You have a rare opportunity. The exhibition, Order and Disorder: Alighiero Boetti by Afghan Women closes this weekend at the Fowler Museum of Art at UCLA. Coinciding with the recent opening of the Boetti retrospective at MoMA, the Fowler show offers an especially rare look at this work. These incredible embroideries are exhibited side-by-side with the equally absorbing story of not just how they were made -but how their production was documented.
Randi Malkin Steinberger, an American photographer, met Alighiero Boetti in the mid eighties when she was living in Italy. Her book, Boetti by Afghan People, tells how she met Boetti, began collaborating with him, and then found herself traveling to Peshawar, Pakistan at his request to photograph women who were embroidering his works (Boetti was prevented such contact, due to religious custom). Adding to the barriers: hundreds of these women were being held as prisoners of war during the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Randi was being sent on a mission that could prove dangerous for an American, and would require some stealthiness. She had no idea if she would be allowed access inside the camp, or for how long.
photo : Randi Malkin Steinberger
The entire story of Boetti’s embroidered works and Randi’s determination to gain entrance into the camps runs so deep, is so dense, so fascinating, that it’s only been by repeat visits to the exhibition, reading the back story, listening to Randi talk at the exhibition and through private discussions with her that I gained an enriched perspective on Boetti’s embroideries and how he felt about these works. Understanding it takes you far beyond presumptive responses: that these craftspeople were simply exploited, that the viewer should be shielded from the unseemly process of “making art”, that a museum should not be showing these photographs at all, least of all in the same room with the art itself.
While it’s generally not the position of a contemporary art museum to explain an artist’s process to its audience, The Fowler Museum of art at UCLA, as part of a larger, educational institution has a unique role. Their stated mission is to “explore global arts and cultures…featuring the work of international contemporary artists presented within the complex frameworks of politics, culture and social action…through informative and thought-provoking exhibitions and events for the UCLA community and the people of greater Los Angeles and beyond.” Moreover, Boetti desired these photographs to be shown.
Boetti viewing embroidered “mappa” being unpacked
photo : Randi Malkin Steinberger
It’s made clear that Boetti had a specific intention of entwining Randi’s photos along with the embroideries. That these photographs be compiled as its own project was his expressed wish, choosing with Randi those fifty-five photographs compiled in her book. Only, Boetti would pass away before this project was fully realized. The entirety of the story makes clear his deep affection for these craftspeople, their culture, and their equal affection and appreciation for him. That his mother ran an embroidery business from their home when he was a child, involving numerous hands in the process, makes this work seem even more personal.
Randi said that Boetti often signed these embroideries “Boetti by Afghan People” as acknowledgement of their work. “He really viewed these embroideries as a collaboration” Randi says. They often made their own choices while working, with unusual results: pink or purple oceans, or bits of poetry in their own language integrated into the wordplay Boetti had originally laid out for them to embroider.
Boetti saw these changes as an integral part of the work and the wordplay he loved so much. Similarly, Randi’s photographs become not just a record, but an extension of the work itself.
In this era of cameras-are-everywhere and easy, digital photography, Randi’s photos, caught in a mere 2-3 hour window under uncertain and unpredictable circumstances are rare glimpses into a cloistered world we may never have seen. Like his “Lampada Annuale”, Boetti ensured that the illumination, however brief, is a fact, and not a mere deception.
photo : Randi Malkin Steinberger
I sincerely urge you to visit this exhibition before it closes. You can further read about this work and Randi’s incredible story from her book and the museum’s catalog:
Boetti by Afghan People – Randi Malkin Steinberger
Boetti by Afghan Women – Christopher G. Bennett (museum catalog)
Order and Disorder: Alighiero Boetti by Afghan People at Fowler Museum UCLA - February 26 – July 29, 2012
Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan at MoMA - July 1 – October 1, 2012
related entries on this blog:
Order and Disorder at Fowler Museum
Concept to Collaboration: Artists Involving Others
Concept to Collaboration: Hommage to Bruno Schulz
Randi Malkin Steinberger – Pt. 1
Embroidery as Art
Incontri e contri – Alighiero Boetti
The Fowler Museum of Art at UCLA recently opened Order and Disorder: Alighiero Boetti by Afghan Women. If you are in the Los Angeles area, this show is not to be missed. The exhibition is a side-by-side look at these incredible embroidered works and the equally absorbing story of how they were made. From the museum’s website:
Tutto – Alighiero Boetti
From 1971 to 1994, Italian artist Alighiero Boetti (1940–1994) embarked on a series of projects with Afghan embroiderers, creating monumental pieces that would become some of the artist’s most iconic works. Working first in Kabul in the 1970s and then in refugee camps in Pakistan after the 1979 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Afghan women embroidered works based on Boetti’s templates that include: colorful grids of letters that spell out phrases (such as “Order and Disorder”); Mappe (maps), wall-sized world maps with countries filled-in with the colors and symbols of their flags; and Tutto (everything), large-scale works entirely filled with intricately embroidered shapes representing diverse objects—sunglasses, a Hindu goddess, a protractor, twins, and more. The exhibition features twenty-nine works by Boetti along with documentary photographs of the Afghan embroiderers taken in 1990 at Boetti’s request by Randi Malkin Steinberger, as well as examples of the traditional styles of embroidery that might have played a role in stimulating Boetti’s best-known works.
photo : Randi Steinberger from Boetti by Afghan People
Trying to understand the circumstances under which these women worked, how they perceived the work they were doing, and how they influenced the work as collaborators are what I find the most fascinating aspects of Boetti’s embroideries. The density of the work is mind-boggling: huge canvases of solidly-worked straight stitches with no exposed fabric. You can actually see where one entire skein of floss is worked until a new one was begun -indicated by the slightly different saturation of the dye in the new skein.
From a press release on Steinberger’s book:
Randi Steinberger’s photographs document the previously unseen story behind the making of some of Boetti’s (1940-1994) most iconic and monumental works, consisting of embroidered pieces of many sizes, including the large world maps incorporating the colors and symbols of each country’s flag.
In 1990, Randi Steinberger traveled to Peshawar, Pakistan, with Boetti’s blessing to document the process of the making of his embroideries. Due to Islamic cultural traditions, Boetti himself could not visit the women in their homes, where the embroidery was made. Randi Steinberger, traveling with a Boetti assistant, was given unprecedented access to follow “the journey of these cloths” from the shop of the antique dealers who served as middlemen into the craftswomen’s workrooms as they brought color and life to these spectacular works.
I have been invited by the Fowler Museum to lead two activities in conjunction with this exhibition. One will take place at the end of March (an embroidery workshop
– all seats filled), and in April, I will be leading a collaborative art project open to participation from students of UCLA. (More on this as the event approaches.)
Order and Disorder is hanging until July 29, 2012.
Embroidery as Art