Hämatli & Patriæ
In 2017 I was invited to curate a group-show at Museion, the modern and contemporary art museum of Bolzano-Bozen (I). The result became Hämatli & Patriæ which interpreted the Germanic concept of Hämatli, the sense of belonging to a place, and the Latin concept of patria, homeland, in the light of current events in Europe. The show tackled the theme using the symbolism in the Flemish painting of 1570 by Simon de Myle entitled Noah’s Ark on Mount Ararat, which depicts the landing rather than the departure of the ark, as is usually represented in artworks. Taking its cue from this curious scene, the exhibition was conceived as a large-scale mise-en-scene of the painting itself, interpreted in a contemporary key.
Issues such as migration, nationalism, populism and identity were represented in the form of dialogues inspired by the human figures, animals, objects and situations in the painting. The exhibition presented more than thirty works, including videos, sculptures, installations, photographs, drawings, artists’ books and documents by Yuri Ancarani, Apparatus 22, Filippo Berta, Mohamed Bourouissa, Donna Conlon, Simon De Myle, Nicolò Degiorgis, Hannes Egger, Aslan Gaisumov, Henrik Håkansson, Petrit Halilaj, Laëtitia Badaut Haussmann, Paolo Icaro, Armin Linke, Marcello Maloberti, Philipp Messner, Giuseppe Penone, Walid Raad, Ernesto Schick, Giovanna Silva, Superflex, Eugenio Tibaldi, Luca Trevisani, Luca Turi, Danh Vo et al.
The show can be seen both as a body of research exploring the relationship between the individual and the surrounding environment and an installation in which artists, works and practices are placed in dialogue with each other.
The exhibition was ideated over a period of two years, influenced by the stream of recent events that have triggered significant political change, most of which can be traced back to issues related to migration and identity.
The most popular argument for the importance of the closing borders to outsiders is that this exclusion is necessary in order to preserve a state’s distinctive culture. The appeal of the cultural continuity is easy to appreciate in a rapidly changing world, but it is also unrealistic and ahistorical.
Growing up myself between two border regions, South Tyrol in Italy and Ticino in Switzerland, my identity cannot easily be ascribed to one particular place. I am naturally inclined to reflect upon my cacophonous identity and to redefine it on the basis of the community I am currently in.
Translating my personal experience into a curatorial approach, the works were juxtaposed and defined by their reciprocal determination to one another, forming not a contradictory relation but a structural, complementary one. This became the fundamental characteristic on which to structure the main concept of the exhibition, starting from the dialogue Hämatli & Patriæ, where two distinct relationships between individual and surrounding environment were put in dialogue with each other.
Hämatli is a Germanic word used until the mid-18th century in juridical and geographical contexts to define the provenance of a person. Industrialisation and the resulting migratory movements from rural to urban areas led the term to acquire a more abstract meaning over time, connoting not only a geographical place, but also the cultural, social and historical setting an individual was born into. The word changed from a neutral ‘das Hämatli’ into a feminine, ‘die Heimat’, both untranslatable into other languages, but often associated with homeland.
During the Nazi era, conservative connotations such as the rejection of anything foreign soon added to the positive and romantic feelings connected to the word. It consequently fell into disgrace and has only recently experienced a new boost in cultural and artistic adoption.
Patria is a Latin word with strong ethnic and nationalistic connotations, translatable as ‘fatherland’. The word is put in plural, Patriæ, in contrast to the singular Hämatli, in order to further extend the dialectical approach, as well as to include a graphemic one: Ä & Æ.
In the Nordic countries, the vowel sound ‘ä’ [‘æ’] was originally written ‘Æ’ when Christianity forced the former Vikings to start using the Latin alphabet around AD 1100. The letter ‘Ä’ arose from originally writing an ‘E’ as in ‘Æ’ on top of the ‘A’, which over time became simplified as two dots.
The dialogic structure was made up of further dialogues, starting with Habitus & Habitat, which depicts the arrival of the Vlora ship in the harbour of Bari 1991, in the south of Italy. The vessel was carrying 30,000 refugees fleeing from war, mostly from Albania and Romania, and can be seen as the first arrival of migrants en masse on European coasts in recent years. The remarkable photograph portrays people who left their homes in order to seek a safer place in which to settle down.
Conflicts, scarce resources and climate change have been the main reason for migratory movements ever since, while the myth of Noah’s ark is the oldest to recount such a narrative. Found across a variety of cultures, the tale tells the story of a world-engulfing flood from which Noah, his sons, their wives, together with a male and female of all living creatures, would be saved from flood waters by setting sail on board a vessel.
By drawing parallels between Noah’s ark and the emblematic story of the Vlora, I decided to give the myth a pivotal narrative role. During my research I came across a Flemish painting from 1570, ‘The Ark of Noah on Mount Ararat’ by Simon de Myle. The painting depicts the landing of the ark, rather than the usual scene of its departure, with a chaotic and grotesque scene unfolding in front of the stranded ship: women and men and a variety of animals, real and fictional, are engaged in various activities, ranging from fights to peaceful grazing.
A series of these scenes were symbolically chosen and staged through contemporary artworks, thus transforming the exhibition space into an installation of the painting, allowing visitors to physically step into and become part of it. Videos, books, sculptures, drawings and photographs were carefully distributed around the space so as to mark the equivalent location in the painting, distributed as a handout to be used by visitors as a map with which to orient themselves within the exhibition.
The apparently chaotic layout of the works is further explained in a second room, where a camera obscura, the forerunner of the modern camera, projected a cinema-sized image of the whole exhibition space conveyed through a convex lens onto the opposite wall. The resemblance to the original painting from a precise perspective was finally revealed, while being enriched with the presence of visitors, as if to underline their active and participatory role.
By extending the nature of a group exhibition to that of an all-embracing installation, Hämatli & Patriæ became a dialogue itself in which a heterogeneous selection of works kaleidoscopically disclosed a personal vision. It represented an attempt through works of art to outline issues relating to migration and identity that have arisen within me over time.