by Dilpreet BhullarAug 27, 2021
If it hadn’t been for the Senegalese-Italian artist, Binta Diaw’s mention of it, I would possibly not have either known of or visited San Marino, a 60-sq.km. country within Italy that’s home to 33,860 residents. Binta and I got to know each other through her ongoing residency at Lungomare, Bozen, and have become dear friends. Around June, she had updated me about her participation in the nomadic biennale taking place this year at San Marino, an ancient republic. The title of the Mediterranea 19 was School of Waters, which piqued my interest, giving my ongoing research on oceanic thinking and being. Instead of traveling alone, I found myself part of an entourage comprising the TBA 21 Ocean Space fellows and my co-mentor. We were all intrigued by the premise of an independent country within Italy whose borders we could easily transgress without any bureaucratic formality and also its proximity to the Adriatic coastline. One of the two senior curators, Alessandro Castiglioni, made time to speak with us over Zoom to share the approach he and his team adopted and the intricate history of such a nomadic biennale. Since he couldn’t be there in person to guide us, he had arranged for Rita Canarezza to be our navigator.
We took the train from Venice to Rimini, birthplace of Fellini, where we paused at the beach for a swim before taking the bus to San Marino, an exciting journey that moves your body inland from the coast, and soon enough along the path to Monte Titano, upon which the city-state stands. The 739-meter, three-peaked mountain greeted mariners sailing across the Adriatic in ancient times who found it colossal and majestic, hence the name. San Marino’s history dates back to the third century AD and is intimately entangled with the legend of a Dalmatian stonemason named Marinus, who, fleeing persecution of Christians under Diocletian, sought refuge at Monte Titano, eventually founding a community which grew into a Res publica with a democratically elected government. The view from atop San Marino is spectacular, offering panoramic glimpses of the coast and the surrounding hills studded with olive trees. Rita Canarezza was awaiting our arrival. Until we met her, we had little to no idea about the enormity of her aura. Besides being an artist herself, Rita, a San Marino native, along with Pier Paolo Coro, is the founder of Little Constellation, an international contemporary art network connecting small European states like Andorra, Cyprus, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, Montenegro and San Marino, as well as a few European geocultural micro-areas, including Canton Ticino, Ceuta, Gibraltar, Kaliningrad, the Aland islands, the Faroe islands, Guernsey, and Jersey. The institution evolved from a research project initiated by Rita and Pier Paolo Coro, in collaboration with the San Marino foundation and numerous other museum curators, foundations, and contemporary art centres.
Rita had the keys to the city. She had a stunning personality and an undeniable aura around her. She could weave a story out of thin air and her voice had always an undertone of passion and ingenuity. Even if she might have repeated the story to a thousand others, you always felt like you were the first person to whom she was telling whatever she was. She knew the city inside-out, which meant she could steer our encounter with it, enhancing the impact of each view. Instead of simply taking us to the ancient cistern to reveal the first artwork we would encounter, she asked if we’d like to see the parliament, an intimate room that seats the 60-member democratically elected council. Interestingly, though not surprisingly, though San Marino had, since at least the 13th century, some form of democratic representation, it was only in 1964 that women were allowed to vote. For a country that has the word Libertas imprinted in all its symbols, abortion and homosexuality are still criminalised, facts that Rita was careful to draw our attention to. After a quick tour of the parliament, we were finally led into the Pianello cisterns, water tanks constructed in 1476 to store rain water situated underneath the Piazza della Libertà. The underground room was cool and damp. We made our way into an inner room that housed the installation, Interlude, consisting of blown glass sculptures by Marco Giordano that seemed animated by a looped sound piece and the suggestion of smoke. The work cast a poetic glow over our experience of the biennale through its strategic use of material to reveal the elemental interconnectedness between water, air, and breath.
In fact, the biennale was punctuated by moments like this one where one had simply to pause in front of a work either because of its material presence and intensity or because of how meticulously researched it was. At the first tower was where I came face-to-face with Binta’s hair-extension based sculpture, Uati’s Wisdom, which refers to the West African deity and water goddess, Mami Wati. Binta has used hair before in her work as a medium to signify how it serves as form of language in African cultures, and to reclaim agency over Black bodies upon which so many forms of colonialist and racist violence was historically perpetuated. The title reinstates into consciousness the Egyptian word for ocean water, Uati, and celebrates African matriarchal traditions. In Transfer, another installation by her at Palace S.U.M.S, Diaw uses the technique of transferring to reproduce onto fabric figures of Black women and men found in La difesa della razza, a magazine published by Italian colonist and fascist propagandists between 1938 and 1943, a very direct attempt to lovingly reappropriate the black body from the oppressiveness of the white gaze. MA(D̶)RE NOSTRUM, a brilliant, powerful sculptural work byVictor Fotso Nyie, a Cameroonian artist based in Faenza, Italy, vitally extends the discourse on the Black Mediterranean, its title referring to the history of Italian fascism which spurred its colonialist interventions in Africa, as well as a reference to Mare Nostrum, the Roman name for the Mediterranean that translated to ‘our sea’. Victor Fotso Nyie inserts the bracketed ‘D’ to transform the sea into a mother, and his sculpture has all the electricity of a fertility goddess, suggesting, like Binta’s work, a movement away from patriarchal structures.
At night Rita walked us through a tunnel, a vestige from the erstwhile train line connecting Rimini with San Marino. During the height of fascism in the Second World War, when San Marino remained neutral, the tunnel became a refuge for many of the almost 100,000 people who had fled to the city-state in search of sanctuary. For years many of them lived their lives in this shelter. Rita, who had earlier showed us a documentary photograph of Maurizio Cattelan’s intervention inside the tunnel where he essentially signed his name with crosses appearing over the two is and the l, apparently a reference to Calvary, not the three peaks of Monte Titano, took us to the site within the tunnel that still bore trace of his performance work back in 1991.
The underground site was a reminder of the legitimacy that borders continue to hold in our everyday, a fact made abundantly clear in a 2002 performance work in San Marino, Closing the Border realised by Bosnian artist, Sejla Kameric, in 2002, one of the first projects around which the Little Constellation network was built. “On that occasion, as an artistic action, the border between San Marino and Italy was officially closed for 30 minutes. The barricades placed along the boundary line brought traffic to a half, and people had to choose which side to stand on. A gridlock was formed and groups of passers-by found themselves divided, talking across the two sides, writes Pier Paolo Coro in his essay, A Motto to Save Oneself; Welcome to the ancient land of liberty. “In itself, the action showed us that this border existed—it was real, and its closure had immediate effects—and reminded us that sudden events, like the tragic ones the artist experienced in the Serbo-Bosnian war—the dramatic shift from one situation to another—could arrive unexpectedly, and boundaries could rapidly change.”
The Republic of San Marino plays host to Mediterranea 19, the Biennale of Young European and Mediterranean Artists, till October 31, 2021.