Ellie Crabtree is Pilkington Rome Awardee (funded by the Roger and Ingrid Pilkington Charitable Trust, October-December 2018) and here she tells us about her research into multidirectional memory and contemporary street art in Rome.
I arrived at the BSR to find out more about how street art in Rome is changing the way in which people engage with the city and its histories. My first month was dedicated to visiting the many street art projects that have developed in the city’s peripheral quartieri in recent years. It was during these journeys that the Pinacci nostri project caught my attention. As an extraordinary example of the agency of cultural practices to motivate new, more active ways of using city space, the project enacts the potential that Doris Sommer ascribes to art in The Work of Art in the World (2014) as neither useful nor useless, but provocative.
Pinacci nostri describes itself as a street art ‘movement’ which since 2015 has realized around 70 murals in Pineta Sacchetti, a neighbourhood to the north west of Rome. The movement originates with the migration of Lello Melchionda. Having moved to the area as an adult from Avellino, when his son was born he realized that he knew nothing about the history of the area to pass on to his first-generation ‘piccolo romano’. His curiosity led him to carry out a personal oral history project with the area’s older generation inhabitants whom he got in contact with through local Facebook groups. Around this time Lello also got to know the Muracci nostri street art project in neighbouring Primavalle which gave him the idea of initiating a street art movement that would use muralism as a means of publicly recounting the private and collective memories he had gathered.
During my interview with Lello, he emphasized to me that for Pinacci nostri street art has always been seen as an instrument, as a ‘motivator’ rather than a ‘container’. This reminds me not only of Doris Sommer’s urge for us to view culture in terms of its provocative potential, but also of the conviction of writers in memory studies about the potential of memorywork to provoke new ways of being in the present as much as in the future.
La street art è stata lo strumento per mettere insieme le persone, portarle in strada.
From this perspective, Pinacci nostri’s twin objectives to use street art to motivate social links in the area and to publicly commemorate past events doesn’t seem coincidental. In fact several murals recall past examples of resistance ‘dal basso’ successfully carried out by locals in Pineta Sacchetti, including those that commemorate the campaign ongoing since the 1970s to protect the local park Pineto from development. At the same time as recalling these past campaigns, the murals in the park are themselves instrumentalised as agentic objects that draw attention to the park as a cultural space, further promoting its protection against the continued threat of development. Enacting what Sommer describes as the ‘acupuncture’ effect of cultural acts which catalyse further acts, Lello also told me how the attention on the park generated by the murals led to it being used for new activities, including by an outdoor theatre group FuoriContesto and by the new ‘popular’ football team, Pineto United, whose players comprise locals from Pineta Sacchetti and asylum seekers from the local centro d’accoglienza.
Elsewhere in the neighbourhood, the very act of realizing the murals—which the project’s artistic director Carlo Gori describes as a ‘process’—became a powerful tool for bringing together neighbours who had never previously spoken to one another but who share common interests in redeveloping cultural and social life in the area. In addition to a new organisation of volunteers that take care of the piazza, Pinacci nostri also fostered the establishment of Urban Arts Project which provides a space to put on cultural events.
Pinacci nostri is not the only example in Rome of the tangible provocative effect of public art. On the other side of the city, the Museo dell’altro e dell’atrove (Maam) is a contemporary art museum housed in an abandoned factory that protects the homes of the people (most of whom are recent migrants to Rome or are part of the Roma community) who illegally occupy the building. Earlier this month I organised for a group of artists and scholars from the BSR to have a guided visit of the museum. One of the first murals we were shown, which is by Stefania Fabrizi, depicts an army of incorporeal figures who are only seen because of their highlighted outlines. The tour guide Gianluca Fiorentini explained to us that these figures each represent the way in which the Maam considers each artwork: as a warrior that peacefully protects the homes of those who live in the museum.
As someone whose gaze is normally only turned towards contemporary culture, being at the BSR has given me a deeper awareness that the provocative potential of cultural practices, and particularly of public art, is far from a new phenomenon in Rome. From the perspective of my thesis, which explores current cultural practices that destabilise conventional ideas about Rome, I can’t help thinking that the emergence of projects like Maam and Pinacci nostri in the city is not entirely coincidental. Together they hint at the ongoing potential of Rome’s extraordinary historical palimpsest as a place in which to continue to explore and to incite the provocative potential of cultural practices in the present.
Grazie mille to Lello Melchionda for kindly offering me his time for an interview, as well as to Gianluca Fiorentini for his English-language tour of the Maam for the visitors from the BSR.
For more information about Pinacci nostri and Maam:
Ellie Crabtree (Pilkington Rome Awardee (funded by the Roger and Ingrid Pilkington Charitable Trust))