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Manifesta 12: Palermo From a Local’s Perspective

With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and gallerists think of the project?

This weekend, Manifesta 12 (curated by ‘cultural mediators’ Bregtje van der Haak, Andrés Jaque, Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli and Mirjam Varadinis) opens its doors in Palermo under the title of ‘The Planetary Garden. Cultivating Coexistence.’ It’s a pertinent header that openly clashes with the populist decision of Matteo Salvini, Italy’s newly elected interior minister and leader of the far-right League party, to close the country’s ports to NGO rescue boats operating in the Mediterranean to save migrants at sea. Recently instead, Palermo’s mayor Leoluca Orlando offered to open the city’s port to all rescuers. frieze contributing editor Barbara Casavecchia asked Palermo-based artists and curators how they see their city, its problems, its cultural scene and ongoing transformation, and how a biennale should operate in the South.

Francesco Simeti
Laura Barreca
Marinella Senatore
Renato Leotta
Stefania Galegati Shines
Francesco Pantaleone

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Francesco Simeti. Courtesy: ​Francesco Simeti; photograph: Piotr Niepsuj

Francesco Simeti
Francesco Simeti (b. 1968, Palermo, Italy) lives and works in Brooklyn, New York, USA. He is known for his site-specific installations using wallpaper, sculptures and textiles. His work questions our relationship with nature and how it is filtered by the media.

You were born in Palermo and you’ve been living between Sicily and New York for decades. How do you feel about the recent rise of interest in the city, with the arrival of Manifesta?

Palermo is a truly fascinating and intriguing city, but it’s possibly an easier place for artists who move here from abroad – in recent years, for instance, Jenny Saville and Alexandra Mir – than for local artists. In the early 1990s, after finishing at the Bologna academy, I tried to work and exhibit in the city, before coming to the conclusion that it was not really doable for me. It was the time of the ‘Palermo Spring’, and although there was not much of a contemporary art scene, civil society was mobilized by a strong anti-mafia movement. I was part of a small association of artists – a branch of the collective Circolo Società Civile – and we organized temporary projects, often in the historical centre, which was pretty much falling apart. I left Palermo for New York, returned in 2002 for a couple of years, before moving to New York for good, but I’ve always kept in touch with my hometown.

There is definitely a lot of energy in Palermo, a need for things to happen and a will to make them happen, so that there are always new waves of people doing something special. I recently made a work for Sacrosantum, a project run by artist Adalberto Abate in the Oratorio di San Mercurio – a baroque chapel with amazing stucco sculptures by Giacomo Serpotta. Each month Adalberto invites an artist to produce an image for an empty niche, that he prints at his own expense. Another great not-for-profit exhibition space is L’Ascensore, started by Alberto Laganà together with artist Gianluca Concialdi, a small storefront in the heart of Centro Storico. And a lot of good stuff is coming out of the art academy, where critic Daniela Bigi is very active in organizing shows and exhibitions.

Is there any risk of exoticizing ‘the South’ when blockbuster exhibitions like documenta and Manifesta land in cities like Athens and Palermo?

Southern Europe is a place where dynamics are different. Big exhibitions like documenta or Manifesta can act like a flood, that all of a sudden fills a place, without really irrigating it. Without adequate time and preparation, the interaction with a different culture can only be superficial. Doing something that has a real social impact on a city has to happen over a longer period of time, I think.

And if you had to name one place not to be missed in Palermo …

Talking about exoticism, I would recommend a visit to the Palazzina Cinese (Chinese Palace), a former royal residence and hunting lodge built as a Chinese folly at the end of the 18th century in the park of the Favorita. It’s a bit out of the way, and also surreally out of place and time.

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Laura Barreca. Coutesy: ​Laura Barreca

Laura Barreca
Laura Barreca, PhD, is an art critic and curator. She is the Director of the Civic Museum of Castelbuono and she teaches at the art academies in Bari and Palermo, where she lives. She also teaches at the USEK university in Beirut, Lebanon.

As a resident and a curator, what is your view on contemporary Palermo?

My viewpoint is that of a Siciliana di mare aperto (an open sea Sicilian), as we call those who leave the island for many years. I was away for two decades, before returning here in 2011. There was a feeling something was about to happen. Palermo has been a great place in which to experiment: when we did exhibitions at Palazzo Rammacca, at the heart of the Vuccirìa area, it was a really ‘off’ situation, with lots of problems, but also a lot of freedom, because there was no system in place. Palermo’s mayor, Leoluca Orlando, often says that Palermo is a Middle Eastern city in Europe. It’s faster to reach Tunis then Rome, from here, so the perspective on Mediterranean cultures and emergencies is different, and there is a deep sense of syncretism and hospitality.

The joint arrival of Manifesta and the proclamation of Palermo as Italy’s Capital of Culture in 2018 has transformed the traditional logics of cultural production. A contemporary art network is growing, there are new exhibitions and spaces, like RizzutoGallery or Radiceterna (founded last year by Valentina Bruschi, Ignazio Mortellaro and Vittorio Rappa, with a library and exhibition space in the Calidarium of the Botanical Gardens), and galleries like Pinksummer from Genoa, that are opening temporary venues. Two great collectors like Francesca and Massimo Valsecchi arrived at a time when the city was finding a vision. They acquired Palazzo Butera and renovated it, and now they will not only open their collection to the public and donate it to the city.

You direct a small, but very active museum in the countryside.

In 2014, I found myself sending a CV responding to an open call to direct the Civic Museum in Castelbuono, a beautiful historic town 80km away from Palermo. The museum is housed in a medieval castle, built in 1317, with an archaeological collection and a Palatine chapel, with stunning and exoteric baroque stuccoes of the brothers Serpotta. If you really want to be international, Pirandello said, start from your backyard. This is what we’ve done, by inviting young and established artists (Riccardo Benassi, Luca Trevisani, Seb Patane, Letizia Battaglia, Mimmo Cuticchio, Laboratorio Saccardi, Manfredi Beninati and Salvatore Arancio, to name a few) to work on the local territory, and to donate their works to the collection. Museums need to be kept alive, to work as epicentres of culture for the community. This summer, we are hosting ‘Same Same But Different’, an exhibition jointly organized with Christiane Rekade from Kunst Merano Arte, so that two visions of Italy, produced at its geographical antipodes, can reflect upon identity and difference. And, on 29 July, we will show Raymond, a project developed by Luca Trevisani and Olaf Nicolai at the Grand Hotel et des Palmes in Palermo, inspired by the French poet and novelist Raymond Roussel.

What will change in Palermo, after Manifesta?

Changes are already in progress, because anticipation implies activation. There will be a record of good practices and new identities for historic buildings. For instance, with Galleria Continua we have installed a work by Berlinde De Bruyckere in the Church of Santa Venera sulle Mura della Pace, which has opened for the first time in 60 years. All these aspects will remain as opportunities for dialogue between the city and the world. After all, the Latin inscription below the statue of the Genius of Palermo, the city symbol, says: Panormus conca aurea suos devorat alienos nutrit (Palermo the golden dell, devours hers and feeds the foreigners).

Finally, one place not to miss?

The Monte di Pietà in Palazzo Branciforte, where last year Wael Shawky brought his ‘Cabaret Crusades’ film trilogy (2010–15), in collaboration with Fondazione Merz from Turin. It’s where Palermitans used to pawn their goods to buy boat tickets to emigrate. And the Bar Alba in Montello – the best arancina in town!

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Marinella Senatore. Courtesy: Marinella Senatore; photograph: David Chalmers

Marinella Senatore
Marinella Senatore is an artist, born in 1977 in Cava de’ Tirreni, Campania, Italy. Her practice merges forms of protest with dance, theatre, music, and cinema. On 16 June (from 5pm, starting in the Ballarò market area) she will lead her Palermo Procession in Palermo. On July 7, her London Procession, will be part of the Art Night curated by Hayward Gallery, London.

You are one of the artists involved in Manifesta 12, for which you present a large performance/parade inspired by the festivities of Santa Rosalia, the city’s patron. How was it to work in Palermo?

Very chaotic, but when you realize that people move to the rhythm of chaos, then you also learn how to dance to it. There is a great generosity when it comes to participation, and a curiosity for what comes from elsewhere. The music and theatre scenes are incredibly lively. For instance, I’ve collaborated with Teatro Ditiràmmu, a folk song and dance company based in the Kalsa area, whose voice-based practices are fascinating. Processions have a millenary history, in Sicily, rooted in paganism and ancient religious rituals: Santa Rosalia embodies the religious imagination at large, without boundaries, and the feast of the Santuzza, as the saint is nicknamed, is not only a collective celebration that ties everybody together, but almost an obsession for people in Palermo, from all sorts of communities and backgrounds. I’m tapping into this energy, a key that opened so many different doors for me. We have developed workshops with associations for migrants, and have worked with associations for abused women from the highly problematic ZEN (Zona Espansione Nord) district. With them we created new choreographies for their work Pupaz-zen (puppets from ZEN). We’ve also worked with opera singers, seamstresses, dancers, traffic policewomen ...

You have worked in Sicily before. Do you see things moving at a different pace?

The first time I worked in Sicily, it was in preparation for a film and installation I made for the 2011 Venice Biennale, Noi Simu, involving the miners who used to extract sulphur in the province of Enna. And again, in the summer of 2016, I’ve worked in Modica, where I organized a street musical titled The Present, the Past and the Possible, in collaboration with all the local community and gallery LaVeronica, curated by Matteo Lucchetti. In Sicily, procession and demonstration can come together in very intense and surprising ways. Teenagers are definitely moving at a different pace: they seem miles ahead.

And your must see in Palermo? 

I would say the ZEN district, but I would suggest not to go there to tour neglect and disgust, but to support all the people that are trying to change things, like the founders of Donna ZEN, a centre that offers literacy campaigns and other courses to empower and encourage women.

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Renato Leotta. Courtesy: Renato Leotta; photograph: Eugenio Grosso

Renato Leotta
Renato Leotta (b. 1972, Turin) is an artist based in Acireale, near Catania, Sicily. His installations, videos, films, sculptures and photographs are based on the observation of natural landscapes and phenomena, and on human architectures.

You told me that you think of Sicily as one big studio. Why?

It’s true. I’m based in Acireale, a quiet Baroque limbo with very little tourism, where you can study in the library of the Zelantèa academy, one of the oldest in Italy. There are almost no institutions and hardly any art system, but the research network is very active, from universities to associations, and I do not feel isolated. In Trapani there is a craftsman who has been given ‘cultural heritage’ status by UNESCO because he is still capable of restoring coral artefacts in churches. And in Santo Stefano di Camastra or Caltagirone you have the masters of terracotta – I could go on. The Sicilian anthropological landscape is so rich: in order to learn how to build a dry wall, as I did for a recent show (at Galeria Madragoa, in Lisbon), you have to meet those who have that knowledge, so it’s all a matter of experience, where time comes into play.

Recently, I bought a citrus grove in the foothills of Mount Etna, where I’ve spent a lot of time working on a special project for Manifesta. On one side, I had to take care of all the ordinary rural work – waking up at dawn, grafting, pruning, irrigating – on the other, I could observe what happens when you let plants run wild again, and free them from the constraints of economy and exploitation.

Is this how you interpreted Manifesta’s concept of ‘planetary garden’ and ‘third landscape’, after the French botanist and garden designer Gilles Clément?

Many of the Manifesta venues in Palermo are ancient palaces, so I find interesting that the link between the lavish urban palazzo of the aristocracy and the rural feudo, the land estate in the countryside that sustained its prosperity, could be replicated. In my installation at Palazzo Butera, Notte di San Lorenzo (Night of Saint Lawrence, 2018), the majolica floor tiles retain the marks left by ripe lemons when they fell on the ground, like stars. I try and use poetic images.

The Southern landscape is a recursive subject of your works.

Looking at rural traditions and non-industrial geographies is an attempt to reconnect with a landscape deeply linked to the history of my family, but also to look back at European history from a different perspective. My parents did the classic thing: they left Sicily and agriculture to work for Fiat, in the car industry of Turin. At 35, I did the opposite, and I find myself tending to lemons a few kilometres away from my father’s village. Turin is still a logistic hub for me, and Cripta 747, the arts association I established in 2008 with Elisa Troiano and Alex Tripodi is there, although I can’t follow it as much as I used to. I am refocusing on Sicilian modernity – think of great artists like Carla Accardi, for instance, or Pietro Consagra – in order to reappropriate that culture.

What’s one thing not to miss in Palermo?

I keep returning to the San Domenico and Santa Cita oratories, because of the stucco sculptures of Serpotta, but I am often walking just to get lost. Every day I retrace my steps to the Garibaldi gardens in Piazza Marina, and the amazing ficus macrophylla, the biggest tree in Italy and, some say, also in Europe. So beautiful.

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Caffé Internazionale staff. Courtesy: Stefania Galegati Shines

Stefania Galegati Shines
Stefania Galegati Shines (b. 1973, Bagnacavallo (RA), Italy) is an artist. She lives and works in Palermo, where she runs the Caffé Internazionale together with her husband Darrell Shines.

What is the situation for independent art spaces in Palermo?

I have been living in Palermo for ten years and there has not been much. Many interesting projects have taken place, but still not enough to ignite an art scene. This sort of ground zero was one of the reasons why I moved here with my family, after some years in New York. Instead, I found the work of associations really exceptional. Palermo has big problems, such as poverty, neglect and lack of public services; when grafted onto the Sicilian anarchistic attitude, great cultural pride, sense of hospitality and intercultural mix, they generate an incredible climate for working on the territory in artistic/political/social terms. And with incredible human results. Take, for instance, the free lessons in preparation for the intermediate school diploma, organized by the artists and writers invited by the women’s group at ZEN (Zona Espansione Nord, i.e. North Expansion Zone). It is perhaps the most devastated area in town, but also one that testifies to the strength of Sicilians, who, illegally occupied this new social housing district twice, 35 and 26 years ago, designed (but never finished, because it has no infrastructure) by the famed architect Vittorio Gregotti. Instead, when art lands here from above, it presents itself with the echo of all the colonialist invasions that Sicily has suffered over the centuries.

Does the arrival of Manifesta change things?

Sure it does. And for the city it’s beautiful – I feel like a little girl going to the fairground! Substantial investments are being developed, in tune with the innovation and gentrification paths already started by the local administration. We have also seen crowds of slightly stressed out artists and curators, unprepared as to how to manage their productions in Palermo. So far I’ve visited only one work already produced by Manifesta, the community garden created by Gilles Clement (whose concept of ‘planetary garden’ inspired Manifesta’s title) & Coloco at ZEN, and I wonder if it is really useful to the neighbourhood, or whether it would be better to work on it a bit longer and maybe more in depth. I guess we will see real changes only in the coming years.

And a place you would recommending visiting in Palermo?

I have to mention our own Caffé Internazionale, in the central Olivella area. It's the place myself and my husband Darell Shines opened two years ago: a multicultural and multigender environment, where we connect international and local artists. We have exhibitions, workshops, a summer school (this year’s tutors will be Dora Garcia and Cesare Viel), concerts, DJs, meetings. And we serve excellent cocktails!

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Francesco Pantaleone. Courtesy: Francesco Pantaleone; photograph: Mario Virga

Francesco Pantaleone
Francesco Pantaleone is the founder of gallery FPAC (Francesco Pantaleone Arte Contemporanea), with venues in Palermo and Milan. He also teaches a course on Art Markets at the academy of Palermo. 

Are you originally from Palermo?

Yes, I was born here in 1972, from a German Steinerian mother and a Palermitan father, from an old family who has been selling religious articles since 1905.

When you opened your gallery, what was the city’s art scene like?

I trained as an artist, then I worked for Gagosian in New York and for Christie’s in Rome. When I returned to Palermo for family and health reasons, with the intention to leave soon after, I met Francesco Giordano, who then became my partner and my husband, and so I happily stayed on. In 2003 we opened a space on the first floor of Palazzo Rammacca, a 17th century run-down palace overlooking Piazzetta Garraffello, at the heart of La Vuccirìa, the open-air market of the historic centre. It was also our house and the place for a lot of fun: we organized shows and threw big parties with artists, poets, writers, directors, whoever was in town. La Vuccirìa was a rather tough area, but artists fell in love with it, and the gallery worked as a catalyst for those who later chose to move here, like Jenny Saville, Aleksandra Mir (who created special editions to support our open library of more than 3,500 books) and Stefania Galegati. In 2013, we moved to Palazzo di Napoli, in the central Quattro Canti area, with an opening show by Julieta Aranda. In the meantime, Palermo has become more attractive for an international public and its relationship with contemporary art is finally being ratified. It took a while, but tastes are changing. There are still few large collectors, like Francesco Galvagno or the Berlingieri Marquis, whose Palazzo Mazzarino hosts an exceptional contemporary collection: its Cavallerizza, the ancient horse stables, will be opened to the public for the first time, for a monumental installation by Per Barclay, that we organized as a collateral event of Manifesta (15 June – 4 November, curated by Agata Polizzi).

Your gallery represents both international and local artists.

I’ve always considered it a duty of the gallery to pay attention to the local scene, otherwise you operate as a franchise, and that's not my story. Currently, around one third of our artists are from Sicily (like Loredana Longo, Ignazio Mortellaro, Concetta Modica), but many more have showed with us in the past. I think it’s good to keep a balance between the faraway and the close: our latest exhibitions are by Assume Vivid Astro Focus and Carlos Garaicoa, and in September it will be Juergen Teller’s turn.

Do you think that Manifesta will change the image and culture of the city?

I think something always stays in cities, after the passage of so many people. This time, instead of having to go to Venice to see a biennale, Palermitans will have one coming to their doorstep. Let’s wait until Manifesta opens, anyway: artists and curators have worked in conditions that are not easy, so I’m grateful for all their efforts.

What shouldn’t be missed for those visiting Palermo?

The almond sweets of Pasticceria Scimone in Via Imera, an absolute delight.

Manifesta 12 runs from 16 June until 4 November across various venues in Palermo, Italy.

Main image: Palermo. Courtesy: Flicker

Barbara Casavecchia is a contributing editor of frieze and a freelance writer and curator living in Milan, Italy.

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