The Exception of Palermo

Amidst the rise of Matteo Salvini and anti-immigrant populism across Italy, one Sicilian city has fought for the rights of refugees and in the process begun a conversation about its own migrant history.

For decades Palermo was considered one of Italy’s most problematic cities. A neglected provincial port, covered in garbage, ruled by corrupt officials in the pay of the mafia, it was, for many, an emblem of everything that was wrong with the country.  Then something changed. When the financial crisis hit southern Europe in 2008 the Sicilian capital suffered a blow comparable to that of Greece. Unemployment spiked – reaching 40% among young people – and many thousands were forced to emigrate. Shortly after this, refugees began to arrive in the city in increasingly large numbers. You might think that these demographic changes would provide fertile ground for the far right. Palermo, though, has chosen a different path. On the mainland, from Milan to Rome, Matteo Salvini’s far-right Lega has established itself as the most popular mainstream party, propped up by neo-fascist street movements. Here, though, things look different. The ‘independent’ mayor, Leoluca Orlando, has defied all the truisms about Italian politics today. Instead of deportations he has called for the abolition of residency permits; instead of evicting those forced to squat in empty buildings he’s guaranteeing the occupiers light and water; instead of pandering to the ‘invasion narrative’ he called on a Nuremberg trial to prosecute the politicians that let have allowed so many people to die. He was re-elected two years ago with a comfortable majority. 

Art and culture have played a leading role in both Orlando’s popularity and the city’s rebirth. At the peak of recent migrant flows in 2013 one of the first decisions the local government took was to remove the military police from the seafront. Instead grants were awarded to local associations to produce murals and installations around the theme of integration which were then placed around the port area. A new festival, dedicated to ‘migrant literatures’ was established as a parallel initiative. In recognition of these and other efforts the city was awarded Italian capital of culture in 2018. That same year it hosted the international art festival Manifesta, which, under the theme ‘the planetary garden’, celebrated Palermo as “a laboratory for diversity and cross-pollination, shaped by continuous migration.” There’s a strong intellectual basis for this claim: the island is one of the most conquered in the Mediterranean and has served as an Arab Emirate, a Spanish colony and English protectorate among many other roles. Yet it’s also something tangible, that you can see and feel in the streets. Walking through Ballarò market, for example, a neighbourhood where 35% of the population are migrants, a new kind of community is taking shape. Here people from around the world live and work together, selling produce, building houses, painting murals and making music. If there is a glue that holds this ‘laboratory’ together, the mayor attributes it to the utopian potential of Mediterranean political space:

Palermo is not a European city. It’s a Middle Eastern metropolis in Europe. It’s not Frankfurt nor Berlin, with all respect to them. We are proud of being Middle Eastern and we are proud of being European. Our mission is to be a Beirut with a fast over-ground metro, to be an Istanbul fully serviced by public and free wifi. We are a community that was born as a “migrant city”. We have experienced the tragic and tiring journey to attain legality against organized crime, and today we want to be the reference point for the effective exercise of civil and social rights. It is thanks to migrants that we have recovered our story and our harmony.

Orlando’s words are unusually direct, and a powerful retort to right wing nationalists in Italy, or anywhere for that matter. In an age of neoliberal supremacy, though, there’s always a danger that when the art world gets involved gentrification is not far behind. Just think of Documenta 14 in Athens which so shamelessly exploited an exoticized idea of Southern Europe to benefit a small group of middle-class practitioners. Years on, few would argue that the result has proved beneficial for a neighbourhood like Exarcheia. Orlando is keenly aware of this problem. As tourism begins to gain momentum not only has Palermo established zones of the city that must be free from airbnb, and committed to providing housing for all, it has also decided to host its own ‘biennale for the Mediterranean’ as a consolidating point for the local energies sustaining such a philosophy. This year’s edition was co-organised by the Merz foundation and European Alternatives as part of their own long-running Transeuropa festival. The chosen title was ÜberMauer (Beyond the Wall), a theme which chimes with various anniversaries: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Tiananmen Square uprising and the Stonewall riots. The remit, though, was to explore the breakdown of psychological and physical walls between cultures in a far more general sense.  

Fittingly, much of the programme was structured in terms of dialogues.  European Alternatives spoke alongside the curators of the Kiev and Warsaw biennales in a room of national flags which had been warped by the Dutch artist Jonas Staal to become ‘new’ symbols of progressive politics. There were sessions on how to build more effective transnational, independent journalism networks, on how to organize social movements that can unite the struggles of migrants and precarious workers. Orlando spoke with the mayor of Izmir about the role of radical municipal politics in tackling climate change. Meanwhile the art programme, curated by Beatrice Merz, focused on hidden histories. Highlights included the Albanian born Driant Zeneli’s short film about his father, who had been a regime painter during communist times and found a new life forging visas after the transition. “First my art was political,” said the old man, reflecting on his change of direction, “then it became social.” Michal Rovner from Israel projected footage of people marching, onto the walls of Lo Spasimo, a medieval church in the town’s old Arab district; a symbolic gesture which situated modern migration in a longer, deeper tradition of cultural exchange. In a more explicit public-facing move, the Indian artist Shilpa Gupta surrounded Palermo’s town hall with duct tape and the message ‘no borders’ scribbled in dozens of different languages.

The standout piece, though, and that which most captured the spirit of the Biennale, was an installation by Alfredo Jaar, the Chilean avant-garde artist. Jaar was allocated a space in the Teatro Bellini, an abandoned theatre which had been brought back to life especially for the event after years of neglect. His work was composed of three elements. Firstly there was a neon sign spelling out a quote from Antonio Gramsci: “the old world is dying; the new one is slow to appear, and in this twilight monsters are born”. Secondly, there was the light itself; a sea of red which extended across the performance space. Finally, and most eye catching, was a scattering of chairs. Some were attached to the ceiling by thin ropes, others were dotted across the floor. As a result, the two planes seemed to move places, mimicking the breakdown of borders and order that was highlighted in the curatorial concept. 

As I walked around the installation Jaar described his work to me not only as an attempt to fuse art and politics, but to convey the strange interface between hope and terror that characterises the emotional landscape of our times. It was not a piece to looked at in a rush, he emphasised, but to sit and meditate on. And so I stayed for a while. At first all I saw were the floating objects. After a while though my eyes fixed on a cluster of them, piled up against one of the walls. What was this strange mass? A collapse? Some kind of grave? Or was it a new body, beginning to take form? Sat in that old theatre, in a city that has so successfully resisted the global drift towards authoritarianism, the ambiguity of the imagery seemed charged with Gramsci’s own indefatigable commitment to building a fairer, more egalitarian, democracy. In this twilight era, Palermo can be an example to us all.

About the Author

Jamie Mackay writes about art and politics for the Guardian, Times Literary Supplement and Frieze among others and is Italian correspondent for the Polish magazine Krytyka Polityczna. His book, The Invention of Sicily, is forthcoming with Verso books.