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milano mediterranea
May 23, 2023
Social Justice

Redrawing Giambellino's geography from art: the voice of Milano Mediterranea and its artists

Interview by Michela Grasso, SPAGHETTIPOLITICS

Q: Hi Anna, would you like to introduce yourself and tell us about Milano Mediterranea?

A: «My name is Anna Serlenga, I am the artistic director and co-director of Milano Mediterranea together with Rabii Brahim. This project was born in 2021, from the urgency to claim a different narrative of the people and communities coming from the Mediterranean diasporas, through the use of contemporary arts. We define it as a participatory and decolonial art center, and we operate in the Giambellino district. The true beginning of Milano Mediterannea was in 2019-2020, when we participated in an open call of the municipality aimed at grassroots projects. Before working in Milan, both Rabii Brahim and I worked and lived in Tunisia for seven years, but we had already visited Giambellino in 2018. We chose to stay in this neighborhood because it is diverse and tied to the working class. Here the presence of the Arabic-speaking community is very strong. It is a community with which we have an elective affinity, in a neighborhood undergoing enormous transformation, therefore very interesting for observing Milan and its changes».

Q: In recent years you have made several projects, would you like to describe some of them?

A: «To change the narratives regarding a specific community, that of "non-native" Italians, it is necessary to use art. For this reason, every year we make an open call to the diasporic artistic community, already residing in Italy. The artists can present a project to us, built with and for the neighborhood. This is important because the colonial dynamic is expressed not only in the themes but also in the posture with which one looks at things; we receive these projects and select them together with a neighborhood committee that we have set up over the years: a heterogeneous group of inhabitants, workers, students, who live and transits through the neighborhood. It is important that the projects do not come out of nowhere, and that there is a part of collaboration with the communities that live in that area. Over the years we have selected different projects, with artists from different disciplines. I am thinking of Mombao, a duo made up of Damon Arabsolgar and Anselmo Luisi. Mombao has carried out a very interesting project on the interception of the folkloric and traditional heritage of different cultures, to then recompose it in a contemporary key between performance and concert. Thanks to the work done in the neighborhood, they had then participated in the concert organized for our first "Twiza" festival, which in Berber means "doing together". The festival was carried out in the public space of the neighborhood and has entered the Biennale. We will do it again this year, on June 15-18 in Largo Balestra, with free and open access to all».

Q: How do the artist residencies work in Milano Mediterranea?

A: «What we do is to sew the proposals and place them in the urban fabric, trying to intercept the communities tied to the intervention, and support the artist with the help of other spaces in the neighborhood. These exchanges are never economic exchanges, but rather rooted in mutual aid. For example, one of our artists in residence is Soukaina, has a very nice project called “Reweaving new faces”, based on the idea of mending identity, starting from the mask. And since there is this physical dimension of sewing, we asked ConservaMI, a social tool shop that is based on the upcycling of being able to use tailoring and their space».

Q: What does it mean that Milano Mediterranea tries to redesign the geography of the neighborhood?

A: « Our name comes from the need to recognize the value and wealth that the city has acquired thanks to migration processes in recent years. The Mediterranean exists within the city thanks to the presence of different communities that inhabit and transform it and lead to a geographical-cultural clash. Milano Mediterranea is based on the idea of moving the meridians and parallels of the geography and cartography we are used to, and trying to redraw them by reversing the course. With these principles we have imagined the Festival, which sees the participation of an artistic community based in Italy and coming from the diasporas, put into dialogue with international artists, so we try to further converge these parallels and make them land in Giambellino. In our opinion it is important because we often think that cultural production is somehow an innocent field. But it is not, on the contrary, the field of cultural production tends to reproduce hegemonic narratives and to continue to perpetrate forms of discrimination.

As artists and curators, we believe it is important to take this political statement, bringing a different proposition. This year, in addition to the classic festival format, we have created another parallel line which will run during the days of June and which we have called the decolonial school. We asked some artists to work on radical pedagogies that start from their own practices. So let's try to reason with the terms of decoloniality through artistic practices to make them a space for collective formation and growth».

Q: How come art has such an important role in changing our perception of the city, of our history, and of our past?

A: «The arts have the great privilege of dealing with language and therefore with the production of narratives. I have noticed that in recent years the debate around coloniality has changed a lot. When we started creating Milano Mediterranea in 2019, the issue had not yet exploded at the Italian level. The arrival of this debate took place thanks to the presence of a generation of artists, curators, activists, who took up space. It is often thought that one of the issues is "giving a voice", but this is colonial paternalism, the voices are there, but they need space to be listened to. In Milan today there is a very young and aware generation, which is starting to move in various fields, from activism to cultural production. These days at BASE Milano, we have started a path designed together with us and with other entities such as the Moleskine Foundation, which is called I.D.E.A. With this path we want to question the accessibility of cultural institutions and identify all those elements of diversity washing that we see in this period in which this issue is very fashionable, and which is often addressed in a non-substantial way. I believe that building processes based on artistic paths has the first advantage of creating very special relationships, and the quality of the relationship that is triggered around an artistic process is rarely reproducible within the spaces of everyday life. And this experience, so precious and so special, has a great transformative capacity».

Q: How is the Milano Mediterranea project going? Did the local residents react positively?

A: «In these three years the neighborhood committee has always been very involved. Sometimes in a more or less fluid way, people who go, people who come, people who come back. Active participation in the decision-making process is certainly one of the strengths of the project and I see that somehow people become attached to it and we also wondered why. And again, I think, because somehow finding yourself talking about an artistic process, about how to evaluate it, is also an opportunity to talk about something else, to somehow bring to the surface some themes that would otherwise be very difficult to deal with. During Soukaina's residency, we did this experiment where we mixed the languages of communication. We decided to distribute leaflets, in Arabic and Italian, in a location within the weekly market, in the streets of the neighborhood and I must say that it was interesting, we intercepted a great deal of the community, predominantly female and Arab-speaking which then showed up at the laboratories and this is an audience that we have rarely managed to intercept, so we are slowly defining the strategies and we see that there is a response from the neighborhood».

D: Now let's move on to Houssem and Soukaina, the two artists selected by the Mediterranean Milan open call, would you like to introduce yourself?

H: «My name is Houssem Ben Rabia, I'm 32 years old and I'm Tunisian. I have been living in Italy for the past 12 years and I am a movie director but I also work in the social sector, as a cultural mediator and educator. I studied cinema at the Dams academy in Bologna, and then I specialized in cinema, television and multimedia production. This passion was born when I found myself participating in the Giffoni Film Festival and from there I decided to come to study cinema in Italy».

S: «My name is Soukaina Abrour, I'm 25 and I've been living in Italy for 22 years. Last year I finished the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice, and now I'm in Milan for work. At the moment I am here in residence from Milano Mediterranea. In my artistic career I started from more digital work: visual arts, post-production photography. Then I started to approach the performing arts, and now I space between different modalities».


Q: What are your projects at Milano Mediterranea?

H: «I participated in the open call of Milano Mediterranea, with a project that I entitled "the young gaze on Giambellino". The idea consists in the creation of an audiovisual product that will probably take the form of a documentary made with the girls and boys who live in the neighborhood. So they will be the ones to tell their daily life in the neighborhood through the cameras of their mobile phones, they will also be the ones to choose the subjects they deem most significant to bring out Giambellino's identity. I hope to finish the product by June 15, so as to present it at the Festival. Furthermore, I have never been to Giambellino before, and I would like this project for the young people to guide me towards the discovery of their neighborhood, and also become more aware of its artistic and cultural potential».

S: «My project is a laboratory that develops over several days and consists of an initial collection of fabrics and waste materials, to then reuse them to build masks, carrying forward a project that I started a few years ago and that I'm trying to bring to a more collective level. The idea is to use these masks during a moment of celebration. To bring this project forward I need to gain knowledge of the neighborhood, and the neighborhood needs to get to know me and my work. 

The theme of the masks comes from an investigation into the face as a vector of meaning. How to transform the face? What is facelessness? To then arrive at the dimension of the party and the possibility of a collectively accepted transformation. Now I'm experimenting a bit. I'm interested in the construction process and what collective manual sewing is, also as a dimension to recover a slower and more diluted time. It is an inclusive job because it does not require particular skills, it gives the possibility to explore materials, to be able to play with them».

Q: how does your project relate to the Mediterranean?

H: «As Anna said earlier, it is precisely the fabric of Giambellino's identity that is also made up of people who come from another shore of the Mediterranean, so it is important to tell this mixture».

S: «The work of the masks also derives from my imagination, developed around the ornament and the dress. My Moroccan party culture carries some details, some elements that tell its story. In fact, I suggest in the workshops to make an imaginative construction, starting from one's own cultural heritage.».

Q: What plans do you have for the future?

H: «Now that I have the possibility from a bureaucratic point of view to go back and forth from Italy to Tunisia. I would like to start operating in Tunisia with audiovisual projects around the theme of inclusion".

S: « I still don't have precise plans for the future. For now, I'm carrying on the two projects I started, also getting to know Giambellino as a neighborhood».

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