As Easter approaches, my mind wandered back to last March when I went to the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma to hear the revival of a composition, written for a dear friend.
Twenty years ago, when immigrants from Africa first began arriving on Italy’s shores, the Oscar award-winning composer, Nicola Piovani (Life Is Beautiful, 1999) wrote the music for his rendition of the Stabat Mater, a 13th century Christian hymn to Mary’s grief, in collaboration with Vincenzo Cerami (lyrics). Derived from the first line, Stabat Mater dolorosa, which means “the sorrowful mother was standing,” numerous composers (Scarlatti, Rossini, Dvorak, Poulenc) have written their versions.
Composer and lyricist took an unusual view when they created La Pieta’ expressly for Amii Stewart, a soul and jazz singer who lives in Italy and is known widely for her rendition of Knock on Wood. Two 20th century mothers in mourning for their sons became the protagonists. Ms. Stewart played the role of a woman in the developing world who lost her child to famine, desolate in her inability to feed him. The other part, written for a lyric soprano, is portrayed as a wealthy woman more engaged with consumerism than with her son. The piece was compelling years ago and is still relevant today.
I attended the sold-out, single performance. What a thrill!
A few years ago, the end of 2016 to be exact, I went shopping with an Italian friend of mine, named Maria Teresa. She prefers to go only by Teresa because as she explained, “Every girl in Italy has Maria somewhere in her name, so I drop that part.” We did more gabbing than grabbing since neither of us was in the mood. That year had been a hard one for many reasons, not the least of which occurred for me on November 8th in the United States as well as all the skullduggery that preceded the ‘vote.’ On this side of the pond, Italians were more than fed up with the political shenanigans and also wishing to sweep out the incumbents.
In any event, Teresa needed to buy a birthday present. We wandered into Tech It Easy, a tech store with all sorts of gadgets and gizmos that make you think you really need them. This chain also has a lot of well-designed items, some of which are actually useful. We came across a set of paraphernalia for a lobster party for six: red-trimmed white bibs with embossed lobsters across the fronts; lobster shell crackers in the form of, you guessed it, lobster claws; long-handled, dual-ended seafood forks and scoops; and even sturdy, pint-sized wooden hammers just in case the crackers didn’t do the job.
My friend wisecracked, “Who would need these? Who fixes lobsters at home?”
“We did,” I immediately chimed in. “When I was a kid, my parents and their friends had lobster and champagne parties.”
“Really?” she said. “I’ve never heard of that here.”
“Black people couldn’t go into most restaurants and sit down and eat back then, especially the highfalutin’ places. But we could buy the lobsters out of the back door or from markets and prepare them at home. Everything was segregated in my hometown but they had so much fun at those parties. More fun than the white folks did sitting in those fancy seafood restaurants, I bet.”
My Italian friend’s face fell. “That’s so sad. That you couldn’t go out to eat.”
“Yeah, those were tough times but they made the best of them.”
Teresa still didn’t understand. She watched me smile and laugh as I reminisced about those times. I told her how one couple, ‘grown-ups’ I emphasized, loved to dance. They knew all the latest teenage dances and the highpoint of these evenings was when they strutted their stuff and did the “Madison,” (instructions below) the “Bop,” and the “Stroll,” with or without music in the background.
She finally gave me a half-smile but I could tell she would never really understand how black folks back then had real fun under such constraints, all the while marching and protesting and fighting for equal rights. For her, it was tainted and for me, too.
But I still remember how excited everyone would get anticipating steamed lobsters, a cup of piping hot melted butter for dunking, baked potatoes, crispy cole slaw, a brightly colored mixed salad, and endlessly popping champagne corks. And all in the comfort of our homes. They could get as loud and happy as they wanted to and they did!
It’s always controversial; it’s always over-the-top; it’s always messy; it’s always astounding; and it’s always tiring, challenging and frustrating, especially when you’re asking yourself. What is the point? Or Is this really art? For me, however, the Venice Biennale is never disappointing — until last year’s.
Overly stocked with video art, I found myself desperately in search of work that embodied any of the above adjectives. The films were too long or too short or boring or annoying or downright offensive (not that the word offensive isn’t oftentimes used in reaction to work at the biennales). A notable exception was the Canadian entry, One Day in the Life of Noah Plugattuk, a movie by Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk that described the true story of an attempt by the Canadian government to relocate his people during the 1950s.
The Ghanaians exhibited for the first time and their space, created by Sir David Adjaye (who also designed the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture), stood out. El-Anatsui’s work dominated with his hundreds of thousands of found objects woven into massive curtains (images below). Talk about sustainable art!
And I also thought The Netherlands did a great job of honoring modernism’s clean, slick lines while incorporating elements of the Maroon culture of its former colony (Suriname) and celebrating decorous feminists of color. Quite a feat! Check out Remy Jungerman (first and second images below) who designed the former work and Iris Kensmil (third, fourth and fifth images below), the latter, both of whom are of Surinamese descent. For the names of the women depicted, click here. The artist sent me to the history books to find about some of them.
The show stopper for me, however, was the sculpture of Martin Puryear, who happens to be a black American and who represented the United States in its pavilion. Each of the eight pieces engaged but I found two of them especially compelling: A Column for Sally Hemings, which drives a stake into a pristine Doric column (first photo below), evocative of the entry columns of the building’s Jeffersonian design, and Aso Oke. a lattice like bronze (yes, it’s amazingly made from bronze) interpretation of so-named Nigerian headwear (second photo below).
I’ve included some other images that startled, amused, and provoked thought. But, alas, they were few and far between.
To have gone to the 2019 Venice Biennale! Why? Because I got to see an exhibit by AfriCobra (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), the black artists’ collective formed in Chicago in 1968. When I taught at Howard University in the late 70’s, I worked with a number of the founding members who had created a black aesthetic to supplant demeaning stereotypes found in mainstream white culture. Their work was arresting, fresh, and technically superb, but to some extent, ignored — certainly by the mainstream art establishment. That certainly didn’t faze them and this group is still going strong and is considered to be the longest continually active artist collective/commune in the United States.
I almost jumped for joy when I saw AfriCobra listed on the official program. The Biennale has grown so large that many countries’ exhibits and collateral shows have to be housed outside the main grounds of I Giardini and L’Arsenale. But no matter. The prestigious Ca’ Faccannon displayed it and Christie’s Auction House described it as one of five “must-see exhibitions at the 2019 Venice Biennale.” How’s that for these extraordinary artists finally getting their due! Here’s a smattering of what was on display except for the last image which, I’m happy to say, is only on view in my home.
“What are you?” Yeah, that’s right. That’s the one question I never get asked when I am outside the United States but one that has followed me around for years when I’m at home. I guess I look like a biracial person to some people but 99% of black Americans seldom think that. They know what my roots are and easily identify me as one of our tribe.
White Americans, however, are often discombobulated by my appearance because I don’t fit into the box they have labeled ‘black’ or once upon a time, ‘Negro’ or ‘colored.’ I think it stirs some latent fear of the American bugaboo, miscegenation, so they would rather reduce me to an object. With that one question, I become a thing. It’s not “Where are you from?” or “What do you do for a living,” or “Where do you live?” or even “My name’s John. What’s yours?” I’ve gotten it on airplanes, at cocktail parties, and especially from seemingly well-educated, white people whom one would think would know better than to ask.
I’ve lived abroad a lot (this time in Italy since 2001for the past eighteen years) and have been mostly immune to ‘the’ question because when I visit the States now, I am in a cocoon of family and close friends. But that doesn’t mean that ‘the’ question isn’t still alive. At a meeting of fellow expat Americans in Rome not too long ago, I met a student who, to me, looked like a girl of Italian descent, although it turned out she was biracial. She told the gathering that she was actually stopped on in the middle of a 5th Avenue sidewalk by a woman who asked her, “What are you?”
Ok. Now let’s return to this side of the pond. Not only have I never been asked “What are you?” the most intriguing question I’ve gotten has to do with my children. I don’t have any but that doesn’t stop people who don’t know that from assuming that my Italian husband’s daughter from his first marriage is our offspring. And she has long, straight blond hair and see-through blue eyes! Or that Roberto Bolle (the world renowned Italian ballet dancer with whom I had a photo taken) is my son!!! I’m flattered because they are both comely but I’m also flabbergasted.
Once again, let’s compare that to what I have been told by white Americans about my two nieces. They both do look white because my brother married a Caucasian woman and they came out, well, read some Gregor Mendel for the particulars. (Europeans obviously are familiar with him.) In any event, when they were little girls and I would proudly show their photos, white people would invariably flinch and say (and I’m quoting verbatim here), “They can’t be your nieces. They’re white!” To them, this is beyond their limited comprehension of reality.
They might as well have said, “What are you? Crazy?”
As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. So, I’m saving the chatter and letting you experience my Sunday walk to Rome’s premier organic market for locavores. Known in Italy as un mercato bio – short for biologico – mine is located near the Circus Maximus with loads of local color along the way. Enjoy!