004, pp. 35–45; Mark Godfrey, “Divided Interests,” in: Artforum International, May 2009, pp. 204–213; Nicola Müllerschön, “Universalism and Utopia: Joseph Beuys and Alighiero Boetti as Case Studies for a World Art History,” in: Jaynie Anderson (ed.), Crossing Cultures: Conflict, Migration and Convergence. The Proceedings of the 32nd International Congress of the History of Art, Miegunyah Press, University of Melbourne Publishing, Carlton, 2009, pp. 111–115.

14 This suggestion was made by Randi Malkin Steinberger in the aforementioned interview (see fn. 11).

15 Alighiero Boetti in conversation with Bruno Corà: Cf. Alighiero Boetti and Bruno Corà, “Un disegno del pensiero che va,” in: A.E.I.O.U., 6, Rome, December 1982; reprinted in: Martina De Luca (ed.), Alighiero e Boetti, Edizioni Essegi, Ravenna, 1990, p. 124.

16 Chapter “Individuelle Mythologien,” in: documenta 5. Befragung der Realität – Bildwelten heute, exhib. cat., Kassel, 1972, pp. 16/7, 16/8. Boetti was represented by several other works at documenta as well, including Senza numero, a wall installation of 720 stamped and framed letters Boetti sent from Afghanistan to his dealer, Gian Enzo Sperone.

17 The original text in Italian reads: “Unidici mila undici cento undici colori per Alighiero Boetti a Kabul Afghanistan nell’autunno dell’anno millenovecentosettantuno.”

18 Cf. fn. 11 and 14.

19 Cf. Julia Bryan-Wilson, Art Workers: Radical Practice in the Vietnam War Era, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2009.

20 Cf. Alighiero Boetti, Accanto al Pantheon, photographs by Randi Malkin, Prearo, Milan, 1991.

21 Cf. Jean-Hubert Martin (ed.), Magiciens de la terre, exhib. cat., Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1989.

22 Cf. Rasheed Araeen, “Our Bauhaus, Others’ Mudhouse,” in: Third Text, 6, Spring 1989, pp. 3–14. Cf. also Julian Stallabrass, Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 2004, p. 14. Stallabrass analyzes the rise of intercultural exhibitions that occurred at the time of the end of the Cold War, as a sign of neoliberal ideology.

23 Sabeth Buchmann, Denken gegen das Denken. Produktion, Technologie, Subjektivität bei Sol LeWitt, Yvonne Rainer und Hélio Oiticica, b_books, Berlin, 2007, p. 73; translated from the German.

24 Buchmann 2007; translated from the German.

25 Cf. Anderson 2009; Hans Belting and Andrea Buddensieg (eds.), The Global Art World: Audiences, Markets, and Museums, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2009; James Elkins (ed.), Is Art History Global?, Routledge, New York, London, 2007; Kitty Zijlmans and Wilfried van Damme (eds.), World Art Studies: Exploring Concepts and Approaches, Valiz, Amsterdam, 2008.