Archive for the ‘Maps in War Rugs’ Category

Alighiero Boetti, the myth of influence, and a contemporary orientalism

November 15, 2012

The recent suite of retrospective exhibitions of the work of Alighiero Boetti at the Museo Reina Sofia, the Tate Modern, and the Museum of Modern Art, plus another at the Fowler Museum at UCLA has triggered substantial catalogues, monographs and other publications, plus reviews and commentary. All of these have, to greater or lesser degree, repeated and elaborated a set of myths in relation to his outsourced embroideries, kilims, and carpets produced in Afghanistan and Pakistan between the years 1972 and 1994. The following abstract summarises an online essay published by the Melbourne University Art History journal EMAJ, in which I pose a counter-argument to the conventional account now established in the Boetti literature.

A tournament of shadows: Alighiero Boetti, the myth of influence, and a contemporary orientalism

This paper examines the evolution of the historical and theoretical literature that has developed about the work of the avant-garde Italian artist Alighiero Boetti produced in Afghanistan from 1971 until 1994. Characterised by a set of interrelated cultural and historical fictions, I propose that this collective narrative has evolved to constitute a contemporary orientalist mythology. This is particularly evident in the literature following his death in 1994, and most recently in anticipation of his retrospective exhibitions in the Museo Reina Sofia, the Tate Modern, and the Museum of Modern Art in 2011–12. Prior to his death, the literature on Boetti primarily took the form of catalogue essays, journal articles and biographies. These drew heavily on a small number of interviews conducted with the artist, plus accounts and memoirs given by his wives, partners, and curatorial collaborators. Since his death, the literature has proliferated, and today a greater emphasis is placed on a growing number of secondary authorities. Recent monographs, catalogue essays, and auction house texts draw heavily on the anecdotal accounts of his agents and facilitators, as well as his familiars, employees and archivists. In exploring what I describe as the mythologies informing the contemporary reception of his work, I examine the claims of his influence over the distinctive indigenous genre of Afghan narrative carpets which were produced both within Afghanistan as well as by diasporic Afghans in Iran and Pakistan in the years following the 1979 Soviet invasion until the present. The attribution of political intent in the later Boettis, whether attributed to the artist or on the part of his agents, is a recent invention worthy of challenge. Finally I argue that such interpretations of his attitudes and practice might be described as a form of late orientalism, a mode of representation occurring through the appropriation of tradition and the projection of cosmopolitan values and avant-garde practices onto this most conflicted and exoticised cultural context of the contemporary era.

You can download the essay by going here:

Nigel Lendon: A tournament of shadows: Alighiero Boetti, the myth of influence, and a contemporary orientalism, EMAJ Issue 6 2011-2012

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the sources of mapping and global consciousness

September 7, 2012

… in Afghanistan is an oft-disputed issue. Some, like Luca Cerizza, would like to think that Alighiero Boetti was responsible. “Boetti’s tapestries became a vehicle for [for the women who made them] knowledge of world geography.” [Which I say is pure projection on his part.] Despite Boetti’s then wife Annemarie Sauzeau telling us the image of the map of Afghanistan was everywhere in the early seventies, and recognising that “… it is true, the way certain Italian travellers whisper, that there was already an old tradition of the geographical carpet in Afghanistan…” So, as you’ll see in previous posts, there were multiple sources of geographical imagery in Afghanistan from the sixties onwards. This postage stamp was used in 1973, but it celebrates the NY World Fair in 1964.

The Afghan Modern, its anonymous authors, and the question of collective agency.

July 16, 2012

Here’s a summary of a paper I presented to the Annual Conference of the Art Association of Australia and New Zealand, at Sydney University, last Friday 13th July, 2012.

Addressing the inherent tension in the three elements of my title: what is the Afghan Modern? who are its anonymous authors? and how does a concept of collective agency assist our interpretation of what these artists make? I suggested that the unfamiliar or even contradictory relation between concepts of The Modern with that of both anonymity and collectivity can be resolved by the introduction of a concept of collective agency – an idea which was implicit but not developed in Alfred Gell’s definitive Art and Agency of 1998.

In this paper I proposed that the concept of collective agency supercedes the problem of the anonymous author for our understanding of these works as a form of indigenous modernism. All these works propose collective social values and behavior as the source of intentionality, creativity, and virtuosity – that is, the capacities that enable the artefact to enchant (in Gell’s theory) through its abducted agency.

I also proposed that the consideration of collective agency demonstrates that there is, in this instance, a capacity to reconcile the tensions between modernity  and tradition – which has produced a form of indigenous modernism developed independent of the colonizing effects and assumptions of the West (contra John Clark’s account) and in contrast to the continuity and reinvention of local neotraditionalism.

And so I sought to demonstrate how a concept of collective agency is also a means by which one can reconcile the apparent contradictions between an unfamiliar form of modernist art and the anonymity of its makers, and through a new understanding of the intrinsic interplay between individualism and collectivity as the means by which this genre has been produced.

In this paper I focused on a particular set of images, the modernism of which is reflected in the capacity of the designers to integrate new forms into the medium of the carpet, in order to convey narrative and other meanings derived from contemporary graphic sources. In these images the key emblem – the map of Afghanistan – is transformed in ways which reveals the capacity of an artist to explore form-for-form’s sake – by creating complex and apparently contradictory imagery which is completely new and distinctive to the genre.

In my argument about the modernity of artefacts such as these, I’m concerned not so much with the direct translation of graphic conventions into the medium of the knotted carpet but rather I’m looking at the more complex transformation of this emblematic and cartographic icon – here presented as the primary icon of national identity, and unity, in response to the experience of the occupation by the Soviet Union.

In the paper I discuss examples of this re-orientation of the form of the map of Afghanistan (rotated 90 degrees counter-clockwise) such that it loses its cartographic accuracy or relevance at the same time as it gains added symbolic significance and spatial complexity through its novel and ambiguous pictographic character.

This re-orientation (some say disorientation) of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan produces a kind of vertical landscape – with the illusion of foreground and background, an horizon line, creating spaces for buildings, helicopters, and aeroplanes, plus other illusionistic elements, and other pictorial modes…

The evolution of these maps towards a landscape form – what in Chinese art would be called a floating perspective – is here also affective by its evocation of national identity, suggesting character, resistance, and isolation – all as positive virtues – despite all of the ethnic complexities, rivalry, and conflict, (implicit in the complexity of the map form itself), manifest in the civil conflict that burst on the scene in the years immediately after these rugs were made.

P.S. Such carpets as these can be attributed to the Aimak-speaking Hazara and Tajik people from the Ghor province, in the mid-western desert mountains of Afghanistan.

P.P.S. See another related example here.

where atlas carpets come from (part 2)

May 16, 2012

Warning: this is NOT an exhibition of Alighiero Boetti’s Mappa. But it suggests an obvious source for the parallel tradition of atlas carpets: here we see walls covered with atlases is a girl’s school room (which had been closed by the Taliban) in Herat. This is a still from a BBC documentary shot in Herat in 1996. Part one of this discussion may be found here.

the anonymous art conundrum

December 13, 2011

Wouldn’t you love to know who made this? But as Max Allen has often commented, there’s more that we don’t know than what we do know about the war rug genre. There are many different categories of cartographic images made during the era of the war carpet, and accurate representations of the map of Afghanistan are first seen in war carpets from the mid-1980s. And there were many other forms of representation of the map of Afghanistan in circulation in Afghanistan in the pre-war era. Maps like this one – with schematic rather than cartographic forms – appear to derive from the western provinces of Afghanistan, and some are dated 1989, 1990, and 1991. I have seen nine examples like this (plus others at a larger scale) and what is striking about them is that they are all clearly by different makers – despite the fact that the basic format (naming the different provinces of Afghanistan, inserting familiar symbols, war references, and orienting the East upwards) is the same in each example. And so while this group are anonymous (in the Western sense) they have a communal character that is very compelling. Afghan carpets are commissioned, designed, made and distributed under a distinctive schema of collective agency, and so to recognise this as a “work of art” we will need to rethink our Western convention of a work of art having a unique author… Maybe the nine constitute the one work? In the sense of communal authorship? Watch this space!

From an Italian perspective: a call for an anthropological theory of art

October 17, 2011

Sergio Poggianella writes in response to the post below where do atlas carpets come from?:

“Regarding the opinions of Luca Cerizza, at p.8 of “Le Mappe di Alighiero Boetti” [Mondadori Electa S.p.A. Milano 2009 – first published in English as “Alighiero e Boetti: Mappa” Afterall Books, London, 2008] he affirms that nobody before Boetti thought to show us a world like a mosaic tangled with political formations, a puzzle of color and symbols, a muddle of differences…etc.

Moreover Cerizza knew very well my above mentioned exhibition and catalogue [yet], [evidently a] very ill-mannered person, he published at p. 76 of his controversial “Le Mappe di Alighiero Boetti” a geographical carpet belonging to my collection and for the first time published at p.129 of my catalogue, without mentioning my name [or the] origin of the carpet.

There are at least two reasons to contradict this wrong statement: first, geographical carpets are centuries older than the maps of Boetti. They were done mainly for the mighty, while in Boetti’s time [it is] for the art market; second, you will never see in Boetti maps, ordered from Afghan weavers [embroiderers], such a variety of shapes and forms as you find in the geographical carpet, with or without flags, where colorful nation’s  shape is respected, or where forms become sometimes abstract, like cells, as you can see in my catalogue “Afghanistan Tappeti di Guerra Tappeti del Mondo” 2001, Contemporanea Arti e Culture, from pp. 119 to 133.

It would be also very interesting, from the conceptual point of view, to study the artifacts, signed by Boetti and the artifacts conceived by the afghan weavers, from an anthropological perspective. Traditional art, when invested by aura, can shift into the contemporary art system, as Boetti, in a masterly manner did, deciding to accept the result of the woven maps, even ordered following a model provided by him, without any other change, any other intervention. We all have an idea of what we mean when we refer to an artist: we think about his [her] ability, inventive capability, aesthetic awareness, inspiration, creative gesture, etc. This can be applied in the artistic environment of any culture, including the afghan weavers’ art, as the art of war or geographical carpets, but only if rules and conventions are [recognized] by the contemporary western art system and art market.

The geographical carpets are the creative products of the afghan weavers; artifacts that in different contexts can be considered traditional art (for example in an ethnographic museum, or among ethnic art dealers) or, with the aura acquired in a modern or contemporary art museum or gallery, changing, like a chrysalis into a butterfly, they can become works of art.

In this new context, these objects should belong to contemporary art or to material culture? Should the war and geographical carpet weavers [be regarded as] artisans or artists? It is the power of the diverse cultures, which determines the symbolic, social and economic value of an artifact or of a work of art.

In any case, in my opinion, to get rid of the ideological justifications about craftsmen and artists and the contraposition between the self-referential concept of work of contemporary art and the exoticism of material culture, we need [to establish] an interdisciplinary dialogue between theories, methods and practices referred to aesthetics and to anthropology.”

Editor’s note: an anthropological theory of art might argue that the reason the map of Afghanistan is mirror-reversed in the image above is that it is easier to copy a carpet from the reverse-side. But it also tells us something significant about visual literacy and the makers’ familiarity (or otherwise) of the emblem of the map of Afghanistan.

The Cosmorama Carpet

September 6, 2011

Atlas carpets (variously called World Political Map, or World Map, or Map of the World, or Mappa Mundi) are a recurrent theme on this site.

While there are deep precedents for such designs, (for example, the Early 19th century antique Bakhtiari carpet illustrated at the bottom of this post), during the past forty years we have seen numerous new innovative forms emerge within the Afghan and Iranian carpet-making traditions, including those with maps as the primary motif.

This example, the Cosmorama carpet, made by the Master H. Ghodrati, of Maragheh in northwestern Iran, was seen in the handicrafts section of The Anthropology Museum, in the Niavaran Palace Complex – the ex-Shah’s summer palace, at Sadabad, on the northern edge of Tehran, in 2007. As you see, it is simply dated “contemporary”. However, if we interpret the time-line revealed by the changing names of countries depicted, we see that The Soviet Union is still intact, as is Zaire. Therefore we can deduce that the printed atlas from which this carpet was copied was published some time between 1971 (the origin of Zaire) to 1992 (the formation of The Russian Federation). Of course that only tells us the terminus post quem, the earliest date after which it could have been made.

What this does demonstrate, however, is that the motif of the Map of the World is relatively widespread within the carpet-making traditions of Iran and Afghanistan during the period of innovative designs from the 1970s – which of course includes war carpets from the early 1980s. And if the atlas describes itself (as is common in the title text-block) as The World Political Map, it doesn’t mean that there is some political motive at play…

And whether or not this Bakhtiari is “early 19th century”, it demonstrates that the tradition goes back a long way…

This carpet (Early 19th century antique Bakhtiari) is illustrated in Eric Aschenbrenner, Iranian Town and Village Carpets and Rugs, 1981-2005, Yassavoli Publications, Tehran, p115.

where do atlas carpets come from?

September 1, 2011

The early 1990s saw a rash of carpets depicting the map of the world – some of which are framed by militaria, some of which include military paraphernalia within the cartographic space. Some, such as this example, remain close to their origins.

In conventional histories of European avant-garde art the Italian arte povera artist Alighiero e Boetti (and here) has often been credited with having triggered the contemporaneous production of Afghan carpets depicting the world map, 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 illustrated in the 1972 Kassel Documenta 5 catalogue, 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, was 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. No atlas carpets embody any of the Boetti trademark motifs. To the contrary, they are full of their atlas origins.

When you translate the text in carpets such as this you reveal a number of things: In the example above the old Soviet Union is identified as both the “Socialist Soviet Unions of Russia” and the “Federative (sic) Republic of Russia”. Given that the 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.

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 Zaire and the FRR coexisted.

And this example also demonstrates, at least in this instance, that the atlas carpets of the 1990s derive from the kind of atlas/poster 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. Pure atlas. Thanks to MR for the translation.

Beauty and Horror

July 26, 2011

Here it is (minus images). I’ve been asked to load a .pdf of my essay Beauty_and_Horror: Identity and Conflict in the War Carpets of Afghanistan (2008).

The Oriental Rug Society

April 15, 2011

On Wednesday 13th April the Oriental Rug Society of NSW  and the Asian Arts Society of Australia invited Nigel Lendon to present a lecture entitled What? Who? for Whom? and Why? The War Rugs of Afghanistan at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. Here Nigel is shown speaking about one of his favourite examples – which demonstrates the diversity of artefacts which can be included in the genre. On screen is a saddle bag collected in Kunduz by the pioneering German collector Hans Werner Mohm. After the lecture several members of the Society brought along examples of different kinds of war rugs, which led to a lively discussion of form and content. Most remarkable were the two precursor rugs owned by the Cadry Family, which celebrate the Turkish defeat of the ANZAC forces at Gallipoli.

Here is the extremely fine silk rug which depicts the Straits of the Dardanelles and the Cannakkale (Gallipoli) Peninsula from (then) an impossible aerial perspective. This example is one of two known to exist, the other being one of the treasures of the national collection in Istanbul. As well as this modernist aerial viewpoint, there are two almost-photographic cartouches which are montaged into the scene, which depict the landscapes of the battlefield. The elaborate calligraphy reveals that this rug was made for presentation to Enver Pasha. Reproductions of both these carpets are to be found in the catalogue of the exhibition mounted by the late Jaques Cadry Woven History: Stories in Carpets which was held at the State Library of New South Wales (1990). This catalogue is also one of the first such publications to include illustrations of war rugs.