Art review: ‘Alighieri Boetti by Afghan Women’ at UCLA Fowler Museum

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Italian artist Alighiero Boetti (1940–1994) once made a sculpture that consists of a small, 30-inch-tall black box lined in reflective metal and topped with glass. Inside is a wired light bulb. According to plan, a hidden timer randomly illuminates the bulb once a year for just 11 seconds.

Imagine what it would be like to come into the room where ‘Annual Lamp’ is housed, only to be told that the bulb had just turned off. Missed it! Just another 30 million-plus seconds within which to hope to be present to empirically confirm the event.

I can’t say from my own experience whether or not the light actually turns on, because I’ve never seen the bulb light up. (The 1966 sculpture is in a German collection -- although at the moment it’s in London at the Tate Modern for a big Boetti retrospective.) But that might not matter. For what I do know is this: Waiting for the illumination promised from any work of art resides at the core of Boetti’s savvy sculpture.


Illumination does come, whether or not the bulb suddenly burns bright, if only in the clarified nature of expectations in the ordinary art-viewing experience. That, we tend to take for granted.

Consciousness is complicated. At the UCLA Fowler Museum, a modest exhibition of a very different body of Boetti’s work materializes another dimension of it.

‘Order and Disorder: Alighiero Boetti by Afghan Women’ includes 28 brightly embroidered cloths of the kind he first commissioned in Kabul in 1971. Most are relatively small. Some are square grids of text, typically one letter or symbol per box, but sometimes with elegant Arabic script creating black lines of stitched calligraphy against multiple colored squares. Three are like dense, figurative puzzles in which silhouettes of people, plants, animals and objects interlock with abstract color-shapes.

Others, easily Boetti’s most famous -- and accomplished -- works, are world maps in which nation-states are represented by fragments of flags. The borders around each map’s edges are embroidered with bits of Sufi poetry and other texts in various languages. These lovely works bristle with politically charged poetry.

One oddity, though, is that the exhibition focuses more on the production background of Boetti’s art than on the art itself. In addition to 14 regional textiles -- coat, veil, saddle cover, etc. -- the show features an hour-long documentary film by Emidio Greco and numerous photographs by Randi Malkin Steinberger, published last year as a book, showing some of the embroiderers and middlemen the artist engaged for the project.

The show’s subtitle -- ‘Alighiero Boetti by Afghan Women’ -- even suggests that the artist is an invention made by anonymous workers, which is too narrow a formula. Boetti always acknowledged his particular production method with its inevitable collaborative surprises, underscoring that all art results from an inseparable mix of individual and social effort. The background information is certainly absorbing, but it also shifts attention a bit. ‘Annual Lamp’ proposes that an art object functions most powerfully as a catalyst for viewers. The same goes for his maps. But here art is turned back into an outcome, produced by a diversified effort.

The square text-embroideries recall cryptic paintings of numbers and mathematical symbols by artists as different as Alfred Jensen and Roman Opalka. Both the text works and the four large maps owe a lot to Jasper Johns’ prior paintings of similar subjects.

But it matters that Boetti was not a painter, unlike Jensen, Opalka and Johns. He started out participating in Italy’s object-oriented Arte Povera movement of the ‘60s -- the ‘poor art’ that set aside conventional studio materials like oil paint or bronze in favor of bricks, fabric scraps, food, mirrors, twigs, clothing and myriad things one might find in and around the house. Soon, his work became more Conceptual.

In 1969 Boetti bought an ordinary printed world map at a store, which he colored with ink and crayon using the designs of the countries’ national flags. Two years later, having become a frequent visitor to Kabul, Afghanistan, he commissioned an embroidered version of it from local seamstresses. Fowler Museum guest curators Alma Ruiz and Christopher G. Bennett have included several embroidered textiles made by talented members of the Pashtun, Hazara and other ethnic groups in the region, their beauty a simple demonstration of why Boetti was attracted to them.

Boetti’s maps unfold complex layers of social and cultural history, embodied in stitchery that ranges from highly refined and intricate to more haphazard and schematic. Vast oceans tend to be irregular, not to mention rarely blue, as spools of thread run out and dye lots change, creating unpredictable color blocks. Multiple hands did the stitching, often over months or even years.

Flag motifs stretch or compress, depending on the country’s size, and during the more than 20 years that the maps were made, shifts occurred in volatile global regions like Africa and the Middle East. After the 1979 Soviet invasion, the manufacture of these maps shifted to Afghan refugee camps in Peshawar, Pakistan (where Steinberger shot many photographs), and Boetti had to work exclusively through middlemen.

(Incidentally, a large 1979 Boetti map is also currently on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in a small show called ‘Common Places: Printing, Embroidery and the Art of Global Mapping.’ It’s shown with an ornamental drapery and a quilt, both from the museum’s textiles collection.)

The commercially produced map that formed the original template for the embroiderers is a common Mercator projection, minus Antarctica. A major 16th century innovation in nautical navigation, it frames more than geography: The design was useful for the global, seafaring European exploration that resulted in the modern political boundaries of nations now carving up Boetti’s map. In a marvelous irony, when the artist decided to have talented Afghan embroiderers transform it into a lavish series of wall hangings, he turned to a remote, land-locked tribal region to ornament a sailor’s guide.

That women did the detailed handiwork also resonates. Initially, the Industrial Revolution that transformed the global map of power relations was driven by an explosion in factory-produced textiles. Those factories altered traditional hereditary aristocracies by fueling the rise of a commercial class, drove slavery that could satisfy demands for inexpensive cotton and more.

Hand embroidery, prized but common in Afghanistan, became prized but exotic elsewhere. No wonder Boetti’s Arte Povera roots shimmer in these gorgeous maps.

Order and Disorder: Alighiero Boetti by Afghan Women,’ UCLA Fowler Museum, North Campus, (310) 825-4361, through July 29. Closed Mon. and Tue.

For the record, 3:35 p.m. March 12: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that the three works in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s ‘Common Places: Printing, Embroidering and the Art of Global Mapping’ are based on printed maps. Only one is based on a map.


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-- Christopher Knight