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Conceptual artist Alighiero Boetti back in the public eye

October 22, 2011 | 10:00 am

This post has been corrected. Please see the note at bottom for details.

The late Italian conceptual artist Alighiero Boetti was ahead of his time. He believed in a global community and the notion of fair trade, years before it was a popular practice. He placed a high value on non-Western cultural traditions.

Boetti is best known for his Mappa, a series of large embroidered maps of the world in which each country features the design of its national flag. He conceived of the concept but recruited and collaborated with embroiderers from Afghanistan to craft the tapestries. He often waited years for a completed piece.

Santa Monica-based photographer Randi Malkin Steinberger, who worked with Boetti in the '80s and '90s, traveled to Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1990 with his blessing to document the process of the artisan embroiderers working in a refugee camp. Nearly 55 of the images she captured that day have been compiled in the book "Boetti by Afghan People: Peshawar, Pakistan, 1990" (Ram Publications).

Boetti girlBorn in Turin, Italy, in 1940, Boetti was part of the Arte Povera movement, known for its use of modest materials and techniques. He had a special interest in grids, maps and other systems of classifications.

It was after a journey to Afghanistan in 1971 that he became captivated by the culture and purchased a small hotel in Kabul, called One Hotel. "Although there was an embroidering school run by the king, he wanted something less refined and more traditional, a home-like quality," Malkin Steinberger said.

Boetti would draw his designs with Magic Marker, then hand over the process of selecting the colors to the embroiderers, giving them freedom to decide the final look of the work. Collaborating with the women was part of his conceptual nature. "He wasn't going to Afghanistan because it was cheap labor, he considered them to be co-authors of the work; he paid them very well," Malkin Steinberger said.

The hotel operated from 1972 until the '79 Soviet invasion. Production shifted from Kabul to Peshawar, where the group of Afghan women had taken refuge. Because laws were stricter in Pakistan, Boetti had to rely on middlemen.

Malkin Steinberger met Boetti in Italy in the 1980s while studying photography, and together they designed their first book, "Accanto al Pantheon."

As a woman, Malkin Steinberger wBoettistudioas allowed to visit the camps, but it wasn't easy. Defying advice from the U.S. Embassy not to go, she hid her camera under her Afghan garb and took a rickshaw to the camp. At the entrance she was stopped at gunpoint by a hesitant guard. She was granted just one day inside with the workers.

She returned to Rome, where she and Boetti selected the photos to turn into a book. "We were waiting for the right occasion," Malkin Steinberger said. "His career was taking off, I moved to L.A., then he got very sick." Boetti died in 1994.

Boetti's body of work is undergoing a resurgence of interest with a recently opened retrospective at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, which will be traveling to the Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York through 2013.

"There has been a surge of interest in post-war Italian artists over the last few years," said Christopher Bennett, a Boetti scholar and co-curator of an upcoming Boetti exhibition at UCLA's Fowler Museum. "Many feel that the Arte Povera movement was the strongest thing to come out of Italy in the 20th century, and Boetti has emerged as the most important artist of that group."

"His ideas were very clear," added Bennett. "His work was conceptual but accessible, profound and really beautiful." Just last year, a Boetti Mappa from 1989 sold for $2.7 million at auction.

Malkin Steinberger's book will serve as the companion guide to "Order and Disorder: Alighiero Boetti by Afghan Women," at the Fowler in February.

[For the Record, 2:14 p.m. Oct. 24: A previous version of this post implied that the Afghan embroiderers who created Alighiero Boetti’s Mappa tapestries worked out of his hotel in Kabul. The embroiderers worked in their own homes.]

-- Liesl Bradner

Images: Top, Afghan men hold a Boetti Mappa for inspection in Peshawar.  Center, an Afghan girl stitches a small embroidered piece in a refugee camp in  Peshawar, Pakistan. Bottom, in his studio in Rome in 1990, Alighiero Boetti looks at works embroidered by Afghan women.  From the book "Boetti by Afghan People: Peshawar, Pakistan, 1990" ©RMS Photo: Randi Malkin Steinberger. Credit: RAM Publications & Distribution