Was Alighiero Boetti the last Orientalist?

Hopefully, yes. In the text below you’ll find me proposing that the work of the late Alighiero Boetti should be recognised as a contemporary form of Orientalist practice, despite all the protestations to the contrary. And further, that the surge of biographical and curatorial activity of the last few years – culminating in Boetti’s recent retrospectives at the Museo Reina Sophia, the Tate Modern, and the MoMA, another at the Fowler, and soon another at MAXXI – has produced its own form of a contemporary Orientalist discourse. This has been achieved in the Boetti literature through strategies of denial and negation which have amplified and exaggerated the artist’s original avant-gardist postures. This is posited through a strategy of inversion: the artist’s own denial of agency is set against the retrospective claims now made for his refugee camp workers’ “co-creative” “relational” “collaboration” in the production of his embroidered works. So suggests Mark Godfrey, his most recent biographer, and the Tate Modern curator of his retrospective. To the contrary, I argue that his workers’ anonymous, abstracted, and mystified representations, both in the work and in the literature, is but the latest manifestation of a contemporary orientalism.

Sceptical? Listen to this: “Ali Ghiero, the Bedouin in transit, camped next to the Pantheon” – exemplifies how the latest blurb from MAXXI has (even further) mythologised/orientalised his practice. See here.

ALIGHIERO BOETTI ORIENTALIST

In recent years biographers, curators, and followers of the late Italian Arte Povera artist Alighiero Boetti have gone out of their way to deny the orientalist character of his work – in favour, even, of presenting him as a prophet of globalism. And yet although Tate Modern’s Mark Godfrey at one point recognises the inherent idealisation in Boetti’s engagement throughout the 1970s with his Afghan “Others”, he also remains convinced that, for Boetti, “Afghanistan should be understood neither as some “other” place untouched by Western civilisation nor as a culture somehow under-developed or ahistorical.”[1]  How can such contradictory views be reconciled? Despite all the evidence to the contrary, including Boetti’s opposition to the modernisation of Afghanistan and his problematic “relationship” with his outsourced workers in the refugee camps of Pakistan, in his recent biography Godfrey asserts his mode of production was evidence of Boetti’s  “determination… [not to] represent them… the peoples he met… as an exotic other.” Such are the twists and turns of the logic of denial and inversion in the Boetti story.

Art History 101 teaches us that Orientalist Art is characterised by analysis of the representation of “exotic” Others and the conditions of their presentation and reception in the Euro-American West. The consequences for an understanding of the historical context of the colonialist relations between ‘the West’ and its ‘Eastern’ subjects places such art in its wider socio-political context. So it goes, in university classrooms around the world.

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