Friday 29 September 2017


I've been reading about Danilo Dolci, the remarkable Italian activist and pacifist sometimes referred to as 'Sicily's Gandhi', and his work in western Sicily from the 1950s.

In Fire Under the Ashes (1965), an early biography, James McNeish describes Dolci's state of mind when he was called up for military service in 1951. At the barracks in Siena, he refused pointblank to do 'anything soldierly', only consenting to fire drill and gymnastics: 'No shooting, no bayonet practice'.

And he filled in the regulation questionnaire as follows:

NUMBER OF BROTHERS: About a billion
PROFESSION: I'm learning to be consumed

A few years later, during one of his many hunger strikes (on this occasion to try to force political initiatives to fund a dam to help local peasants), he was asked by one of the local women: 'Child, why do you starve yourself like this?' His reply: 'Exactness and truth melt, and destroy evil'.

In the late 1950s, Dolci made a speech in Palermo: 'I believe that men will collaborate better as their thoughts, with the help of scientific analysis, are shorn of all rhetoric, superstition, complexes, dogmas of all kinds. Reality is complex. To understand it men have tried Christianity, liberalism, Gandhism, socialism. There's some truth in all these solutions, we're all mendicants of truth'.

other fires

Later that evening, a long, energising conversation in a café on via Notartbartolo near the Falcone tree, with Gianni Gebbia – the renowned Palermitan saxophonist, stalwart of a second generation of Freimusik improvisers in Europe and Japan, and the city of Palermo’s curator for music and dance over a three-year period towards the end of Leoluca Orlando’s Palermo Spring in the late 1990s (1). He groans audibly, and comically, when I tell him what I’ve been doing. “These are extraordinary people of course, and it’s essential to remember them; but a singular focus on the mafia creates a partial perspective that overlooks a great deal, and there’s a real risk of losing other memories, extinguishing other fires in this small city. We also have to look elsewhere and remember differently. Palermo may be sad and “third world”, but it is so much more. We have to give other things their rightful place too”.

Gebbia is at pains to stress Palermo’s historical importance as cultural meeting point, and his sense of the imperative to help restore that line; “for me, this is antimafia”. He reminds me that it was in this city that Lampedusa’s wife Alessandra was one of the early pioneers of psychoanalysis, and that Gruppo 63, the influential group of Italian avant garde writers, was founded in Palermo in the 1960s. He reflects on his contact with Pina Bausch and her company in the city during work on Palermo, Palermo – “such deep research on the ground, an extraordinary happy time “ – as well as visits by Kantor and other Polish artists, and a stream of young French choreographers, Butoh practitioners and experimental musicians. 

“All these forms make a significant difference in Palermo, while political forces insist on trashing the city. Here one sees the effect of political choices in such an impolite, rough way. The extreme de-culturation of Italy during the Berlusconi years means that it has to be re-invented from the ground up. And this is a new phase, the city is really broke now. I’m concerned that Sicily is unprepared psychologically and practically for the current situation, but complaining is a very low level of political action and approach. We have to do things, find new models in this time, and without art simply becoming ideology”.

Finally Gebbia describes two related video films he has made recently that propose other topographies of memory. The first film emerged from archival and field research into the first Christian missionaries to land in Japan in the 15th century: Sicilian, Portuguese and Spanish Jesuit monks trained in Sicily. The second film concerns the Japanese painter Otama Kiyohara, who worked and taught in Palermo with her husband, the sculptor Vincenzo Ragusa, from the 1880s to the 1920s. 

“Both films were triggered by Sicily’s largely overlooked historical relations with Japan. I want to break the myth of there being no connection. For me, this is also antimafia. As is my determination not to abandon Palermo. Playing in my own city has always been a mission, even if it’s difficult now; and I still try to present unusual, quality things for Palermo audiences, that’s part of its participation”.

(1) As a saxophonist, Gebbia is known for a circular breathing technique that he learnt in particular from Sardinian masters of the launedda (bagpipe) tradition. As well as programming many festivals of performance and music in Sicily, Gebbia is also a long-term practitioner of Katsugen Undo and an ordained lay Zen Buddhist monk. For further details of his many musical recordings and collaborations (with Evan Parker, Fred Frith, Butoh artists and others), and the film projects described here, Nanbanjin (2011) and O’tama monogatari (2012), see his website here

Images: (top) photograph of Gianni Gebbia by Claudio Casanova/AAJ Italia; (bottom) Otama Kiyohara self-portrait, 1884. 

gravity's pull

In a café off Via della Libertà, looking through a folder of images that have haunted me for years, taken by two of the great chroniclers of Palermo’s suffering and injustices. Firstly, Letizia Battaglia, one of Italy’s most celebrated photographers and a legendary figure in the city who, from the mid 1970s, obsessively catalogued hundreds of mafia killings, funerals, arrests, trials, chain-smoking prosecutors, illegal backstreet horse races, religious festivals, and the embattled daily lives of women and children at home and in the street. 

Shattered bodies, crumbling buildings, fragile dreams. Over 600,00 images, all in black and white: an unflinching archive of death and life in a war zone. 

Over the past 40 years, Letizia has also been a filmmaker, theatre director, writer, publisher, elected councillor, and environmentalist. As Leoluca Orlando’s combative, outspoken ‘Commissioner of Liveability’ in the heady days of the ‘Palermo Spring’, famously she took to the streets of the old city with a team of council workers to clear away rubbish and needles, replant gardens and parks, in an effort to reclaim pride in public spaces. Of the thirty-three resplendent palm trees she planted on the derelict seafront, in the site of an ancient grove, only three survive today; the others are sawn-off stumps. 

Now in her late 70s, and largely in retreat from public life, her most recent photographic projects explore a ‘working through’ of mourning by superimposing portraits of Palermitan women over her earlier images of violence: an unsettling frictional montage of bloody (masculine) past and contemplative (feminine) present that invites reflection on uncertain future possibilities.

And secondly, Shobha, Letizia’s daughter, a photographer of international reputation in her own right. She arrives for our meeting to find me looking at one of her mysterious images; it shows a young girl in a long cape with expansive wings, her back towards the camera, as if flying quietly along this shuttered backstreet in Vucciria, past a dog asleep in the gutter, towards the market stalls just visible in the distance. “Ah yes, the angel, she brings a different quality of energy. We need blessings in this city. We need imagination and poetry”. 

Since her return to Palermo in the mid 1980s, having lived and studied abroad, Shobha’s work as a photographer has complemented and developed her mother’s, her own critical rage contoured differently by living and working elsewhere for much of the year and by a determination to “pursue life rather than death. The opposite of my mother’s images, and yet exactly the same impulse. We are both on the side of life. Palermo is above all a schooling in compassion. Extreme contradictions live so closely together here. You have to pass through pain to move forward, and I’m not afraid of that. What I really fear is ignorance and forgetting, that’s the void where the mafia and other abuses of power thrive. 

"When I first came back to Palermo, I threw myself into that beautiful, optimistic movement around Falcone and Borsellino, Orlando and others. After years of terrible violence and corruption, there was a renewed sense of life, of awakening, generosity, support, a collective endeavor to make things the best they could be; and for ten years I photographed life. But since then so much of this has been compromised and destroyed, and people forget what’s possible. And once more Palermo feels like an abandoned child ... 

"There are still people of such quality here, angels who bring light, and there is always beauty to be found in everyday life; but sometimes it feels like the city’s falling backwards into the darkness again. It's not all shit of course; but I live in the moment, and this is a dark moment”.

Shobha describes her recent international projects and how they relate to her work in Palermo: women labourers in Karnataka cutting stone in caves, driving trucks; women disfigured by acid attacks in Bangladesh; refugee nuns in a temple in Cambodia. “Always the same ethic. How to use photography to give light to a person’s dignity. How to bear witness to suffering with honesty and compassion”. 

She talks animatedly about teaching photography in Sicily, working with single mothers, autistic and Down’s syndrome kids, and about the professional training workshops she runs here and internationally: “I try to teach people to be aware, to be awake and ready, here now. I try to teach attention. Attention is hope”. 

Finally, she reflects on the differences between Palermo and her other home in India, where “lightness is mixed into the gravity of everyday life, there’s a greater softness and buoyancy there that supports people’s belief in the possibility of growth and change. In Palermo gravity has such an aggressive pull, its heaviness sucks people down, eats their energy. Here we have to really struggle to react and rebel against inertia, to pull ourselves from the mess. Last year this café was firebombed three times within a month. Why? Pizzo, competition, territory. Small minds. Because it’s nice. A normal life is not possible here. It’s the Wild West”. 
For Shobha's website, and examples of her projects internationally, see here

For Letizia Battaglia, see her book Passion Justice Freedom: Photographs of Sicily, New York: Aperture (1999); and Giovanna Calvenzi's collection, Letizia Battaglia: Sulle ferrite dei suoi sogni, Milan: Mondadori (2010). For a recent Observer article by Peter Jinks about her work (4 March 2012), see here

Photograph of Letizia Battaglia and Shobha:
© Cristina Garcia Rodero 

Thursday 28 September 2017

omnia vincit amor

In a much discussed passage in his essay on the uncanny, Sigmund Freud described getting lost in Genoa and walking in circles only to return unwittingly and repeatedly to a site of the city’s (and his) repressed fears and desires, the red-light district. During my trajectories through Palermo over the years I have often returned, despite myself, to the Ucciardone prison. Looping through unfamiliar back streets near the docks and, as if sleepwalking, once more bumping into the towering pock-marked walls of this notorious early nineteenth century Bourbon institution. 
Often referred to in the past as ‘the university of the mafia’ or ‘the mafia hotel’, in recent years the Ucciardone has been largely superseded by a new complex, the Pagliarelli, out on the city’s ring road; nonetheless it still holds many prisoners. As a structure of power and site of affect-laden memory it remains unsettling and alienating. Its brutal performance of authority, the lingering spectres of those it has incarcerated, the unimaginable violence and suffering it has contained, all conspire to conjure a gravitational pull that seems to haunt and suck so much of the life out of this area of the city.

Writing in 1956, a few months after his release from the Ucciardone, the activist and pacifist Danilo Dolci remembers the “pained eager eyes” of long-term prisoners “watching intently through the bars two cats copulating in the garden below, while the prison radio blared out a boxing match; and, high on the outside wall, one could read the hypocritical carved words: Omnia vincit amor” (quoted in McNeish, Fire Under the Ashes, 1965: 134).

Today the prison somehow finds me again, but this time I determine to contest its toxic power in some pissy act of resistance by walking its circumference while wishing away its raisons d’être: lasso it within the dream of the city being able to enact a better version of itself, something like that. Years beforehand, I had found a tiny niche in the prison wall from within which a faded miniature of Santa Rosalia looked out impassively at passersby, a skull balanced on a red bible in one hand, the powdery remains of flowers at her feet. There’s no sign of her today, just an abject corridor of traffic fumes, abandoned trash, dog shit, graffiti (FORZA NUOVA CONTRA IL COMMUNISMO), gouges in the stone, bodged repairs. 

Every twenty paces or so, I take a photograph of the surface of the wall with the vague notion of reconfiguring its architectural integrity by creating a composite linear collage that could be laid out flat like a pathway, rolled into a Mobius strip or punctured with portals giving on to other vistas of love conquering all. 

Then a sudden shout in Italian from above:
- ‘Ey Americano! Buon giorno!’
Looking up over the wall, the grilled window of one end-of-block cell is just visible from the street, sun-bleached rags and old clothing hanging from the metal bars. Two pairs of hands wave enthusiastically, a tiny flutter of humanity, and I wave back.
- ‘Hello hello! What are you doing?’
It’s a young man’s voice. His face remains invisible, just his hands and those of a silent cellmate in the afternoon light. I cup my hands to my mouth and shout back:
- ‘I’m walking and looking’.
- ‘A posto! Great! … Will you walk and look for me?’

do something

On foot to Brancaccio, a notoriously disaffected suburb just south of the old city of Palermo, towards the church of Padre Giuseppe ‘Pino’ Puglisi: a Roman Catholic priest who in the early 1990s was outspoken in his criticism of the church for its silence towards organized crime, and openly confronted the pervasive mafia presence in his San Gaetano parish. 

As a community priest renowned for his patience and good humour, Puglisi focused on trying to foster the cultural and social conditions for a gradual erosion of fearful acquiescence and omertà, establishing recreational facilities and educational support for young people that affirmed possibilities other than that of criminality, and, from the pulpit, quietly insisting on the incompatibility of Christian values with criminal activity. 

Provocatively in this context, he marked the anniversary of Paolo Borsellino’s death with a commemorative mass, and invited members of the Antimafia Commission to a school debate. In the face of repeated threats, he refused donations for religious festivals from those in odore di mafia, and rejected a mafia construction contract for church repairs; the doors of the church were firebombed. 

Finally, on the morning of 15 September 1993, his 56th birthday, the embattled priest was shot at close range outside his home beside the church. According to one of his killers who turned state witness after arrest, as they approached him he smiled and said, “I have been expecting you” ('Me lo aspettavo’). His well-known rhetorical question, an interrogative challenge to inertia, passivity and tacit complicity that is still associated with him, was taken up and echoed in graffiti around Brancaccio and elsewhere: “E sé qualcuno fa qualche cosa?” ('And what if someone were to do something?')

In the summer of 2012, the Vatican formally recognised Puglisi’s ‘martyrdom’, and set in motion the process of his beatification as a saint.