18 February 2011 post: Alighiero e Boetti, Selected Works & Text

ALIGHIERO E BOETTI Alternating 1 to 100 and Vice Versa, 1993 Woven fabric (kilim) 112 x 107-1/2 inches (284.5 x 273cm) (photo courtesy of: http://www.gagosian.com)


ALIGHIERO E BOETTI, Un'idea Brillante, 1992 Embroidery on linen 6 3/4 x 6 3/4 inches 17.1 x 17.1 cm Mimetico, ca. 1967 Fabric 27 7/8 x 27 7/8 inches 71 x 71 cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.marianneboeskygallery.com)



ALIGHIERO E BOETTI, Dalla sfera al cubo, 1989 Embroidery on fabric 7 x 7 inches 17.5 x 17.5 cm Mimetico, ca. 1967 Fabric 27 7/8 x 27 7/8 inches 71 x 71 cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.marianneboeskygallery.com)



ALIGHIERO E BOETTI, Alternandosi e dividendosi, 1988-1989 Embroidery 41 1/4 x 43 3/4 inches 105 x 111 cm Mimetico, ca. 1967 Fabric 27 7/8 x 27 7/8 inches 71 x 71 cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.marianneboeskygallery.com)



ALIGHIERO E BOETTI, Mappa, 1988 Embroidery 45-1/2 x 86-1/2 inches (115.6 x 219.7cm) (photo courtesy of: http://www.gagosian.com)



Alighiero Boetti Tutto, 1988 - 1989 embroidery on cloth 44 1/8 x 63 1/2 inches 112.1 x 161.3 cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.speronewestwater.com)



ALIGHIERO E BOETTI, Aerei, 1989 Inks on mounted photographic paper 37 1/2 x 78 3/4 inches 95.3 x 198.1 cm Mimetico, ca. 1967 Fabric 27 7/8 x 27 7/8 inches 71 x 71 cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.marianneboeskygallery.com)



ALIGHIERO E BOETTI, Cieli ad alta quota (per mia figlia Agathe, da suo padre), 1988 Inks on mounted photographic paper 11 1/2 x 16 3/4 inches 29.2 x 42.5 cm Mimetico, ca. 1967 Fabric 27 7/8 x 27 7/8 inches 71 x 71 cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.marianneboeskygallery.com)



Alighiero Boetti Verbi Riflessivi, 1983 ball-point pen ink on paper 2 panels; 39 3/8 x 55 1/8 inches 100 x 140 cm overall (photo courtesy of: http://www.speronewestwater.com)



Alighiero Boetti Cinque Per Cinque Venticinque, 1983 ball-point pen ink on paper 55 1/8 x 39 3/8 inches 140 x 100 cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.speronewestwater.com)



Alighiero Boetti Alighiero e Boetti, 1982 ball-point pen ink on paper 40 x 84 7/16 inches 101.5 x 214.5 cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.speronewestwater.com)



ALIGHIERO E BOETTI, Senza titolo (ordine e disordine), 1980 Mixed media and collage on paper 27 1/2 x 39 1/4 inches 70 x 100 cm Mimetico, ca. 1967 Fabric 27 7/8 x 27 7/8 inches 71 x 71 cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.marianneboeskygallery.com)



ALIGHIERO E BOETTI, Cieli ad alta quota, c. 1980 Watercolor and ink mounted on paper 20 1/8 x 29 1/8 inches 51.1 x 74 cm Mimetico, ca. 1967 Fabric 27 7/8 x 27 7/8 inches 71 x 71 cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.marianneboeskygallery.com)



ALIGHIERO E BOETTI, Unità di Varietà, 1979 Ball-point pen ink on paper Three panels, each: 39 3/4 x 28 inches 101 x 71.1 cm Mimetico, ca. 1967 Fabric 27 7/8 x 27 7/8 inches 71 x 71 cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.marianneboeskygallery.com)



Alighiero Boetti Senza Titolo, 1979 mixed media on paper 34 3/8 x 69 3/4 inches 87,3 x 177,2 cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.speronewestwater.com)



ALIGHIERO E BOETTI, Permutazione 120 buste dall'Etiopia, 1975 Mixed media on paper; 120 envelopes address and stamped 67 3/4 x 48 inches 172 x 122 cm Mimetico, ca. 1967 Fabric 27 7/8 x 27 7/8 inches 71 x 71 cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.marianneboeskygallery.com)



ALIGHIERO E BOETTI, Mano aperta pugno chiuso, 1974 India ink, pencil on paper 13 3/4 x 39 3/8 inches 35 x 100 cm Mimetico, ca. 1967 Fabric 27 7/8 x 27 7/8 inches 71 x 71 cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.marianneboeskygallery.com)



ALIGHIERO E BOETTI, Mappa, 1972 Embroidery 63 x 93 inches (160 x 236.2 cm) (photo courtesy of: http://www.gagosian.com)



Alighiero Boetti "Untitled" - Victoria Boogie Woogie, 1972 5042 envelopes, 35,280 stamps 42 panels, each: 61 3/4 x 37 3/8 inches 156.8 x 94.9 cm (detail) (photo courtesy of: http://www.speronewestwater.com)



Alighiero Boetti 16 dicembre 2040 11 luglio 2023, 1971 brass 2 parts, ea: 15 3/4 x 15 3/4 inches 40 x 40 cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.speronewestwater.com)



ALIGHIERO E BOETTI, Ordine e Disordine, 1971 Spray paint print 27 1/2 x 27 1/2 inches 69.9 x 69.9 cm Mimetico, ca. 1967 Fabric 27 7/8 x 27 7/8 inches 71 x 71 cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.marianneboeskygallery.com)



Alighiero Boetti Dossier Postale, 1969 - 1970 19 envelopes dimensions variable (photo courtesy of: http://www.speronewestwater.com)



Alighiero Boetti Self Portrait, 1968 2 iron casting of the artist's signature on corrugated cardboard 2 panels, ea: 39 x 23 1/2 x 1 in. 99 x 60 x 2.54 cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.speronewestwater.com)



Alighiero Boetti Manifesto 1967, 1970 print on paper, edition 47/50 44 3/4 x 31 3/8 inches 113.7 x 79.7 cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.speronewestwater.com)



Alighiero Boetti Citta di Torino, 1967 photostat and pencil on mylar 23 1/2 x 19 1/2 inches 59.7 x 49.5 cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.speronewestwater.com)



ALIGHIERO E BOETTI, Mimetico, ca. 1967 Fabric 27 7/8 x 27 7/8 inches 71 x 71 cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.marianneboeskygallery.com)



Alighiero Boetti Grigio Dover, Bleu Cannes, Rosso Gilera, Beige Sabbia, 1967 enamel on cardboard 4 parts, each: 28 x 28 inches 71.1 x 71.1 cm (photo courtesy of: http://www.speronewestwater.com)



Alighiero e Boetti, Strumento musicale (Musical instrument, 1970) (photo courtesy of: http://www.frieze.com)


The One Hotel and the Two Boetti’s (Two Selected Articles)

“It’s all about knowing the rules of the game. Those who don’t know the rules will never recognize the order that governs things…. I am of the opinion that each thing also contains its opposite.” -Alighiero e Boetti

Blogger’s Note:  Finding a good online interview article for this blog on Alighiero Boetti has proven to be unsuccessful and has led me to research dead-ends. Eventually, I encountered these two articles from different websites that may be related, one way or another. The first article is by Tom Francis while the second one is a series of online articles from an online forum thread, posted by a certain ajtr.




One Star is Enough to Make a Cosmos: Alighiero e Boetti and the One Hotel
By Tom Francis

In the spring of 1971, Alighiero Boetti arrived in Afghanistan. The Italian artist was seeking a “distant thing,” he said. Certainly he had plenty to get away from. Boetti’s career had begun in the early 60s, in Turin, and his spryly conceptual artworks had been identified with the Arte Povera movement. But he had drifted away from Arte Povera’s “guerilla war,” and was surely dismayed by the onset of the Italian “Years of Lead”—bombings, kidnappings, and shootings, perpetrated by neofascists and leftists alike. Afghanistan was a world away, a pacific, unspoiled place of great natural beauty. “I considered traveling from a purely personal, hedonistic point of view,” Boetti once said. “I was fascinated by the desert… the bareness, the civilization of the desert.”

Alighiero Boetti. photo: Paolo Mussat Sartor (photo courtesy of: http://www.bidoun.org)

That civilization, it should be noted, had really great dope. Kabul was then a way station for India-bound hippies, seekers, and other Western expatriates who would hang out on Chicken Street in Shahr-i-Naw, downtown. Boetti first stayed at a fleapit hostel, where he embarked on a new work, 720 Letters from Afghanistan. Naturally, he required a lot of stamps. A waiter at the hostel displayed considerable enterprise in obtaining them, and one day Boetti asked his new friend about his dreams for the future. “I would love to have my own hotel,” said the young man, whose name was Gholam Dastaghir. “And if I did, I would run it in such a way that you would fall in love.”

Boetti already had. His first trip lasted only a few months, but before the year was out he would return with his wife and small son. Back in Kabul that autumn, Boetti sought out the waiter and pressed a wad of bills into his disbelieving palm. Together they opened a hotel, which they named, after considerable discussion, the One.

For all Dastaghir’s entrepreneurship, the One Hotel was inarguably Boetti’s place. The Italian returned twice annually to his new Afghan retreat, often with his family in tow. It was a small place, but comfortable—his wife and collaborator Annemarie Sauzeau insists that Boetti, who died in 1994, “was no masochist”—a pleasant bungalow with a garden and a clientele of hippies and Indian and Pakistani carpet traders. When Boetti was in Afghanistan, though, the One Hotel served primarily as his home and workplace, a base camp for his various explorations.



One Hotel. photo courtesy of Annemarie Sauzeau Boetti (photo courtesy of: http://www.bidoun.org)

It was at the One Hotel that the Italian conceived his most celebrated and emblematic artworks, the Mappa, a series of embroidered maps of the world. Each Mappa is a flattened globe in the form of an Afghan rug, depicting the familiar outline of the continents, with nations and territories blocked out in the colors and designs of their flags. While his maps clearly evoked the medieval tradition of the Mappa mundi, Boetti’s works also referred back to his 12 forme dal 10 giugno 1967, a set of twelve copper sheets incised with the outlines of conflict zones, including Territori occupati, a tracing taken from La Stampa of the Palestinian territories on the last day of the Six-Day War. The following year he followed up this burgeoning interest in maps, politics, and moments suspended in time with Verso sud l’ultimo dei paesi abitatié l’Arabia (“Toward the South, the Last of the Inhabited Countries Is Arabia,” a title taken from Herodotus’s History), a drypoint composition on a quick-setting metallic plate, such that the indentation made by the needle became fainter as the etching progressed, and the words increasingly illegible.

The first Mappa was produced in the autumn of 1971. A second followed soon after, and then another. The Mappa became Boetti’s signature work. He outsourced the actual embroidering to Afghan weaving families, who worked from designs provided by the Italian and communicated by the family headman or Boetti’s Afghan assistant, Salman Alì. Some took a year to complete, others a decade. In most the sea is blue, but in some it is black or even pink. Such “flaws” were necessary risks; indeed, they served to create a mass variation on a theme, like jazz riffs, each work similar and yet different at the same time.

Given the fluctuations within politics and nations, Boetti’s Mappa constitute an ironic, irreverent take on national self-definition. And they are themselves political: Sinai retained its Arab colors despite its post-1967 annexation by Israel, and the land area of Mozambique was colored with the Soviet-style flag of FRELIMO before that anti-colonial guerilla movement took power. Time, too, dictated differences from one Mappa to the next: near the end of the series, the singular Yugoslav bloc disintegrated into warring Balkan states, while the very last Mappa is the only one to depict the Russian flag.

All in all, Boetti achieved a rare thing. The Mappa are rooted in a local context, but suggest the whole world. They derived directly from a then-unfashionable artisanal or craft tradition but are also purely conceptual. Boetti insisted that he “did nothing, chose nothing… the world is made as it is, not as I designed it, the flags are those that exist, and I did not design them.” His sole contribution, he professed, was the idea, which was then executed by others. (Boetti was drawing on Sol LeWitt’s 1967 Paragraphs on Conceptual Art: “The idea itself… is as much a work of art as any finished product.”) They vary, but according to a loose plan; they are reconciled to never-ending change and regeneration.

Perhaps this was a lesson of the “civilization of the desert.” Other travelers had come to Afghanistan at about the same time, including a young Bruce Chatwin, not yet a writer, who traveled among the nomads in 1970 and later remarked on the “different perception of time” in the desert, celebrating the nomadic shaman as a “self-destructive evangelist… [a] wandering dervish.” Four years later the similarly anarchic German artist Sigmar Polke would capture snapshots of this ascetic and quasi-mystical way of life in a series of fourteen grainy black and white photos.

But it is safe to say that this was a lesson Boetti had learned before his trip to the East. In 1968 he had titled an early solo exhibition Shaman/Showman. As Sauzeau noted, it played on the notion “that every artist wants to be a real shaman, but because of the art market you have to play the part of being a showman.” That double identity informed Boetti’s practice for the rest of his life. A sense of rigor and a sense of play; conceptualism and humanism; an attention to the performative and to ritual—these were qualities the Italian took with him to Kabul, not things he discovered there.

Though he described his traveling as a hedonistic adventure, Boetti had arrived in South Asia with curious baggage. For one, his dual persona: in 1968 he changed his name to Alighiero e Boetti, making his artwork, officially, the product of a collaboration between his two selves, the public artist, Boetti, and the private person, Alighiero. But he also arrived in nomadic drag. He called himself Ali Ghiero, and in his travels and sympathies he self-consciously followed the example of an illustrious ancestor, also named Boetti, who possessed multiple dissimulating identities of his own.

Giovanni Battista Boetti dei Predicatori left Piedmont in 1763 at the age of twenty and became a Dominican monk. Eight years later he was in Mosul, serving as superior of the Apostolic Mission of the Congregation of Propaganda Fide, responsible for spreading the good word to greater Mesopotamia. Something went awry, however, and Giovanni abandoned the missionary creed and traveled to Constantinople, where he introduced himself as Pafflis and scouted out schismatic circles. He was recalled to Italy, where he called himself Abdalla Bacase and defended himself against the charge of apostasy.

Giovanni broke with the Church and returned to the Orient, where he converted to Islam, founded a Sufi sect, and began preaching across Anatolia and the lower Caucasus. Giovanni was inducted into the order of Khwajagan Sufi masters, and, adopting the nom de guerre Sheikh Mansur, he espoused ghazavat (holy war) against the encroaching Potemkin armies of Czarina Catherine the Great. He rallied fifteen thousand fighting men as he led Chechen insurrections in Georgia, Dagestan, and Circassia. (He also created a Chechen alter ego, Ushurma.) In 1791, he was defeated at Anapà, in Kuban on the Black Sea, and imprisoned in Solovetsk on the Barents (later the site of an infamous Stalin-era gulag). He died three years later, but not before being given an audience with the stately Catherine.
Sauzeau suspects that Giovanni Boetti must have started out as a spy for Rome, at least before his conversion. “He belonged to this generation of Casanova,” she said. “He was an adventurer.” Whatever else he was, he seems to have been a hero. Ten years ago, a Libération reporter who covered the Chechen war of independence in the 1990s told

Sauzeau that the rebels idolized two figures above all: a nineteenth-century Chechen named Chamille, and an eighteenth-century Italian named Boetti.

Perhaps it was this Byronesque vision of a romantic rebel that appealed to Alighiero, and the idea of reinventing himself at a distance. Perhaps it was the draw of Eastern religion. The collected artworks in André Malraux’s “imaginary museum” had inspired in him an early interest in Buddhism and the Tao, and he seemed to share his ancestor’s passion for Sufism—his contribution to the Centre Pompidou’s 1989 exhibition Magiciens de la terre was a series of fifty embroidered works, Poesie con il Sufi Berang, with epigrams from his poet-friend Berang Ramazan, a Sufi mystic.

But perhaps it would be more appropriate to the spirit of Alighiero e Boetti to speculate more broadly. In 1952, in an essay titled “The Enigma of Edward FitzGerald,” Jorge Luis Borges proposed two models to account for the unique poetic majesty of the English-language edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, those eleventh-century Persian quatrains that had been “interpolated, refined, and invented” by the Victorian poet. One, to which Borges ultimately subscribes, insists that no more than a “beneficent chance” sparked FitzGerald’s fascination in “dear old Khayyam.” But he cannot discount the suspicion that there might be cases in which a soul, detached from its earthly vessel, might transmigrate from one body to the next, until some neglected duty had been fulfilled, and that sometime around 1857, the soul of Omar al-Khayyam alit in Edward FitzGerald, in order to consummate his literary destiny.

Might there be something of Giovanni in his descendent besides mere plasma? And what work might he have pursued from beyond the grave? Alighiero did not, it is true, lend his sword to the latter-day Chechens in their fight against their Muscovite oppressors. But he did take a stand with the Afghans and, according to one critic, financially supported Ahmad Shah Massoud, the famed Afghan resistance fighter and leader of the mujahideen. Of course, Alighiero died young, of pancreatic cancer, at the age of fifty-four. It may be that the Boettis’ great work is yet to be done.

On the back leaf of his well-thumbed copy of Norman O. Brown’s 1966 book Love’s Body, Alighiero put possible names for his hotel to the test. Below the most prominent suggestions— “Lira” or “One Hotel”—is a resonant possibility: the El Mansur Hotel.

It still stands, the One, though there’s a new facade, and its former identity lives on in the memories of a mere handful of neighbouring shopkeepers. You would be forgiven for thinking that it was destroyed in one or another ruinous chapter of the city’s history. As such, it has taken on a mythic character, the Shangri-La for Boetti disciples, younger artists, and critics. One can visit Smithson’s Spiral Jetty or take a trip to De Maria’s Lightning Fields, but Kabul, the thinking goes, is an artistic pilgrimage too far. Still, if you come and make the right turn off Chicken Street, you can find the building and compare its visage with a photograph of the place that Murtaza Roshan took around 1973, and do whatever it is that art pilgrims do when treading on holy ground. (Me, I took a picture.)

No one knows exactly when the One Hotel closed shop. Gholam Dastaghir knows, presumably, and Sauzeau believes he may still be alive, but I haven’t found him. Sauzeau herself was last there in 1975. The hotel may have met its end in 1978, when Marxists overthrew the government and thereby started a civil war, or late 1979, when Soviet troops arrived to prop up their embattled clients.

What we know is that the artwork conceived in the One Hotel outlived it. Like so many Afghans, Boetti’s weavers went into exile, ultimately to Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan, the destination du choix for most Afghan refugees. And there production resumed on the Mappa in 1984, after a visit by Boetti. The Mappa reappeared in much their former guise, though the political reality they now described was tense. (Another work from this period, a weaving entitled Soviet Exodus with Poppies, features tanks and shoulder-fired rockets.) Production continued until Boetti’s death a decade later. His son Matteo traveled to Pakistan to collect the final Mappa and pay severance to families that had depended on the artist for twenty years. And with that, a project that knew no temporal bounds, an extended meditation on order and disorder, was complete. (end)






Part One – 1971 (posted on an online forum thread by a certain ajtr)

There are many individuals and fragmentary events that have led to the present situation in Afghanistan. But there was a moment in 1971 when four separate things happened in and around Kabul that in their different ways reached back into the past and forward into the future.

That year the BBC sent a film crew to Kabul to recreate the first great military disaster of the British Empire – the retreat from Kabul in 1841. The BBC began by gathering Afghan tribesmen together to be extras. They acted out being taught cricket by the British. The Afghans then pretended to be fierce rebels storming out of the Kabul Bazaar to attack the British camp outside the city.

The BBC’s adviser was Louis Dupree. He was an American who had lived in Kabul since 1955. He will appear in many different ways in this story. But for the moment all you need to know is that he had once walked the route of the British retreat alone in winter, and also that he knew everyone in power in Kabul.

Dupree had noticed that the demonstrations by the students at Kabul University were increasing, and often degenerating into fights. At the end of 1970 he took a photograph of one. It is grainy and indistinct, but he had caught a moment which was to have immense consequences for everyone in Afghanistan, and around the world.
Kabul university had been created by the West, in particular by America and West Germany. Then the Soviet Union decided they had to pour money in too. So they built the enormous Kabul Polytechnic.

Both were seedbeds for western ideas, Foreign students and teachers from the west had flooded in and with them came the modern revolutionary ideas from the campuses in Europe and America. And very quickly the Kabul students set up a wide range of Leninist and Maoist groups.

Dupree had captured the moment when those groups had begun to confront a new group of revolutionaries on campus. They were the Islamists. The Islamists too had taken revolutionary ideas from the West but they had fused them with Islam. One of the Islamist groups had found a poem written by a Leninist student that praised Lenin using a term reserved only for the prophet Mohammed.They sneakily showed it to a group of conservative mullahs in Kabul and all hell broke loose.

All sorts of people were in and around the demonstrations and battles that followed and many of them will appear later in this story. Kabul was trying to imitate the West in other ways. Abdul Habib Aziz had recently opened the only supermarket in Afghanistan. Then in the spring of 1971 one of Italy’s leading conceptual artists turned up in Kabul and decided to buy the building above Mr Aziz’s supermarket and turn it into a hotel. The artist was called Alighiero e Boetti. Boetti is a fascinating and mysterious figure. He was part of the artistic avant-garde that emerged from 1960s radicalism in Italy.

Boetti was fascinated by chance and randomness. He would post letters to other artists he knew with the wrong address and then show the ones that were returned. His works often had secret codes built into them. Some of the codes have been cracked, others remain mysterious. No-one knows if the hotel was a conceptual art-work in itself or just somewhere for him and his friends to stay. But what is certain is that Boetti saw in Afghanistan a way of solving what he saw as the central crisis in the West, the overwhelming belief in the individual as an inspired creator.

Boetti had started as a member of the Arte Povera group. Like many avant-garde groups at that time they wanted to challenge the ‘system’, and to do that they attacked the notion of self-expression and the creation of things and objects – which they believed was central to consumer capitalism. Boetti said that what he saw in Afghanistan was the opposite. It was a country empty of created things.

“Afghan homes, for example, are empty: no furniture therefore no objects commonly placed on furniture. There are only a few carpets and mattresses on which people lie down, drink, smoke and eat. I also like the fact that Afghans wear the same clothes at day and at night. Nothing has been added to the landscape. Rocks are moved and used to build cube houses. The resistance with which Afghans oppose our civilisation has always amazed me.”

Following his principles Boetti found Abib and Fatima. They were embroiderers, and he gave them maps of the world as it was then in 1971 with all its borders. It was, he said, a given diagram of power in the world. He asked the two women to create a series of embroidered maps where each country would be coloured by its own flag. After that Boetti said, I did nothing. And 500 women started making the maps overseen by Abib and Fatima.

Just as the Afghan student revolutionaries had strange dreams of the west which they were going to try and impose on Afghanistan, so Boetti was trying to use a strange fantasy version of Afghanistan to free himself from the conventions of the west.

Meanwhile the BBC crew had moved location along the road to Jalalabad. They were retracing the terrible retreat of British soldiers when out of 16,000 only one man made it the 115 miles. Again the BBC used local tribesmen to act out the massacre – showing how their ancestors had poured fire down on the terrified British soldiers.

The tone of the BBC programme is of its time. It is determined also to show the dark side of the British Empire, the horrific acts of cruelty ordered by the British high command. It is saying – we may have lost an empire but we have become better people, and such horrors will never happen again.

At the end of the film is a scene showing how the British would tie Indian rebels to cannon muzzles and blow them to pieces. But a few years ago that section was edited out and you have to get special permission to show it. Things had changed again.

It is very horrific and absolutely not for the squeamish, but if you want to have a look at it – here it is.

As the BBC were filming a group of students from Nottingham University drove past. They were a group of mountaineers who were on their way to their first expedition outside Europe. They were going to climb a peak in the Hindu Kush called Koh-i-Khaaik. Their leader was called Peter Boardman. He would become one of the world’s most famous climbers, but this particular trip was going to go terribly wrong.

In 1977 Boardman recorded a description to camera of what happened both literally, and inside his own mind during his terrifying ordeal. And how Afghanistan had haunted him ever since.


Part Two 1972 – 1772

In early 1970s the Italian conceptual artist, Alighiero e Boetti often visited the hotel he had bought in Kabul, Number One Hotel. By 1972 it was being used not just by Boetti’s friends but by more and more western travellers.

All around them in Kabul revolutionary forces were emerging who wanted to overthrow the King. One of these forces was Islamism. The westerners heard odd stories about a man called The Engineer on the university campus. He was supposed to be going round throwing acid in the faces of girls who didn’t cover their heads.

Two hundred years before, the first modern Islamist had emerged to the north of Afghanistan, in the Caucasus. He was called Sheikh Mansur. Mansur fused ideas of nationalism and anti-colonial struggle with Islam and used them to lead a struggle against the Russian forces that were trying to occupy Chechnya and Daghestan.

In 1876 a professor in Turin discovered a collection of letters written by Sheikh Mansur to the professor’s father. In them Sheikh Mansur reveals that he was in reality an Italian from Turin called Giovanni Battista Boetti.

He was a direct ancestor of Alighiero e Boetti.

Sheikh Mansur a.k.a. Giovanni Battista Boetti (left); Alighiero Boetti (right). (photo courtesy of:defenceforumindia.com)

The letters tell an amazing story. Giovanni Boetti had been born near Turin. In the early 1770s he had run away from home and become a monk for the Dominican order. He then travelled as a missionary in Asia Minor and had all sorts of adventures and scandalous intrigues and love affairs. Then at some point Boetti converted to Islam and became a “Mussulman Prophet” with the power to raise and lead an army of thousands of Muslims.

From other accounts of Sheikh Mansur it is clear that this power came from the fact that he had fused what were modern western ideas of nationalism and anti-imperialism with Islamic ideas. Up to that point the resistance to the growing Russian empire had been from secular leaders in Chechnya. And they had failed.

Mansur-Boetti was something new and mysterious.

Then the Russians noticed Boetti. In 1785 General Potemkin wrote to Catherine the Great:

“On the opposite bank of the river Sunja in the village of Aldy a prophet has appeared and started to preach. He has submitted superstitious and ignorant people to his will by claiming to have had a revelation”

The Russians decided to send an army of three thousand men to destroy this prophet. They marched though the mountains and the farmland where Grozny now stands and across the river into the village of Aldy. But when they arrived they found no-one there. It was as if Boetti and all his army had disappeared. “As though they were ghosts” wrote one Russian.

The Russians destroyed the village completely and then set off on the return march. But Boetti had hidden his army in the forest covered mountains and he had set up an ambush. The Islamists slaughtered over half the Russian force and most of the survivors drowned trying to flee across the Sunja River. It was the start of what the Chechens today see as a 200 year war to remove the Russian occupation.

Here are photos of Giovanni Battista Boetti and his descendant Alighiero e Boetti. Both were cultural warriors – the fake Sheikh struggling against the Russian attempt to destroy Chechen national identity, the later Boetti struggling against the culture of individual self expression which he believed was corroding the west. The Sheikh used armed struggle, his descendent used the possibly less effective weapon of performance art.

But maybe its not true. Over the last 100 years scholars have argued about the authenticity of the letters.

Possibly they were extraordinary fantasy? An elaborate fiction about Islam and the west written by the older Boetti. Or possibly forged and planted in the archive by someone else? Noone knows for sure.

By the mid 20th century the force of Islamism had disappeared from the western mind. In the simple world of the cold war it seemed as if the dangerous complexities of nationalism and politicised religion had virtually disappeared. Here is part of a film made for the BBC in 1961 by Fitzroy Maclean. He was an upper class British adventurer who had links to the Secret Service. He was also reputed to be one of the models for James Bond.

Maclean’s film is about Khruschev’s attempt to wipe out all national identity in the Soviet Empire. Maclean is suspicious, he travels to the Caucusus and sees another possible unified future. A world where everyone will become American.

But he also adds a warning. He points out that throughout Asia and Africa the Soviets are doing precisely the opposite – encouraging nationalism as a weapon in their cold-war struggle with America. Might this not have unforeseen consequences for the Soviet Union in the future?

Last week six Italian soldiers died in a suicide truck bomb-blast in Kabul. The deaths shocked Italy and a state funeral was held in Rome. At the funeral Prime Minister Berlusconi became the first western leader to call for the western troops to withdraw from Afghanistan.

But Roberto Saviano the expert on the Neapolitan mafia – the Camorra – pointed out that Italy’s relationship to Afghanistan was far more complicated. The soldiers who died, he said, came from the south of Italy, an area where their life chances have been blunted by corruption and organised crime. Their only option out of the trap was the army – which had then taken them to Afghanstan. The country that produces 90% of the heroin in Italy and the rest of Europe.

And it is that heroin that fuels the power and corruption of organised crime in Southern Italy.

But back in 1972 that trade with Afghanistan did not exist. Until the westerners began taking heroin. In his hotel in Kabul Boetti was one of the first, but many, many more would follow.

At the same time he was still pursuing his project of using Afghanistan to attack the western belief in the artist as individual creator. He got the Afghan women embroiderers he was working with to embroider another coded piece. But this time the code numbers referred to the anniversary of his birth and his predicted date of death – he was still trapped by individualism

The Afghans responded to the westerners’ desire for drugs – for hashish and heroin – by selling them to the westerners. Then the drugs began to be smuggled out of the country. To start with the smuggling was done by the westerners themselves

This is a section of a BBC film shot in the summer of 1977 on the Afghan – Iran border. The customs officers are searching the line of travellers coming back from Afghanistan towards Europe. Then their eye is caught by the VW bus of an Italian lawyer and his wife.

The film returns to the Italian lawyer few days later in Mashhad prison. It is a brief but very moving interview. 18 months later the revolution in Iran was going to begin, and Mashhad prison would become one of the places where the revolutionary regime locked up its prisoners. It then became a place of mass execution as the Islamists around Khomeini hi-jacked the revolution.

I have tried to find out what happened to the lawyer – Roberto Sagressi (?). There is no “programme-as-completed” form for the film in the BBC archives. He just simply disappeared. It would be good to know what did happen to him.

In the face of Berlusconi’s demand for withdrawal the other western leaders have asserted that they must continue the fight against the Taliban.

But who are the Taliban? They – like everything else in this story – remain a mystery. We never see them on the TV. They are always just out of sight behind the trees in the shots.

And again and again journalists who accompany the troops report that when they enter a village from which they have been attacked, which they have then bombed and shelled, there is no-one there. There are no bodies, not even blood on the ground. But they know the fighters have been there. The Taliban have disappeared the soldiers say “like ghosts”

Here’s a fascinating report – both written and filmed – by Sean Smith of the Guardian. It was filmed during Operation Panther’s Claw this year.

There are also growing reports that the Taliban are no longer a fundamentalist group. That those politics and ideas have been destroyed by greed for the power and profits that the drugs trade brings. They too have become the victims of heroin. They are gradually becoming are an eastern version of the Camorra. Both groups shaped and supported by the insatiable consumer demand in the West.

We aren’t fighting what we are told we are fighting.

Here is a bit from a really good report by Stephen Grey which Newsnight broadcast. The troops enter a Taliban town. All “the ghosts” have disappeared – but they have left behind 11 tons of heroin.

In 1791 Giovani Batista Boetti was captured. He was taken to Catherine the Great who wanted to see the man who had used Islam to defeat the Russian mighty army. He was then locked up in St Petersburg fortress. He wrote one last letter to Professor Ottino’s father. Posted from St Petersburg. Then he died in 1794.

But maybe the letter was a fantasy written by Boetti. And really Sheikh Mansur came from the village of Aldy outside Grozny. No-one knows

Almost exactly 200 years later his relative Alighiero e Boetti died – of cancer – but also weakened ,some believed, by his addiction. It was 1994. The day he died the Taliban began their march from the south to take over Kabul and they promised they would destroy the drugs trade. They were supported by the west.

At the same time the Russian army invaded Chechnya to suppress the insurgent nationalism and Islamism. Here is one of the earliest photos – a Russian helicopter downed in the same forests that Boetti – aka Mansur – had destroyed the Russians in 1785.

Alighiero e Boetti had asked that his ashes be scattered in the seven coloured lakes of Afghanistan called Bandi A Mir. But because of the fighting between the Taliban and the warlords it couldn’t happen. His ashes still remain in Italy.

He had missed the predicted date of his death by 29 years.

Source: http://defenceforumindia.com/showthread.php?t=9480&page=1




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About fARTiculate

Transmissions from an island somewhere in the Philippines. Integrating daily art practice & other initiatives from the physical world down to virtual space.
This entry was posted in collage, cross discipline, drawing, installation art, sculpture and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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