Voices and Faces of a Post-Colonial Heritage, Cardiff

On 27 February 2016 the Italian Cultural Centre Wales (ICCW), in partnership with Transnationalizing Modern Languages and Watch Africa, held a one-day event in Cardiff on the history of Italian colonialism in the Horn of Africa and transnational mobilities from this region to/from Italy. The event, aptly called Voices and Faces of a Post-Colonial Heritage, was organised around the screening of the new Italian docufilm Asmarina (Alan Maglio e Medhin Paolos, 2015) with the support of AISCLI, l’Università degli Studi di Milano, il Centro di Studi Postcoloniali e di Genere at the University Orientale in Naples, Docucity and Dizioni Diasporiche. As Caterina Bertelli and Luca Paci from ICCW explained, this event is part of a larger project called ‘Mediterranean Re-mapped’ started during the Italian Film Festival, Cardiff with the screening of Io sto con la sposa (Del Grande, Augugliaro, Al Nassiry 2014) and born from the urge to show a different image of the Mediterranean from that available in the media today. The project also aims somehow to shrug the veil of collective blindness that permits a tacit acquiescence to the thousands who drown while crossing the Mediterranean. Understanding the reasons behind our callous blindness involves exploring both our identity as Italians, a product of many different cultures mostly originating from across the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, and our personal and national (hi)stories and heritage in an effort to redress the ongoing silence and cultural amnesia revolving around Italian colonial history.

Secrets, surprises, bewilderment around and (un)awareness of the history and heritage of the Italian colonial past were the basis of the conversation between Serena Guarracino and Luisa Pèrcopo. They presented a brief history of Italian (post)colonialism corroborated by examples of colonial imagery and its relationship with everyday life in Italy today. Shown to a predominantly non-Italian audience, the images marked the extent to which Italian cultural history is deeply embedded with a colonial past that the average Italian is mostly unaware of. Examples drawn from everyday life such as street names – via dell’Amba Aradam in Rome – sweets and shapes of pasta (Negrettini, Facette Nere e Tripoline) in which the concept of race is used with a disrespectful levity, are all important signifiers of the  mostly erased and ambivalent relationship Italy has with its colonial past.

The screening of the excellent documentary Asmarina was followed by a stimulating Q&A with the directors, chaired by Nicoletta Vallorani, who is part of the DocuCity project, a miscellaneous archive of more than 340 documentaries on ‘cities’, and  has been instrumental in the circulation and promotion of Asmarina itself. Maglio & Paolos’s documentary shed some light on issues of visibility, memory, amnesia and citizenship in Italy by showing the story and by interviewing in a compelling and dynamic way different members of the Italian-Eritrean community, mostly living in Milan. A spontaneous, confrontational and somehow unexpected (as the directors confessed) flow of comments from a second-generation Milanese woman of Eritrean heritage in the documentary provided an important change of rhythm in the narrative and exposed raw nerves when it comes to their relationship with both institutional Italy and the many ‘Italians’ who don’t see them as rightful citizens of il Bel Paese. Nicoletta Vallorani underlined again how a work like Asmarina is fundamental in bringing these stories to the surface, and in starting a discussion about these issues, especially at the present moment when Eritreans are still coming to Europe in great numbers and are mostly young people and unaccompanied minors.

A colourful and fragrant Eritrean coffee ceremony provided a needed break and a powerful though joyous way to exchange ideas and embrace diversity through an instance of transnational culinary heritage.

The conversation between Loredana Polezzi from the Transnationalizing Modern Languages project/Cardiff University and Italian-Somalian writer Shirin Ramzanali Fazel -author of Lontano da Mogadiscio (Roma 1994) one of the very first voices in Italy that reminded the public about migration to Italy and the history behind that migration-  marked the beginning of the second part of the event. The conversation focused on dialogue between languages, the plight of mixed race children in the Italian colonies, the power of different memories, instances of individuality behind the different histories of mobilities born out of personal transcultural itineraries. What emerged from the conversation, and by and large from the whole event, is the importance of reviving the memory of the connections between Italy and its ex-colonies in order to begin to understand the richness that migrants and their experiences of mobility can represent for Italy and Italians.

Nicoletta Vallorani brought the day-event to a close with the screening of L’Orchestra in Via Padova by Giuseppe Baresi (2012) part of the immense archival resources that Docucity collects, manages and disseminates. At the heart of this project, which is physically located within the Department for Linguistic Mediation and Intercultural Communication at the Università di Milano, lies the idea of gathering as many documentary representations as possible of the city intended as a polis, a community, an interconnected centre that today is inevitably transnational and multilingual in its interaction. In this respect Baresi’s documentary on the transnational orchestra in Via Padova is a poignant example of the formation of a new kind of discourse born out of the fusion and intermingling of the different musical traditions, and is a tangible example of the importance of connecting academic projects with real life and everyday experiences of the local communities, in a communal effort to build a stronger grassroots network.

The event provided an extremely stimulating setting attended by more than fifty people who enjoyed a taste of Eritrean food, music and dance at the end of the evening. Paolo Viel recorded the whole event which will be available soon on the Italian Cultural Centre Wales website.


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