The remote island of Tanna at the southern end of the archipelago of Vanuatu is best known to visitors for its startlingly accessible volcano, Yasur, as well as for its various contemporary “cargo cult” societies. Best known among these is the John Frum religion and the Prince Philip Movement. Thus inspired, Iconophilia is moved to create the Not Alighiero Boetti Society, as a consequence of your scribes’ discovery of this remarkable mural.
In conventional histories of European avant-garde art the Italian arte povera artist Alighiero e Boetti (and here) has often been credited by cult followers with having triggered the contemporaneous production of Afghan carpets depicting the world map (see below), and even the war carpet genre of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Boetti’s work first came into prominence following the showing of one of his first two Mappa del Mondo (maps of the world) embroideries in the 1972 Kassel Documenta 5, which was curated by Harald Szeemann. Boetti’s work, exhibited in the section titled Individual Mythologies, was (so the story goes) produced in Afghanistan by a team of women from an “embroidery school” in Kabul.
Various recent published accounts (notably that by Luca Cerizza: Alighiero e Boetti: Mappa. Afterall Books, London, 2008) assume that the virtual industry established by Boetti, when the designs for his world maps and his later imagery were outsourced to as many as 500 women embroiderers, first in Kabul, and later in the Afghan refugee camps of Peshawar and surrounding districts, and is assumed to be the stimulus for other forms of innovation in carpet-making. In reality there is but a single point of coincidence. Just as Boetti’s first coloured-in cartoon of flags drawn in biro on a school wall atlas, (Planisfero politico, 1969) was the design for his first Mappa, so the myriad other printed precedents, both in school rooms in Afghanistan, and in libraries and on walls the world over, have in turn served as the model for images such as this extraordinary example we saw on Tanna last week.
This mural on the wall of a schoolhouse of the Loukatai Center School flashed into view from the back of a truck as we zipped along the main north-south road a couple of kilometers north of Tanna’s main town Lenakel. From the road its brilliant coloration attracts the eye, and in its detail signals a level of cosmopolitan sophistication otherwise rarely visible in the material fabric of Tanna society.
Whoa! Stop! This proto-Boetti deserves closer examination!
As we approached this mural, all seemed to be in order. Even the little square panel of text (lower right, usually a graphic description of the details and specifications of the map) seemed to be in a conventional relationship to the whole. And so, imagine our surprise when we came close enough to read this text, which was itself joined by a piece of string to the country of Pakistan!
As an icon of the contemporary moment, this ensemble beautifully represents how modernity’s reach has made it to every corner of the globe. And how clearly does this demonstrate that the intelligentsia of LDCs (Less Developed Countries), the teachers, artists, etc. in countries such as this, are engaged in the world at large, despite being so remarkably remote from the cosmopolitan origins of such iconography. And that self-representation keeps pace with globalisation. So there’s no need to assume an external stimulus in a society such as this, (as is believed by the followers of Boetti), especially when the members of local “cargo cults” can now communicate with each other by mobile phone…
This remoteness, signaled here as the representation of mere graphic specks in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, is itself picked out with precise detail.
The origins of the text, authored by Scott Wilson and Craig Whitlock, extracted from the Washington Post, is not yet clear. And yet the contemporary interconnectedness of every corner of this world is demonstrated here with iconographic clarity.
Addendum: 29 August, 2011.
Last night your iconophist (she who first spotted this mural) and I were searching world maps online when she discovered this image as a part of a brochure published by the Peace Corps Information Collection and Exchange R0088 July 1994. (R0088_worldmapproject). It’s a manual detailing how to make a world map mural, with strategies how it might be used. This project was first initiated by Barbara Jo White in the Dominican Republic in 1987, and you can find more examples here…
As a consequence my interpretation and reactions above (which for the sake of consistency I have left unedited) are now several degrees more complex and interesting. It appears I was wrong to assume “there’s no need to assume an external stimulus in a society such as this”. Clearly our fleeting visit (as tourists on the run) was a distorting perspective, which leaves a number of questions hanging. Who initiated the painting of this mural? Was this mural map the result of a Peace Corps program? When? Is it (plus the current affairs attachment) ongoing? To what extent have the Ni-Vanuatuan teachers embraced this methodology? Perhaps its existence on this school wall is as much a reflection of First World reach as it is an icon of self-identity.
The brochure itself claims: “Since 1988, enthusiastic Volunteers have carried this highly acclaimed program to over 40 countries around the world. Returned Volunteers have spread the idea across the U.S. as well. Because of the wide appeal of the activity, this guide (a revision of an earlier manual) has been written for many different groups: U.S. teachers, Peace Corps Volunteers, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, scout leaders, youth workers, and others. ” And: “Peace Corps Connection: Have your group pay particular attention to changes in the political geography of the Volunteer’s host country or region. Encourage your group to share its findings with the Volunteer. Have group members ask the Volunteer to provide more detail, if possible, or to explain even earlier instances of change in that nation’s political geography.”
And the purpose of the Not Alighiero Boetti Society? To celebrate those contemporary examples of world maps which have nothing to do with Boetti’s Mappa del Mondo, wherever they may be found… And so here’s a starter…
This Mappa del Mondo is an undated carpet from Afghanistan. Some suggest its material qualities (colour, materials, structure) actually predate the Boetti era. Translation of the details (here written in Dari) may reveal more to help us set some date parameters…
Addendum #2: 1st September
Text translation of this carpet reveals a number of things: The old Soviet Union is identified as both the “Socialist Soviet Unions of Russia” and the “Federative (sic) Republic of Russia”. Given that the old USSR became The Russian Federation in 1991, this would seem to provide a terminus ante quem – the date before which the atlas (and therefore the carpet) could not have been made. And this example also demonstrates, at least in this instance, that the atlas carpets of the 1990s derive from the kind of atlas found in schools – the translation of the text blocks reads: “The Political Map of the World” “The Map no. 14 (or 140)” and in the right hand box such words as: “Guide, Capital, International border, Centre of State, Border of State, Important City, and Main Path”. In the addition international time zones are indicated by the rows of clock faces above and below. Thanks to MR for the translation.
Addendum #3: 5th September
To further bracket the date of the original atlas (from which the carpet was copied) the country of Zaire (which existed from 1971 to 1997) is to be found in a disproportionately small patch of territory in central Africa titled “Zir” – to the east of “Congo” (which is the Republic of the Congo). And so we can deduce that the “cartoon atlas” from which this carpet was made dates from between 1992 to 1997 – the only period in which both countries coexist.