The Sicily that you are thinking of in your mind still exists. It’s rare that a place conforms to the movie version of itself, but certainly Palermo does. A real jolt from the austere chic-ness of Milan, it took me a day to understand that I was no longer in (relatively) rich Lombardy and instead in a place where worlds have collided for centuries.
I devoted an entire day to the churches. Baroque chapels and oratorios dot almost every street. The center of town has only its large stone pavers which make the word cobblestones seem puny. It’s the air that feels so different. It’s warm (though unusual rain during my stay) but like Hawaii, a caressing breeze.
And then the buildings. Each looking as if it had been onstage at the Met or in the Godfather. What character and color. The balconies filled with laundry or the odd pot, The imposing Teatro Massimo, even when filled with the contemporary beau monde of Palermo has a vaguely 19th century air.
The men are still sitting outside day and night in large groups discussing, arguing. I don’t want to romanticize this. The unemployment and poverty is at its most extreme in Sicily. And reading about the boat of 650 that is floating around with immigrants rejected not only by Italy but by France and Spain at this writing is incomprehensible when you are in the midst of a place that has done nothing but absorb refugees for centuries.
The African population appears large and seems somewhat integrated. Senegalese I spoke to had been here for 5 years, they are now considered an earlier wave. Their long tall bodies stand out with a grace that belies their challenges.
Manifesta 12, this year’s iteration of the nomadic Biennial has chosen this special place for a reason. Instead of imposing large-scale art projects on the city, it has worked hand in glove with the Mayor and his team to actually help the city understand its rich architectural heritage ad its divergent ethnic and social histories by reclaiming spaces long abandoned or in disrepair. Their theme of the Planetary Garden is aiming to contribute to the conversation about walls, immigration, environmental decay and is a living embodiment of what I saw proposed at the Architecture Biennale. Only as one participant said, without the Eurocentric feel.
In leading a small group around the city to explain this initiative, Ippolito Pestellini, an OMA partner was so passionate and engaged I felt it might be hard for him to go back to making beautiful contemporary buildings like the Prada Foundation. He showed how important it is for architects to get their hands dirty. Pestellini stressed over and over again that Manifesta wanted to make a difference in the daily lives of Palermians. The security team is almost entirely African. They have tried to give as many jobs to locals as possible. The many building sites are once spectacular pallazzi or Botanical Garden oases and the art projects are almost uniformly about refugees, abandoned boats, former murder sites. The world is too much with us, certainly but there are no pretty pictures and billionaires to offset the harsh realities.
Still they have made and encouraged extreme beauty. In the Gardens, trees and herbs are in chrysalis with large nets to retain water, plastic flowers contrast with our fragile ecosystems, even interspecies sexuality is on display in a video hidden amongst the bamboo which turns you into a voyeur. Relocation, slavery, failed infrastructure, borders, sounds of failing industries, abandoned toxic gas tanks, violence in its many forms (to the body, the land,) Echoes everywhere of trucks that held migrants, a mound of salt to represent an old slave myth that said avoidance would make you lighter than air so you could fly back to Africa.
With two artists, Alon Schwabe and Daniel Fernandez Pascual aka Cooking Sections who have made three different interventions called What is Above is What is below, 2018 I had the chance to visit one of the more remote installations they created to understand ancient but clever methods of water retention in Sicily—which reminded me a great deal of our challenges in California. These two have gone further still and incorporated the food we eat into their artistic ecosystem
The Teatro Garibaldi an abandoned theater showed you need very little to dramatize when real life is so dramatic.
An African opera Bintou Were in the Teatro Massimo was as much a display of worlds colliding juxtaposition as one could imagine. A smuggler abandons his load of immigrants, a mother risks everything to have her infant born over the border.
I am an art fair skeptic but Manifesta is the antithesis of that. This is not about commerce. And as it came on the heels of pre Basel (which I've never attended), it felt like the real world. Granted some of the videos are repetitive and the themes are not new. But what is new is the idea that the Manifesta could be a tool for Palermo, a booster, certainly for tourism, but much more importantly for the city’s infrastructure, and its belief in itself.
What will happen with Italy itself in the coming months and its relationship to the EU is an open question. As in all our countries, the list to the right is in a boat that may capsize us. A group I met wants to take one of these migration boats and bring it up to Brussels and plant it in front of the EU Headquarters. Would bringing evidence matter? I don’t know. In the US you don’t need to visit the border to know that people are seeking refuge within our own borders and Washington is the last place to deposit evidence.
How to welcome while giving hope also to the underemployed natives is one of the most urgent questions of our time. How to deliver food and water? How to live together. Manifesta does not answer these questions but in a very different way from the Venice Biennale, it attempts to solve some. Manifesta is on the ground.