One Star is Enough to Make a Cosmos

Alighiero e Boetti and the One Hotel

Courtesy Annemarie Sauzeau Boetti

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.”

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.

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 guerrilla 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 Sazeau 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 neighboring 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.