I have been visiting the town of Aquino, Italy, every year for almost 20 years. I have noticed that the population of Aquino has changed markedly over the last six or seven years. Many people of African and/or Asian ancestry have immigrated to Aquino. Previously the town was inhabited almost exclusively by people whose ancestors had lived in Aquino or within 100 miles of Aquino for centuries.
Italy has a long history of receiving migrants from Africa and parts of eastern Europe such as Albania and Ukraine. Italy's geographic location makes it one of the first countries migrants reach when traveling from Africa. Italy, like the United States, has not always welcomed migrants and it has a history of racism. For example, in Italy the northern Italians are known to look down upon Italians in the south and then everyone looks down on those from Africa. The tendency to think less of neighbors to the south is also prevalent in Western Europe as well, with all of Italy being looked down upon by its own neighbors to the north.
Italy is also known for its emigration with millions of Italians moving to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It might seem strange to residents of the U.S. now, but for decades Italians in the United States were denigrated and put down by other ethnic groups. Those in the U.S. who identified themselves with northern Europe often were the ones looking down up the Italians in the United States.
Immigration in the United States, especially from Central America, has been repeatedly, perhaps increasingly, in the news over the past three or four years. This may be due in large part to the Trump administration policies, his individual rhetoric, its policy of family separation, and its use of detention facilities.
My current visit to Aquino, has been by far my longest. I have been here since June 2019 and have begun getting to know some of the immigrants living in Aquino. I am also an outsider of sorts, as I am not of Italian heritage and my family has not been living in the area around Aquino for centuries. My current project grew out of seeing and interacting with immigrants in Aquino (and elsewhere in Italy) and also out of still being incredibly upset by the immigration policies in my home country.
As a professor of art in the United States, I am knowledgeable in art history and am aware that throughout Western History, the vast majority of people represented in portraits are the wealthy and powerful: the kings, the queens, and the gods. Portraits of Napoleon by J. L. David or Pope Innocent X by Velázquez are two such examples. Seldom represented are those towards the bottom of the socio-economic or power matrixes. Although some artists, like Caravaggio for example, made use of figure models who were not nobles and often of lower socio-economic status, they were almost exclusively used as models for a saint or other important figure, not as subjects in themselves with unique identities and names. At most some were an archetype of lower economic groups, but rarely rendered as a portrait of a particular individual. Power systems have always been of interest to me and making images of those who are not at the top of the social structure is a way for me to try to encourage change for and interest in those our societies devalue.
In the United States, immigrants are often invisible. They are not seen, they are often ignored by the general population. As a scholar and as one who is continually trying to improve myself, I am invested in making paintings and I try to stay aware of my work's connection to the history of painting. I also have an interest in learning more about the people who are immigrating to Italy. Portrait painting requires the artist to look at the sitter closely and intently sometimes for hours, working toward seeing them, rendering a likeness, and depicting their humanity. Through the act of painting the artist must see the individual. I aim to see and acknowledge my subjects as individuals.
As I noted above, one of the most famous groups of immigrants to come to the USA over the past 130 years is Italians. The history of Italy and the United States are tied through immigration and emigration. Large number of Italians have moved permanently to the United States seeking better economic options. I find that there is a logic engaging in this project in Italy and exhibiting the paintings in Italy and in the United States.
In November 2019 I was able to paint a few of my new immigrant acquaintances in Aquino. But I was not able to find as many people as I had hoped who were willing to be painted. For many, perhaps the idea of trusting a white guy they did know well was not worth trying.
Early in 2020, with some help, I was able to arrange a residency with a local organization in Ferrara, Italy. The organization provides assistance, housing, and education to immigrants. Most of these portraits are from Ferrera. I met with local immigrants at their education and housing centers in Ferrara and Copparo and created these portraits.
For each portrait, I was able to spend about an hour with the person I was painting. I paid each individual for their time, 20 euros for one hour. For the first ten minutes I spoke with each individual. We talked about my project and I tried to learn a little about them such as their interests, where they immigrated from. I was open and welcomed really anything that they wanted to tell me or talk about.
It was important to me that I pay each individual well for their time. After talking with several immigrants I learned something unsurprising: many had been taken advantage of by others due to their lack of power in their current situation. I wanted to communicate their value not just in words or in the fact that I would create a portrait of them, but to also acknowledge them for their time, for their labor. It was important to communicate that I value them and their time. The 20 euro amount was higher than any hourly wage they had received before, but this amount seemed appropriate. It was not an easy sum for me to part with, the euros added up, but it seemed just.
After speaking with each individual for ten minutes I had 50 minutes left to to complete a painting, really a painted sketch. I chose to work in acrylic for its quicker drying time and minimal complications. I did not want to create a mess inside the homes of the individual sitters, and accidents seemed more likely with oil paint in this situation. I have not reworked these images after meeting with the individuals. My hope is that a freshness from the quick execution will carry the works.
The original plan was to complete these portraits and to exhibit them in the towns where they were painted. The idea is a gesture to perhaps help make the individual sitters less invisible and perhaps be seen as individual people and not just as "those immigrants". Maybe people in town would see the paintings, and then later see the individuals in the neighborhood. My works are each titled with the sitter's first name and his or her country of origin in order to help the viewer see them as individuals. In addition, the idea that the immigrants could view the paintings of themselves in a public settings like an art gallery would ideally bring them a sense of belonging in Ferrara and Copparo, where they now live. Perhaps it could make them more visible, more seen, seen as human beings, as individuals, and not as a burden for the state or as an enemy, which the rhetoric surrounding immigrants often insinuates in the United States and in Italy.
Unfortunately COVID19 intervened. In February 2020, I was working in Ferrara when the virus outbreak occurred and I returned to Aquino without a concrete venue to show them. Upon returning I was ordered into a two week quarantine since Ferrara was relatively close to the major outbreak of the virus in Italy, and whereas my present residence, Aquino, had been virtually untouched. Soon thereafter, the lockdown was ordered across all of Italy for weeks. At present, (June 9, 2020), the lockdown in Italy is almost completely lifted, and many stores and venues are open and many activities are allowed, but not all.
For now, I will exhibit my paintings here online with the hope of exhibiting them in Ferrara or Copparo in the future.