Art and anarchists at Asinitas and Italy’s National Museum of Emigration

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Asinitas premises in Garbatella

We stand in two lines facing each other in a hall in Garbatella, a garden suburb built for the working classes during the Fascist era. The hall is used by Asinitas, a charity working with migrants, that follows the enlightened methods of such educationalists as Montessori and Cemea.

“Buongiorno,” we sing, orchestrated by Carolina. “Buongiorno, buongiorno, buongiorno.”

We sing it adagio, allegro, fortissimo, giojoso, vigoroso. I never knew a simple greeting could convey such feeling. Then Carolina instructs us to move forwards, backwards, raise an arm, bend our knees. Only she does it in different languages – Farsi, Italian, Yoruba, Somali and Arabic. We stumble around looking at each other for inspiration. Someone in this group must understand her but, on one occasion, no one does – her accent misses the mark and we all laugh and fall about. Even Carolina.

“We deal with the whole person, physically and emotionally,” Carolina told me before school began. “They arrive broken in two. Sometimes having walked across the mountains from Afghanistan or having sailed from Libya in a sinking boat.”

It’s difficult to believe. People look happy. The atmosphere is upbeat and positive. Then the Italian classes begin. There are classes for those who are not literate in their own language as well as an advanced class. I stay in the beginners/intermediate, the largest class, for about 40 people. No one is turned away from Asinitas who regularly take 100 people three mornings a week. Migrants travel from reception centres 40 or 50 kilometres away where they may be given 2 Euros a day, overcooked pasta and an open packet of cigarette.

“We believe people only learn a language when they want or need to communicate,” says Carolina. The lesson focuses on rules of what you can and can’t do in certain places. It is a forerunner to the migrants devising their own rules for a perfect city that they will build through artwork. The project is inspired by the book, Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. In the book Marco Polo shares his views of world cities with Kubla Khan even thought they do not speak the same language.

Over an Afghani lunch of meat and rice, I admire some of the artwork done by Asinitas students.

“We choose open, universal themes that involve everyone – students, teachers and volunteers can choose what they contribute.”

I hold some of the artwork against the window where the theme was FEAR and COURAGE.

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Art work by Asinitas students on the theme of FEAR and COURAGE
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Art work by Asinitas students on the theme of FEAR and COURAGE
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Art work by Asinitas students on the theme of FEAR and COURAGE

Light streams through a simple boat, crossing the sea, empty of people; a snake threatens a man in Africa; a woman sails, swims or drowns in Bangladesh.

“These Bangladeshi girls are really talented,” says Carolina.

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Art work by Asinitas students on the theme of FEAR and COURAGE
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Art work by Asinitas students on the theme of FEAR and COURAGE

Then Carolina talks about the project DOORS that culminated in an exhibition in a covered market. A Somali migrant remembered a door that was closed for 3 days during the war. His mother only opened it at night so she could see if their uncle opposite was still alive and had food. Another migrant remembered the door of the prison in Libya where he saw a fellow migrant go mad and hang himself. For another migrant the sea was the door that led him to Italy. Such universal themes allow participants – teachers, volunteers and students, to choose what life experiences they share with others. A girl who was tortured in the Congo would put up a sign  saying, ‘Out of Service’ when she felt unable to participate. This was always respected.

“It is always the group that supports people,” says Carolina.

I catch sight of clay sculptures perched on top of a cupboard.

“Migrants and students made a sculpture of each other’s head helped by a sculptor from Verona. It really required people to engage with each other.” She laughs. “Fortunately it was one of the workers who paired up with a woman migrant who was dressed in a burka.”

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Art work by Asinitas students on the theme of FEAR and COURAGE

I ask about the Archivio delle Memorie Migranti, an organization that collects and archives migrants’ stories. It and Asinitas were the main drivers behind a successful film Like a Man on Earth that has won several prizes at film festivals. The film, based on the story of 15 young Ethiopian boys and girls from Addis Ababa and their experience in centres in Libya, called into question the Italian government’s support of such centres. Dagmawi Yimer, now a film director based in Italy, was one of the boys involved. Archivio delle Memorie Migranti now operates separately from Asinitas although they still collaborate with each other.

I leave people practicing for a theatre performance and building their perfect city – a hospital, a park from recycled material. I ask for directions to the Museo Nazionale Emigrazione Italiana but no one has heard of it but they look it up for me. I leave humming, “buongiorno, buongiorno.”

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Forum of Augustus

I get off at Colosseo. At last a chance to savour some of Rome’s historic quarter – the Flavian Amphitheatre and the Forum of Augustus. I approach the Complesso Vittoriano built in honour of Victor Emmanuele, the first king of a unified Italy. Who would have thought that the Museo Nazionale Emigrazione Italiana would be in the basement of this prestigious building. Although not everyone considers it prestigious. This white marble edifice is also known as the typwewriter, the wedding cake or even the national urinal.

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Complesso Vittoriano
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Entry to Museo Nazionale Emigrazione Italiana

Inside the Museo long screeds of text reach from the ceiling to the floor. But at least there is a good English translation. If only there was a booklet I could read sitting down, in the sun in nearby Piazza Venezia. Some of the material is by now familiar and of course there is the inevitable suitcase.

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Inside the Museo Emigrazione Nationale Italiana

But a display of tinted postcards catches my eye. Giant gherkins, bloated blackberries and whopping walnuts.

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Bountiful harvests in the New World

Pumpkins that could transport a bevy of Cinderellas at the wave of that magic wand. An oversized apple that stretches the length of a transporter and a fish that is twice the size of the man reeling it in. Such is the abundance that the migrant can expect if he sells his land, pays the unscrupulous agent, leaves his family and sails off to the New World.

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More bountiful harvests in the New World

The section on the Italian anarchists also intrigues me. They seemed adept at killing off European rulers – the French president in 1894, the head of the Spanish government in 1897, the wife of Austrian emperor in 1898. Other attempts on the lives of the Italian king, the Belgian king and Roosevelt, the newly elected President of US, were less successful. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were victims of the US’s nervousness of Italian anarchists, communists and socialists, fearing they would start a Bolsehevik revolution on their shores. In the 1920s 9000 were arrested and 500 were deported. Despite ten million signatures and even the intervention of Mussolini, Sacco and Vanzetti were charged for a brutal hold up and executed in 1927. They were not pardoned until 1977.

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Saccco and Vanzetti poster

They were not the only Italians caught up, unwittingly, in the politics of the first half of the 20th century. 446 Italians, along with Germans, interned in Britain and accused of being spies, were drowned on the Arandora Star torpedoed by a German submarine in 1940. The boat was on its way to Canada where the internees would serve prison sentences. Many of these Italians were Jewish, anti-Fascist and had sons serving in the British army.

I am thrown snippets of information on child migration. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries tens of thousands of children were sold for 100 lire to traffickers who sold them on to American mines, Swiss construction sites and French glass companies. Minors found their way to the US but, on arrival at Ellis Island, they had to have someone to vouch for them or were sent back. St Raphael Society, founded in 1892, stepped in to help children find Italian families who would adopt or foster them. At the end of the 19th century 80,000 Italian minors were on US streets, often involved in crime or prostitution.

Italian migrants, as recently as the mid 1970s, were not allowed to take their children with them to Switzerland but it is estimated that at least 30,000 hidden children were told, “not to laugh, cry, or make any noise.”

As a long time lover of the food of Carluccio, Ottolenghi and my local Sicilian restaurant; of Italian delicatessens and the ice cream parlour at Swiss Cottage I was surprised to read that, ‘Emigration to Britain never really took off.’ It is all comparative, it seems. What is interesting is that Britain is now the favourite destination for Italian graduates, the most significant category of Italian emigration today.

There is little that is upbeat here about this painful story of migration. Ships are ‘death vessels’. Migrants are, ‘human tonnage,’ and struggle far from ends on arrival in the promised land. One section devoted to immigration briefly echoes what is in the booklet produced by Paolo Cresci Museum in Lucca. The only light relief is the tinted postcards of gargantuan gherkins, whopping walnuts and bloated blackberries. At least they made me smile.

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