Alighiero Boetti’s World-weaving at MoMA

Installation view of Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Alighiero Boetti’s large woven and embroidered tapestries are the showstoppers of the Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan exhibition up now through October 1 at MoMA. These colorful and bold tapestries are Boetti in a nutshell, encapsulating much of what is fascinating about his practice, which embraces the beauty of the world and the chance that comes along with it with little reliance on himself as an interpreter. Originally associated with Arte Povera movement like Michelangelo Pistoletto, Boetti experimented with a wide variety of materials, subjects, and styles but these pieces stress the artist’s connection to Afghanistan in the 70s, before the Soviet invasion made it too dangerous for him to visit. In 1971, Boetti opened One Hotel in Kabul, a hotel and sort of artist commune to which he returned frequently in the upcoming years. During this period, Boetti began working with local artisans to produce embroideries such as the ones hanging in the atrium. Relying on their rich tradition of weaving and embroidery and reveling in the unpredictable contributions of the local artisans to the final pieces, Boetti would send the designs for these pieces to Afghanistan even after he himself could no longer go.

Tutto (Everything), 1992-3 

Tutto is a large embroidered work that does seem to be colorfully made up of, well, everything. Boetti’s playful, explorative nature is a constant in his work, as is his interest in presenting things as they exist in the world. For this piece, the artist took the design of each object from different books and encyclopedias, and then sent the design off the Afghanistan. There, the women working in the factory chose what colors to use—a signature way that these tapestries enabled the artist to step away not just from the physical art making but even the resulting image. Boetti’s work often attempts, as is evidenced here, to bring the world itself into the artwork.

Detail, Tutto

The density and color are joyful despite potentially being chaotic. The effect is very Pop art and mesmerizing. However, Boetti does not share a Pop artist’s concern for popular culture and mass media, but rather a focus on the world at large in all its multiplicity and numerous phenomena.

Arazzo dei mille fiumi piu lunghi del mundo (Tapestry of the thousand longest rivers of the world), 1976-82 

This piece, sometimes referred to as Boetti’s list, contains the names of the 1,000 longest rivers in the world in descending order—the product of 7 years of research. You might find that information today in a Wikipedia entry, but Boetti carefully lists them in this large gray and white woven piece as if to cement their existence into reality and get a tenuous handle on the staggering variety of the world.

Detail, Arazzo dei mille fiumi piu lunghi del mundo 

Like Tutto, it attempts to push a cornucopia of stuff into a single large hanging, and like the map series he also made, it explores geography and the physical world.

Installation view

Maps became something Boetti returned to again and again over the years, and the maps from different years reflect the changing geopolitical situation of the world. For each of them, Boetti traced a world map onto canvas, colored it according to the national flag of each country, and then gave this design to Afghan craftswomen to use as the base for an embroidered tapestry. The artist claimed to be delighted with how little he had to do with the making of them. The flags and the shapes of the continents were not his, and neither was the embroidery work.

For me, the work on the embroidered maps achieved the highest form of beauty. For the finished work, I myself did nothing, in the sense that the world is as it is (I didn’t draw it) and the national flags are as they are (I didn’t design them). In short, I did absolutely nothing. What emerges from the work is the concept.

Mappa (Map), 1979 

The pink background of the map below came about when the artisans didn’t realize it was the background was meant to be water, so they used a pink thread that they had in surplus in the workshop. Boetti considered this a happy accident.

Oggi dodicesimo giorno sesto mese anno mille novecento ottantanove (Today the Twelfth Day of the Sixth Month of the Year Nineteen Eighty-nine), 1989

Oggi dodicesimo giorno sesto mese anno mille novecento ottantanove has the typical block letters and bright colors of Boetti’s other works, but it is uniquely politically charged. Boetti encouraged the Afghan women who made the hanging to insert their own narrative within the Italian text he provided. They combined famous verses by the fourteenth-century Sufi poet Hafiz with text describing the contemporary struggle against the Soviets. This is as close as the artist gets to expressing a political opinion about the country he loved and missed when he was no longer able to travel there.

Boetti’s extensive travels to Afghanistan inspired many of these works’ themes of geography and mapping. His use of local artisans displays an important facet of how he thought about art—not as something he need produce, and in fact something enriched by his lack of direct contact. Although he continued to send designs through the use of intermediaries after he could no longer travel to Afghanistan, it obviously impacted and interrupted the production of these works, ultimately forming yet another way in which the artist was removed from the final outcome. In a way, the tapestries illustrate his aim of somehow documenting the world in all its expansive glory with the natural element of chance, rather than overbearing authorship, making the works all the more authentic.

Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan at MoMA


Linnea West writes about contemporary art, culture, and travel–all subjects she feels passionately about. She lives in New York City–except for those times when wanderlust gets the better of her. This happens often. Fortunately her laptop travels well. She is finishing her first novel.



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