Last year, Chinese artist-activist Ai Wei Wei debuted the profound documentary Human Flow, revealing the astounding scale and human impact of our current global refugee crisis which has uprooted over 65 million lives due to famine, war, and climate change. It’s the largest displacement since World War II and bears disturbingly similar political consequences. Italy in particular has seen its politics become increasingly plagued by xenophobia and nationalism to the point that many are recalling Mussolini fascism.
A recent election this past Spring resulted in a hung parliament, split between three factions—a center-right coalition led by Matteo Salvini, a center-left coalition by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and the largely populist and endlessly intriguing Five Star Movement, led by Luigi Di Maio. While the three parties maintain vast differences in policy, they do find common ground in attitudes of varying intolerance when it comes to refugees, from Di Maio calling rescue efforts in the Mediterranean a “sea taxi service that must end” to Salvini declaring that there ought to be a “mass cleansing” of migrants from “entire parts” of the country. In fact, under the new Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte, Salvini ordered the closure of Italian ports on June 10th, saying “everyone in Europe is doing their own business, now Italy is also raising its head. Let's stop the business of illegal immigration." The administration turned away a vessel operated jointly by the nonprofits Doctors Without Borders and SOS Méditerranée carrying 600 displaced African migrants despite having been ordered to rescue them. The vessel was eventually taken in by Spain.
According to a Slate article detailing the xenophobia of Italy’s left, a recent IPSOS poll found that on average, Italians “think 21 percent of the population is composed of migrants.” In reality, that percentage is only 8, which is, in fact, low by European standards, and while Italy has had over 700,000 migrants arrive on its shores, a majority of those people end up moving on to other, wealthier European countries for permanent settlement. Still, the influx of foreigners mixed with Italy’s struggling economy and a blight of fake news has given substantial rise to xenophobic sentiments throughout the peninsula, culminating in a February shooting of six African migrants in the central Italian town of Macerata by far-right extremist (and failed electoral candidate for the anti-migrant group, Northern League) Luca Traini, becoming the most extreme incident among over 142 reported incidents of attacks on migrants by neo-fascist groups since 2014, according to the anti fascist organisation Infoantifa Ecn. These incidents echo another alarming statistic, indicating that the far-right association Forza Nuova has seen a dramatic uptick in membership, from a mere 1,500 in 2001 to over 13,000 members today.
All this to say that this year’s Manifesta, the globe-trotting, nomadic European biennial, finds itself operating within a tense and dire context—which is exactly why it’s needed. Created in the early nineties as a response to the geo-political, economic, social, and cultural changes following the fall of communism, Manifesta was born for and out of socio-political strife and tenuous times. This year’s Manifesta 12 is no exception. The biennial is taking place until November of this year and is set in Italy's southernmost isle of Sicily in the capital city of Palermo, which has not only become a vital cultural center in recent years, but also an active force confronting the prevailing anti-migrant attitudes overtaking the rest of the country. Because of its geographic location—the metaphorical "big toe" on the Italian boot, situated between three continents —Sicily has always been a place for foreigners to call home. Even its flora are predominantly “non-native” species, as illustrated in a beautiful 1875 landscape painting by Francesco Lojacono titled View of Palermo, where a harmonious coexistence reigns among a diverse array of plant species, none of which are native to the island.
It is with this painting in mind that the organizers of this years Manifesta have drawn thematic inspiration, using the metaphor of the garden to ask artists from around the world how we might cultivate cohabitation in a “world moved by invisible networks, transnational private interests, algorithmic intelligence, environmental crisis, and ever increasing inequalities.” Thirty-five original, site-specific works have been created for Manifesta 12, creating what the organization calls a “Planetary Garden.” Participating artist, including Toyin Ojih Odutola, Laura Poitras, Trevor Paglen, and Tania Bruguera, all worked closely with local grassroots organizations, activists, and art producers to create work that spoke directly to the region's past, present, and future. In total, 50 artists are represented at 20 venus around Palermo, many of which have never before hosted exhibitions.
Organized into sections, the biennial’s planetary garden has three main components. The “Garden of Flows” explores the concept of toxicity, the life of plants, and the culture of gardening in relation to the resources of the planet and the global common good. One of the most captivating and memorable works included in this chapter is Chinese artist Zheng Bo’s video piece, Pteridophilia. The video is displayed on a flat-screen monitor inside the city’s botanical museum and is an exploration of the eco-queer movement with seven young people roaming around a Taiwanese fern forest, interacting… intimately with the frondy groundcover (one Artnet review describes the actions on view in the video as "frondilingus"). Meanwhile, the Brazilian artist Maria Theresa Alvez’s installation A Proposal of Syncretism (This Time Without Genocide) shows a panel of elements that are ostensibly emblematic of the Sicilian landscape—prickly pears, agave, tomatoes, potatoes—that are actually, in fact, originally all from South America, presenting an irrefutable argument that so many of our most iconic and treasured facets of "local" culture are attributed to migration and diversity.
The second section, bearing the somewhat anxiety inducing title, “Out of Control Room,” includes works that “give tangible substance to the invisible networks in the system of digital flows, aiming to make what is abstract accessible and open to debate, with particular reference to how the administration of power has evolved.” Intense! Good luck leaving this particular chapter of Manifesta without feeling the watchful eye of Big Brother looming over your shoulder. Both Cuban artist Tania Bruguera and American filmmaker Laura Poitras (director of the Oscar award winning documentary on Edward Snowden Citizen 4) set the focus of their works on the nearby U.S. military base and headquarters for strategic drone operations. The site has been protested by local activists for the past 30 years, and both Poitras’ Signal Flow and Bruguera’s Article II tell their stories in a series of collaborative films and an exhibition of documents, respectively. On the less paranoid end of the spectrum, Kurdish artist Erkan Özgen’s video, Purple Muslin, gives voice to the experiences of women refugees who fled the war zones of northern Iraq. Through a series of interviews, the video investigates how these women refugees manage to live with their trauma and memories of violence.
Lastly, Manifesta 12’s third section, titled “City on Stage” is "an effort to embrace Palermo’s stratified nature and to encourage a critical understanding of the diverse aspects of contemporary life in the city,” with specific emphasis on performance and video work. The Bologna-based collective Wu Ming, for example, will be leading a march on October 20th in conjunction with an installation titled Viva Menilicchi!, paying tribute to a demonstration cry from a 1986 protest against colonialism in Palermo. City on Stage will also be presenting Nigerian artist Jelili Akitu's Festival of the Earth (Alaraagbo XIII), which is described as a "processional performance incorporating the sacred rite of walking with carrying plants, earth, and sacred sculptures and the production of sound to explore issues of migration and immigration from an allegorical and metaphorical perspective." The procession draws from Palermo's Italian history, as well as its ties to West African and Yoruba culture, creating a celebration of the city's intermingling religious and cultural traditions.
Here in the United States, citizens were appalled by images and reports of South and Central American migrant children (many younger than four years old) in cages and removed from their families upon crossing the border under the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy. In spite of a political climate that remains inescapably divided, a miraculous bipartisan decision was made: Americans, with the exception of a truly unsavory few, agree that separating young, migrant children from their families is wrong and not a thing we should tolerate, let alone do, regardless of their legal status. While it is sort of reassuring to know that we are all at least on the same page about this, one can’t help but feel the nagging dismay of even having to have had this conversation in the first place (best exemplified by an emphatic “really?”). With all the toxic and dehumanizing rhetoric around immigration that's been going on, both at home and abroad, and over 65 million people supplanted from their homes, we require a deeper, more critical, and more nuanced understanding of migrants. At Manifesta 12, the conversation is being had—we just hope the world is listening.