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

November 15, 2012 by

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

Misliteration: JAPAN/, FIGET, (and PEPSI)

October 4, 2012 by

Mistakes abound in the insertion of Roman text into the many different categories of war carpets. Just as those who don’t speak the indigenous language see embedded Farsi text as a kind of abstract calligraphy, so the arrival of signs and logos in Roman script into Afghan visual culture must appear as alien abstract symbols to the designer/makers of these innovative rugs and carpets. In this case the jet planes (bombs?) central to this design are emblazoned with the word “JAPAN”, while the truck with the anti-aircraft gun is labelled with the word “FIGET”. To the left and right of the carpet are lines of scrambled text, which often suggests that the particular carpet is a copy of a copy of the original, or a copy made from memory.

This particular carpet is unusual in almost every aspect of its iconography. Its provenance is also interesting. It was bought in 1990 from a traveling rug dealer in Launceston, Tasmania, which is almost as far from the war in Afghanistan as you can imagine.

Other misliterations are quite comical, to outside eyes. Here’s a PEPSI tank (upside down) on a Khyber Pass rug.

However all of these mistakes make sense when you see how Roman script persists on the sides of the ubiquitous second-hand buses imported from Germany. The text “Weserbergland Express” makes no sense to a Farsi/Dari speaker, and signifies nothing,  transported to Afghanistan on the side of a bus, yet such texts remain a powerful symbol of the outside world…

the sources of mapping and global consciousness

September 7, 2012 by

… 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.

Jean-Hubert Martin

August 31, 2012 by

… wanted the most archetypal form of the war rug for this ensemble in his Theatre of the World at the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania. Adelaide artists Tony and Olive Bishop, who were the first to spot war carpets arriving in dealer’s rooms in Adelaide in 1988, were happy to oblige.

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

July 16, 2012 by

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.

worlds in collision

May 19, 2012 by

The  Mullah Mahommed Omar – the titular leader of the Taliban – is rarely depicted whether by photography, or by any other means. Sometimes he is portrayed indirectly. This is a detail from a carpet which shows a surreal depiction of his hand throttling a serpent, or perhaps a dragon. The text is written in Latin script – which tells us that it was made for a Western audience…

Such imagery (snakes, hands) is often used in carpets to depict evil, or power.  In the context of the events of the last two decades in Afghanistan, this has become an impossibly enigmatic image.

“Mullah Omar’s Face”, a recent article by Amy Davidson in The New Yorker, probes the reasons behind the secrecy that surrounds the identity of Mullah Omar. This echoes the secrecy surrounding his current circumstances, and references Steve Coll’s account of his current role in negotiations with the U.S. She illustrates her article with the four known photographic images of the Mullah Omar that are currently in circulation.

One of these is a screen shot from a documentary Afghanistan Soldiers of Allah filmed by Peter Jouvenal and narrated by John Simpson for the BBC program Newsnight in 1996. This rare portrayal of the Mullah also has an extraordinary historical significance for the event it depicts in the minute or so of footage that still exists in the public domain. It captures an act with profound political and religious consequences, whereby the Mullah assumes an ultimate form of authority by the act of displaying the Prophet Mohammed’s cloak to the assembled crowd. It shows the moment in the sequence of events where Omar (the central figure), who is standing on the top of the Shrine of the Cloak of the Prophet Mohammed, (Da Kherqa Sherif Ziarat) is shown turning to his right, holding the cloak, as an acolyte moves forward to kiss it, and others begin to throw their turbans forward in the hope that they might indirectly touch the holy relic.

Jouvenal’s documentary is itself a remarkable piece of work, and gives unique insights into the world of the Taliban just before they took control of Kabul, and the rest of Afghanistan. John Simpson narrates the event in the following words:

“There was a tremendous stir in Kandahar – we followed the crowds to a mosque in the city centre. The Taliban had been holding an assembly of mullahs from all over Afghanistan, and now the results were about to be made public. A Holy War was announced against the government of President Rabbani, in Kabul. The head of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, was declared to be the Emir or leader of all Muslims everywhere. Because this was regarded as a key moment for the Afghan nation, Mullah Omar displayed the holy cloak of the Prophet Mahommed to the crowd. It’s kept in Kandahar, and is shown at times of crisis – the last time was sixty years ago. Neither the cloak or the ceremony has ever been filmed before – nor has Mullah Omar. People in the crowd threw up their turbans to be touched by the cloak and be blessed by it. It was like being at some great religious ceremony in the Middle Ages.”

In his recent book, Taliban (2011), James Fergusson tells another version of the story:

The sequence relating to the public disclosure of the sacred relic – the cloak of the Prophet Mohammed – is one of the most remarkable pieces of historical photography of the late 20th century. To film this scene at all was itself a transgressive act of the highest degree – later in the film we see how notorious were the Taliban for the brutality of their punishment for much lesser crimes. More than just a brave or foolhardy decision, this “image capture” may now be understood as a paradigmatic example of the way the photographic act itself may transcend mere documentation. In this instance the determination of the photographer to persist with filming the scene has resulted in the capture of a ceremonial event which, one could argue, was the first of a sequence of historical circumstances which was to culminate in the September 11 outrage five years into the future.

It is in the moments before we see Omar’s face that this prior image, where the Mullah is shown holding up the cloth for the crowd to see, is seen. This is the critical moment for its place in the history of photography. In this gesture, several things are happening at once. By displaying the cloak, the Mullah Omar is asserting himself as the rightful leader of the people of Afghanistan, both politically, and in religious terms. By this act he becomes the Mullah al-Momineen (Leader of all Pious Muslims).  Reciprocally, the approving crowd is acknowledging the fetishistic and symbolic significance of the piece of textile held up for them to witness. It is the material presence – the actual matter – of the textile object that conveys the ultimate authority from the Prophet Mohammed to the Mullah himself through the political act of its possession and control.

Earlier in the shot sequence one also sees a man – who may or may not have been the Mullah Omar – wrapping himself in a green cloth. As the story has evolved, this figure’s action has been interpreted (eg. see the Wikipedia entry) as if the Mullah Omar actually wrapped himself in the Prophet’s cloak.

However in the later sequence the piece of textile the Mullah was holding aloft appears to be of a different colour, size and material. The photographic evidence – as it comes to us down the wires of the internet – simply does not tell us enough to reach this conclusion.

Nevertheless, this photographic sequence poses entirely new challenges for our appreciation of this extraordinary point of coincidence between such disparate technologies and modes of iconic signification. If the authenticity of the relic is to be believed, which it is by those participating, this collision of cultures spans the millenia. From one direction, there is the secretive and forbidden intrusion of Western news media “behind the front lines”, and from the other, the revelation of one of the most holy relics of the Muslim world from its long seclusion from public view. It is a revelation of a revelation, each at cross-purposes to the other. The event of taking (stealing, shooting) the photograph is an act of disempowerment of the subject, whose own act of representation relies on the immediacy (and ephemeral) and uniquely experiential nature of his performance of revelation – which is, ultimately, invokes the presence of the Prophet.

This is also a collision of technologies of representation: just as the camera captures the image of the figure of Omar, so at the same moment the Mullah claims himself to be the heir of the Prophet, through the agency of the piece of cloth. The cloth itself, despite its aniconic character, is held up for the crowd’s recognition and approval, and momentarily became the screen on which the power of the Mullah is projected by the adulation of the crowd and approbation of his peers.  Just as the Mullah’s hand may be depicted choking the life of a serpent, so his actual hand, by holding the holy relic aloft to his audience, enacts a form of representation of his own growing political authority.

To be continued…

P.S. I started to think about the symbolism of the authoritarian hand here

P.P.S. There’s an update to the story here.

where atlas carpets come from (part 2)

May 16, 2012 by

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.

Anti-Soviet propaganda

May 4, 2012 by

More valuable ephemera. The Stiftung Bibliotheca Afghanica Afghanistan-Institut und Archiv in Bubendorf, Switzerland, holds a substantial archive of anti-Soviet propaganda which was produced in Pakistan in the early years of the Soviet occupation. A number of the propaganda posters produced at that time are similar to the imagery which appeared on war carpets. The idea of the “puppet” dictator (in this case, Babrak Karmal) is a common motif in war carpets produced in Pakistan.

The text on this matchbook cover reads “Faith, Union, Jihad”, and carries a quote from the Quran “Help comes from God, victory is near”.  The volcano, with Afghanistan inscribed on it, is erupting, upsetting Babrak Karmal from his throne….

the value of ephemera

April 10, 2012 by

Ever wonder about the origins of the imagery on a carpet such as this? Look in your wallet…

The Victory Arch [Taaq-e-Zafar] in the Paghman Gardens outside Kabul celebrates the Afghan victory over Great Britain in 1919. And the source of the photograph used to produce the bank note? Look in your mailbox…

This postcard was posted in 1973. It is the actual photograph from which the bank note was engraved. From which the carpet was woven. With some additional narrative elements.

The civil war of the early nineties left nothing unscathed.

…now restored.

[photo by Dr. Khalid Salimi]

the Modernity question

March 2, 2012 by

Scholars of the history of modernity in Afghanistan will enjoy Adam Curtis’ online research, based in large part on BBC archival material.