Arts + Culture

Fowler exhibition highlights artist Alighiero Boetti's embroideries by Afghan women

From 1971 to 1994, Italian artist Alighiero Boetti (1940–94) embarked on a series of projects with Afghan embroiderers, creating monumental pieces that would become some of his most iconic works.
"Order and Disorder: Alighiero Boetti by Afghan Women" ― on display at the Fowler Museum at UCLA from Feb. 26. to July 29, 2012 ― is the first exhibition to underscore the production of this oeuvre by Afghan women and features 29 works by Boetti, along with documentary photographs of the Afghan embroiderers by Randi Malkin Steinberger and examples of the traditional styles of embroidery that first inspired Boetti to this pursuit when he encountered them in Kabul.
When Boetti first traveled to Afghanistan in 1971, he was already regarded as a leading practitioner of Arte Povera — the term used to describe a group of young Italian artists who were creating highly conceptual works using unconventional, commonly available materials.
Taking up part-time residence in Kabul from 1971 to 1979, Boetti was surrounded in the streets and markets by Afghanistan's extraordinary traditions of embroidery. As early as his first visit, he began commissioning new works in this medium. Boetti and his assistants transferred designs to pieces of cloth that were then taken to the embroiderers. The women's skilled needlework and color choices strongly influenced the final appearance of the works.
Exhibition overview
Boetti's embroideries fall into three general categories. The most celebrated are his Mappe (maps), wall-sized world maps with the countries filled in with the colors and symbols of their flags. In 1971, Boetti commissioned women at an embroidery school in Kabul to embroider his first map. He initially intended to make only one but went on to commission roughly 150 of them in his lifetime, with no two possessing exactly the same dimensions.
Four Mappe, remarkably diverse in their colors and reflecting the changing geopolitical situations of the different time periods during which they were created, have been brought together for this exhibition.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Boetti initiated production of the Tutto (everything), a sequence of ambitious embroideries featuring myriad interlocking shapes representing diverse objects — sunglasses, a Hindu goddess, a protractor, twins and more. The Tutto advanced an image that had long fascinated Boetti and which he explored in his work as early as 1967: the pack ice at the Earth's poles, which breaks into facets when temperatures rise. Some of the largest and most complex Tutto took up to 10 years for the embroiderers to complete.
A third category of embroidery is the colorful grids of letters that spell out phrases (such as "Order and Disorder") amidst otherwise random lettering. These works feature evocative expressions and messages, some in Dari (the language spoken in Afghanistan) and some in Italian, that can be "decoded" by reading the letters in the various directions in which Boetti arranged them, sometimes in vertical columns, backwards or around the borders.
Documentary photographs by Randi Malkin Steinberger
Boetti's production in Afghanistan was disrupted by the 1979 Soviet invasion, but in 1985, it resumed in camps housing Afghan refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan. As a European male, Boetti was not allowed to visit the camps. He therefore asked photographer Randi Malkin Steinberger (now based in Santa Monica, Calif.), with whom he had collaborated in Rome, to go to Peshawar to photograph the women at work.
In 1990, Steinberger was allowed to visit the camps for one day, during which she captured numerous images of groups of women talking and working together on the embroideries, as well as the office in Peshawar city where the work was coordinated. Her photographs constitute the only record of the women at work in the camps, and 25 of those images are included "Order and Disorder."
Embroidery in Afghanistan
Kabul in the 1970s was the entrepôt through which textile arts from all over Afghanistan were traded. Embroidery was ubiquitous — in the shops and markets, displayed in homes and worn by the citizens. The exhibition features numerous fine examples of traditional embroidery ― elaborate coats, prayer stone covers, bags, and other garments and cloths ― to give an idea of the visual environment that inspired Boetti to use embroidery as a medium.
About Alighiero Boetti
Alighiero Boetti was born in Turin, Italy, in 1940. His mother, Adelina Marchisio, a violinist, supplemented her income with an embroidery business. In January 1967, Boetti had his first exhibition in Turin, featuring a wide array of works made from heterogeneous, prefabricated materials. In September 1967, the Genoese curator Germano Celant included him in an exhibition alongside five other artists, labeling their work "Arte Povera."
In 1971, Boetti began to dissociate himself from Arte Povera. Moving from Turin to Rome, he also began visiting Afghanistan regularly and even opened a hotel there in 1971 called the One Hotel. In addition to the embroideries produced at his request by Afghan women, Boetti continued making many other types of work while principally residing in Rome. He died in Rome in April 1994 at the age of 54. His work is in major national and international collections.

Presently, there is much interest surrounding Boetti's art. He is soon to be the subject of a retrospective at the Tate Modern in London ("Alighiero Boetti," Feb. 28–May 27, 2012), and another of his Mappe will be displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in a group exhibition ("Common Places: Printing, Embroidery, and the Art of Global Mapping," Feb. 18–May 13, 2012). A book of Randi Malkin Steinberger's photographs titled "Boetti by Afghan People: Peshawar, Pakistan 1990" has recently been published by RAM Publications, and images from her earlier book "Accanto al Pantheon" will be on display at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura of Los Angeles in Westwood in the exhibition "Open Book — 'Accanto al Pantheon': Randi Malkin Steinberger's Snapshots of Alighiero Boetti's Studio" (Feb. 25–May 2, 2012).
Additional information
"Order and Disorder: Alighiero Boetti by Afghan Women" is organized by the Fowler Museum in association with the Fondazione Azzurra and the Istituto Italiano di Cultura of Los Angeles. It is co-curated by Alma L. Ruiz, senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and a specialist on the Arte Povera movement, and Christopher Bennett, a Boetti scholar and lecturer in art history at the University of Southern California.
Support for the exhibition comes from the Fowler's Barbara and Joseph Goldenberg Fund and Shirley and Ralph Shapiro Director's Discretionary Fund, an anonymous donor, and Suzanne and David Johnson. Funding for the publication is provided by the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Charitable Foundation. Additional support for programming comes from the Fondazione Azzurra, the Robert Lehman Foundation, the UCLA Dream Fund and Manus, the support group of the Fowler Museum.
This winter, the Fowler will publish the book "Order and Disorder: Alighiero Boetti by Afghan Women" (136 pages, 121 color and 9 b/w images, $25, ISBN 978-0-9778344-8-8, soft cover), distributed by the University of Washington Press. The authors are Christopher Bennett, Roy W. Hamilton (senior curator for Asian and Pacific collections at the Fowler Museum), Alma Ruiz and Randi Malkin Steinberger.
The Fowler Museum at UCLA is one of the country's most respected institutions devoted to exploring the arts and cultures of Africa, Asia and the Pacific, and the Americas. The Fowler is open Wednesday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. and Thursday from noon to 8 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. The Fowler Museum, part of UCLA Arts, is located in the north part of the UCLA campus. Admission is free. Parking is available for a maximum of $11 in Lot 4. For more information, the public may call 310-825-4361 or visit
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Opening night
"Order and Disorder: Alighiero Boetti by Afghan Women"
Saturday, Feb. 25
5–6 p.m.
Fowler Museum
Opening night will feature "Fowler OutSpoken Conversation: Alighiero Boetti's Embroderies." Guest curators Christopher Bennett and Alma Ruiz, and photographer/filmmaker Randi Malkin Steinberger, who documented the Afghan women who embroidered Boetti's works, come together for this opening program celebrating "Order and Disorder." An introductory talk about the artist by Boetti scholar Bennett will be followed by a conversation about the exhibition with all three speakers, moderated by MOCA curator Ruiz. Priority seating for members at 4:45 p.m.
Opening party
Saturday, Feb. 25
6–8:30 p.m.
Fowler Museum
Enjoy light refreshments by Obika, Italian wines, Beck's beer and music by DJ Ofunne, spinning sounds from Afghanistan, Italy, Pakistan and more. Limited capacity. R.S.V.P. required by Feb. 16. Please call 310-206-7001 or email
Saturday, Feb. 25
8–11 p.m.
Istituto Italiano di Cultura of Los Angeles (map)
After-party buffet at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura of Los Angeles in Westwood. See the exhibition "Open Book — 'Accanto al Pantheon': Randi Malkin Steinberger's Snapshots of Alighiero Boetti's Studio" R.S.V.P. is essential; you will receive the address and parking instructions. Please email
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