LINA is a project interweaving themes of migration and memory with an open awareness of the wild. The whole project, conceived between Rome and Catania and realised between London and Italy from 2016 to 2019, is designed as an installations pathway of the colour woodcuts series printed on washi paper, where meet visual and sound experiences, created together with musician Stefano Pagliarani. LINA was designed for site specific venues in Rome, Catania and Rimini.
(from the catalogue of the exhibition)
Late December, 2015: by pure chance I come across a box of audio tapes I had recorded at the end of the Nineties. Intrigued, I slip the first tape into the deck: here comes the old Italian classic, Il tango delle capinere – the voice is Lina’s.Lina: Irma Isolina Morri, born in 1915 at San Giovanni in Marignano, Rimini. Eighty years old, and singing: her voice like a caress. Lovely to hear, not only as she sings but also afterwards, as she tells the story of her life. Why does an eighty-year-old woman choose to open her narration by singing? Dire poverty, tragedies: aged eleven, following her father’s death, she is sent away as the servant of an aristocratic Sicilian family, the Dominedò-Majoranas. She will stay with them until she turns seventeen, following them to their residences in Rome, Catania, Randazzo, Monte Porzio and Milan. Fascinated by the stories she tells about this period of her life, I listen to the entire recording in one sitting. Hers is a spontaneous narration, with no unnecessary indulgence whether for herself or others, with no self-congratulation or self-pity: words give rise to a tactile reality, colours and sounds blossom through irony, while the warmth she is able to impart to the story overcomes the horrific fascination of the measureless distances she travelled. It is not merely a matter of the miles separating San Giovanni from Randazzo: this is the distance between the gentry and the poor, between adults and the child, between travelling by train, by car or by ship when one had only ever been accustomed to walking everywhere. It is the recollection of one who has known despair but also knows how to tell it like it is: to speak of the fathomless depths along whose edges life so often runs.I listened through all the tapes, and then it occurred to me that my friend, the director Luisa Pretolani, had been very intrigued when I told her the story of Lina’s life a good while earlier, and had filmed almost three hours of footage in the form of an interview, planning to turn it into a documentary – a project that, for various reasons, had not gone any further.– Luisa, any chance of the footage of Lina’s interview still being around after twenty years?A long silence. And then:– Yes. The tapes are here, in the same desk drawers where I’d put them back then.
That footage turned out to be precious.Stimulated by Lina’s storytelling charm, which was now enhanced by her expressive beauty, I felt the need to investigate the perception of that past.Her tales were first and foremost a map of her travels, and so, stubbornly, I set about retracing the stages of her first journey, travelling by train along the same route she had followed as an eleven-year-old girl: San Giovanni in Marignano, Rome, Naples, Catania, Randazzo. A journey I repeated three times, by different modalities, capturing images as I went. That was the starting point for the woodcuts I made, block after block, and gathered into the Xiloreportage Roma-Catania,which was the first transfer between the communicating vessels of hearing-seeing-cutting. Core elements of an iconographic reflection, I would tell myself later as I rewrote my ‘homework’ in fair copy. This was an important moment in my adventure, and so I decided to include its traces in the appendix to this catalogue.The work proceeded in an almost automatic fashion: I cut impressions and images into the wood through a network of details, as I gradually received their suggestions during the journey. I then looked at the entire series and selected seventeen woodcuts: all that was needed to form the core of a narration.
The first part of the catalogue
Xiloreportage Roma-Cataniais thus the record of a fascination – or, to put it bluntly, of the ‘trip’ resulting from my immersion into Lina’s tales and conveyed by the sharp contrast of blacks and whites.As the days went by, I sensed that what was needed was a much wider dialogue between Lina’s experience and mine: a sort of iconographic recital that could bring to the surface the full texture of the vision that Lina’s stories and the images of her narrating body had given me. I needed to make the shift from her life experience to my personal condition as a migrant – with the same simplicity. Her stories, my story: the informal, the quotidian, just one instant before it is rationalized and made unique – and hence either banal or inexpressible – by the brain. The distance between a sacred dimension in one’s sense of the world and solipsism. There can be no parallel between different lives, whether past or present: there is – or isn’t – a communion of feeling.
I work – teach, to be precise – in London, as a lecturer at Central Saint Martins University of the Arts. If I wanted to play on historical parallels, I could say that in the evening, after the day’s teaching is done, the large, deserted workshops resemble the great kitchens of aristocratic residences. So many work tools and objects scattered everywhere or neatly heaped up and put away – and for one who works there as a migrant, the same flavour of foreignness about them. It was there, at the end of 2016, that I began this creative phase inspired by Lina’s stories, experimenting with large polychrome works cut into rough wood and printed by a Japanese process (baren on washi) which allows for a more pictorial approach and is suited to recreating the sort of ‘impure monochrome’ characterizing the entire series.The prints were completed by summer 2018, between the London studio and the two ‘Opificio della Rosa’ Italian studios in Morciano di Romagna and Montefiore Conca.
I dedicate this work to Lina, whose mind, until the end, showed the same crystal clear, transparent quality as shone through her eyes.
Umberto Giovannini - Morciano di Romagna, 25 August 2018