Alighiero Boetti, the subject of the current retrospective exhibition Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan, always preferred collaborative initiatives over individual efforts, even when he was working by himself. Early in his artistic career, he inserted an “e” between his first and last name—Alighiero e Boetti meaning Alighiero and Boetti in Italian—doubling his personality.
This duo debuted in a work the artist made in 1968, a postcard of twin Boettis holding hands, with just slightly different hairstyles to distinguish between them. Although he was right-handed, Boetti often drew or wrote with his left hand, claiming that this action sparked “a kind of conversation with myself exploring the positive and the negative, the ego and alter ego . . . It is as if on one hand there is Alighiero and on the other, Boetti.” If he was this adamant about making a joint effort with himself, you can imagine the extent of his interest in working with others.
The majority of Boetti’s large-scale collaborative works fall into three categories: postal works, Biro drawings, and embroideries. In works such as Viaggi postali, Boetti tapped into the existing system of the postal service, turning it into an unwitting collaborator by relying on the established rules of mail circulation as well as instances of chance. The Biro drawings are large sheets of paper covered with densely hatched fields of ball-point pen ink, for which Boetti had an assistant recruit multiple teams of art students in Rome to execute. His most iconic collaborations by far, however, are the maps and word squares sewn by Afghan women.
He considered all these varying collaborative approaches to be “schizophrenic,” because he was never in direct communication with the fabricators of the work while it was being created. The idea of the artwork and its execution existed in two separate but contiguous realities. He invented a term for it: ononimo, a play on the Italian words meaning “anonymous,” “eponymous,” and “homonymous.” Boetti explained, “There isn’t any contact with others, only the representation of multiple realities, ‘ononime,’ that is without a name but with the same name, that is each with their own temperament but at the same time without any form of collaboration, inasmuch as there is their reality and my own.”
Boetti visited Afghanistan for the first time in 1971 and was immediately taken with the traditional women’s craft of embroidery he encountered in Kabul. Within a year of his first visit, he had established the complex framework of production that enabled the creation of hundreds of tapestries over the next several decades. Afghan friends and associates acted as liaisons to provide Boetti with indirect access to families of embroiderers. Boetti would trace the outlines of his designs onto canvases, which were then delivered to the women to execute. He could dictate the color by denoting the number of Anchor-brand thread to be used (the embroidery equivalent to Pantone), but quickly developed such a respect for the Afghan women’s sense of color that he often left most of the selection up to them. For cultural reasons, Boetti was never allowed to interact with the women who realized his tapestries. The only glimpse he ever got was provided by the American documentary photographer Randi Malkin Steinberger, who in 1990 was able to travel to the Afghan refugee camps in Peshawar, Pakistan, where many of the embroiderers had relocated after the Soviet invasion in 1979. In this image, a group of women are at work on a Mappa in the midst of a jumble of Anchor-thread boxes.
Understandably, the production of these works has received much more attention than his collaborations with European art students. The dynamics of power loom large in the divide between the two, and the commonly raised question is this: even though Boetti paid the Afghan artisans for their labor, and went to great strides to provide space for their own voices, what does it mean that these works fetch increasingly lucrative prices in the Western art market under his name alone? Art historian Nicola Müllerschön’s article “Versatile Collaborations: Narratives of Alighiero Boetti’s Afghan Embroideries” poses some of these important questions, which deserve careful consideration, but are definitely without easy answers.
Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan is on view through October 1, 2012.