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.

The reputation of Alighiero Boetti has received much attention through the recent suite of retrospective exhibitions at the Museo Reina Sofia, the Tate Modern, and the Museum of Modern Art, plus the recent more comprehensive exhibition at the Fowler Museum at UCLA. These shows have triggered substantial catalogues, monographs and other publications, plus numerous reviews and other commentary. All of these have, to greater or lesser degree, repeated and elaborated a set of myths in relation to the outsourced embroideries, kilims, and carpets Boetti commissioned in Afghanistan and Pakistan between the years 1972 and 1994. How this work has been characterised, especially in the period following his death in 1994, raises the question of whether an orientalist critique might remain pertinent despite the dominance of The Contemporary in the Era of Globalisation.

Any review of a contemporary orientalism would need to examine whether questions of representation, exoticism, and alterity still hold relevance for the present moment. Questions like these may be further exemplified in relation to strategies of presentation, looking at how such work is contextualised, and what claims are made for the work and its author’s intentions. If one thinks of Alighiero Boetti as an historical figure, rather than as a hero of the contemporary, then it’s arguable that he fulfils all the criteria listed above.

To recognise how Boetti represents his Others in his work requires some retrospectivity: the kinds of avant-garde strategies that were prevalent during the period of his formulation of key works in the early 70s became the model for all of the work he produced in Afghanistan and Pakistan until his death in 1994. The readymade, montage, chance, “systems aesthetics”, outsourcing, and denial of agency were all creative strategies that held sway in the period when Boetti first formulated the means of production which depended on the skills of women embroiderers, in Afghanistan in the 70s, and in the refugee camps of Pakistan in the 80s and 90s. Boetti’s workers – the women he never met – became the invisible subjects common to all the embroideries that he titled Mappa, Arazzo, and Tutto. They are represented in these works by the visible evidence of their embedded labour. It is impossible to stand in front of one of these works (let alone a whole exhibition of them) without being overwhelmed by the sheer mass of his subjects’ painstakingly detailed self-identification.

If for no other reason than this, these works are amazing objects. The awe-inspiring scale and the repetitive form of their makers’ labour knows no equal in the contemporary West. They are both digital and hand-made, taken to an infinite degree. To the Euro-American viewer, they connote a means of production – a world – so profoundly unlike anything one experiences in the contemporary moment that one is overwhelmed by the sense of their exotic otherness. Indeed this is how Boetti saw Afghanistan: “I, who had been in a house in Turin only a few hours earlier, now see a caravan pass me by, in the year 1000. And it is I who am given this vision…” In addition, that he saw Afghanistan as a kind of cultural terra nullius reveals the basis on which he progressed his plans to make use of the opportunities it presented to him. In 1972 he had his workers inscribe the following text in the margins of one of the earliest Mappa: “… in Kabul with Dastaghir [Boetti’s agent] we made something from nothing… to bring the world into the world…” This sense of exotic alterity that pervades his early work in Afghanistan persisted until the last years of his life. In an interview with Nicolas Bourriaud in 1992 he relates: “what fascinates me most is the bareness, the civilisation of the desert… In an Afghan house, for example, there is nothing.” Except, as he noticed, their indigenous textiles…

Particularly in the publications of the past few years (by Cerizza, Godfrey, Bennett et al) the question of the authenticity of Boetti’s embroideries has been put to the test in relation to other traditional and contemporary modes of textile production by Afghan artisans unconnected to the Boetti enterprise. Boetti himself effectively mythologised the role of his production as a reinvention of tradition: “Embroidery came to a stop in their country in the 1920s, but started anew with my contracts.” Fortunately, the curators at the Fowler Museum have been able to demonstrate the falsity of this claim by exhibiting the Boettis side-by-side with contemporaneous forms of embroidery from different regions of Afghanistan. Equally, but problematically, there has been a fashion for exhibiting Afghan war rugs alongside Boetti tapestries, or otherwise asserting that the Boetti enterprise somehow triggered a wave of innovation in other textile forms. This is a myth which cannot be substantiated, and that has been exaggerated out of all proportion in the Boetti literature. As I have argued elsewhere, the implicit or explicit associations between the two media as suggested by their association in exhibitions and publications serves to suggest that it is the authenticity of Boetti’s new style of embroidery that this strategy seeks to demonstrate. This is, however, yet one more example of the assumption that modernity can only be generated in the West. This perspective, as Edward Said has suggested, can only be comprehended “from an uncritically essentialist standpoint… which observes the Orient from afar, and so to speak, from above.” Such curatorial and editorial strategies of contextualisation have paid little attention to the historical precedents that exist in the various neo-traditional and iconographically innovative forms of textile art that have emerged in Afghanistan over the same quarter century. To attribute all such forms of innovation to the supposed influence of a singular avant-garde entrepreneur requires a remarkably conceited cultural perspective.

With the exception of a limited number of aphoristic interviews, so little exists of Boetti’s own expressed intentions that the field is wide open to posthumous assumptions and historiographically creative interpretations ands projections. It is not so surprising that strategies of denial and inversion pervade all of Boetti’s formative processes in the sixties and early 70s. Thus his often-quoted assertion from 1974 “I did absolutely nothing” is taken uncritically as a kind of mantra – which in Godfrey’s account, becomes a “… principle of making things without invention.” Of course such radical denials of agency were not uncommon in the post-minimalist era of the 1960s and 70s. And yet to Christopher Bennett, such avant-gardist gestures are now being interpreted retrospectively as a kind of automatism – the consequence of an unconsciously assimilated motivation – as if the whole Boetti enterprise was a kind of spontaneous expression of innovation somehow latent in his Peshawar refugee camp workforce.

Of all the claims and projections that have been made concerning Boetti’s practice, it is the suggestion that he was the precursor of the relational turn in contemporary art, and that his works had “political” intent or effects, that are the most egregious. If it was presumptive enough for Godfrey to propose Boetti’s method as “collaborative” – remember Boetti always dealt through middlemen – so it is mildly fatuous for him to propose that Boetti had established a “Poetics of Relation”, resulting in a kind of “co-authorship”, and attributing to his workers the status of “co-creators”. Further, he even suggests that when Nicolas Bourriaud was formulating his theory of relational art, he “sought out” Boetti,  “knowing that Boetti’s initiative to open a hotel and to work with diverse producers was an important precedent for the artists… he later grouped together using the term ‘Relational Aesthetics’.” Not only does Bourriaud not elicit any such ideas in his 1992 interview with Boetti, nor does he include Boetti in his exhibition that first defined the concept four years later (“Traffic” 1996). To the contrary, the only mention Bourriaud makes to Boetti in his 1996 book Relational Aesthetics aptly situates him as a kind of neo-colonialist entrepreneur: “When Alighiero Boetti gets 500 weavers in Peshawar, Pakistan, working for him, he represents the work process of multinational companies much more effectively than if he merely portrayed them and described how they work.” (2002:68)

Finally, there is the suggestion that Boetti produced a form of “political” art, despite his earlier denials of political motivation. In his 1992 interview with Bourriaud in his commentary on the supposedly fatalistic character of the Afghan people (“They are totally indifferent to death”) Boetti gives no sense that the politics of post-Soviet Afghanistan translated across to his art. And yet, in an Artforum essay in 2009, Godfrey construed a political motive: “Boetti’s works constituted platforms from which other voices could speak.” The “political voice” theory is based on a dozen or so of the Arazzo embroideries from the late 1980s which contain variations on a statement inscribed in Farsi/Dari which condemns the Russian occupation of Afghanistan.  Nobody knows whose voice this is. Most likely it was one of his agents in Peshawar. Boetti himself never drew attention to these messages, and nobody bothered to publish their translation from the Farsi until 2002. And finally, based on an unsubstantiated anecdote related by one of his gallerists, in his 2011 biography Godfrey elaborated the idea that Boetti travelled “into the mountains” to visit Ahmed Shah Masood, and that he contributed funds to the Northern Alliance. An unlikely invention indeed.

Neither the claims to politics nor the retro-projection towards relational art evidenced above is sufficient to refute the identification of Boetti’s art as a paradigm of late orientalism. Despite its avant-gardist games and strategies of denial, his mode of production conveys all of the characteristic representations of an exotic Other one associates with precursor manifestations of orientalist art. Despite all of the posthumous arguments to the contrary, perhaps it is now time to properly recognise Alighiero Boetti as the last Orientalist artist of the twentieth century, with all the baggage that goes with such an attribution.


[1] I investigate in greater detail Boetti’s own accounts – and those of his followers – and provide the sources for the quotations in this text in my “A tournament of shadows: Alighiero Boetti, the myth of influence, and a contemporary orientalism” in emaj, Issue 6, 2011-2012, at http://emajartjournal.com/2012/11/14/nigel-lendon-a-tournament-of-shadows-alighiero-boetti-the-myth-of-influence-and-a-contemporary-orientalism/

Postscript: The illustration above shows a characteristic use of a detail of a Boetti Mappa as an uncritical icon of the art world globalisation – this time on the cover of Lynne Cooke’s Biennale of Sydney catalogue in 1996.  Such a use of Boetti’s Mappe – often as an illustration independent of the context of exhibition – goes back to their earliest exposure in Europe, firstly on the cover of Tommaso Trini’s DATA magazine in 1972, and then in the catalogue of Harald Szeemann’s 1972 Documenta. “Initial reaction was awful” said Boetti in 1992, “People were troubled by it, conceptually troubled. I should add that at that time not many artists had their work made by artisans. For those people it was at once conceptually troubling and too “pretty”… But everyone wanted it and I only wanted to make one.” For the record, the first two Mappe were not exhibited until 1973 at Sperone and Fischer’s gallery in Rome, and this cover detail was the only Mappa you would have seen at the 1996 Biennale. In this manner Boetti has become the cover boy for the subsequent rise of art world globalisation…

P.P.S.: And should you think going to visit Ahmed Shah Masood “in the mountains” was a mere taxi ride from Pehawar, read the excellent The Photographer, by Emmanuel Gilbert, Didier Lefevre, and Frederic Lemercier, (translated by Alexis Siegel) 2003-2009, and you will get a very graphic idea of what that might have entailed. Unlikely indeed.

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