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Porta di Lampedusa, porta d’Europa
Contemporary monumentality, entropy, and migration at the gateway to Europe

In 2008, Italian artist Mimmo Paladino’s Porta di Lampedusa, porta d’Europa was installed on the Italian island of Lampedusa, located closer to Tunisia than to Italy. Oriented toward Libya, a major migrant departure point and Italy’s former colony, the Porta was dedicated to migrants who died during recent cross-Mediterranean passage. It frames the Mediterranean as a geography in crisis. In 2016, in response to Italian and EU migrant non-assistance practices, Italian artist Arabella Pio staged an intervention, closing the Porta with re-creations of anonymous migrant headstones found in Lampedusa’s cemetery. Whereas Paladino’s work is a celebrated symbol of Italian accoglienza (hospitality), Pio’s intervention received little attention. Building upon recent scholarship on Lampedusa and Italy’s mobility regimes, the chapter considers Paladino’s Porta and Pio’s intervention and their reception within the context of renewed cross-Mediterranean migration, while considering legacies of Italian colonialism and contemporary debates on monumentality and migration in Italy. Using formal and social art historical analysis, with attention to Paladino’s practice and the works’ divergent framings of memorialization and Italian-African relations, these works are found to index shifting responses in Italy to contemporary migration. Despite divergent framings of memorialization and Italian-African relations, they share a distinctly postcolonial entropic monumentality: a condition of temporary memorialization characterized, in this case in Italy, by a subversion of coloniality that often undergirds Italian monuments as exertions of power. The conclusion addresses related contemporary artworks by Theo Eshetu and Jem Perucchini, which address Italy’s repatriation of the Stele of Axum to Ethiopia and situate the monument as “decolonial gateway.”

Risposi non faccio monumenti. (Mimmo Paladino, 2019) 1

(I replied, I don't make monuments.)

On June 28, 2008, a work of art by contemporary Italian artist Mimmo Paladino (b. 1948, Paduli) was permanently installed on the southern-most point of Lampedusa, the tiny Italian island (and southern-most point of Italy) located in the southern Mediterranean, 120 miles south of Sicily and 70 miles east of the North African Tunisian coast (Figure 6.1 ). Entitled Porta di Lampedusa, porta d’Europa, meaning Gateway to Lampedusa, Gateway to Europe (in reference to Lampedusa's nickname), the terracotta-and-iron open portal functions as a symbol of Italian and European hospitality for migrants from North and East Africa who frequently arrive on the island (or are brought to it) during attempts to cross the Mediterranean. Despite the portal's message of unconditional invitation (it lacks a door, the other meaning of the Italian noun porta, and therefore cannot be closed), the work also functions as a memorial to migrants who will never reach Lampedusa, who can never be welcomed. Promoted and commissioned by Amani, a non-governmental aid organization that serves African youth in Kenya, Zambia, and Sudan, as well as publishing house Arnoldo Mosca Mondadori (owned at the time by then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's media corporation, Mediaset), the Porta was made in dedication to the memory of the many migrants and refugees who lost their lives during cross-Mediterranean passage in the two decades prior to the work's realization.

Figure 6.1a Mimmo Paladino, Porta di Lampedusa, porta d’Europa (Gateway to Lampedusa, Gateway to Europe), 2008. View from Lampedusa (facing shore). Photo: Alessandro Cerino. © Mimmo Paladino. Courtesy of the artist.

Figure 6.1b Mimmo Paladino, Porta di Lampedusa, porta d’Europa (Gateway to Lampedusa, Gateway to Europe), 2008. View from shore (facing Lampedusa, to the right). Photo: Franco Guardascione. © Mimmo Paladino. Courtesy of the artist. Reproduced with photographer's permission.

Eight years later, amidst Italian and EU shifts to non-assistance practices for migrants in the Mediterranean, Porta di Lampedusa, porta d’Europa became the site of a little-known artistic intervention. On October 5, 2016, two days after the third annual Giornata della Memoria e dell’Accoglienza (Italy's National Day of Remembrance and Hospitality), which commemorates the tragic 2013 shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa that resulted in the death of 368 migrants, Italian artist Arabella Pio (b. 1980, Milan) sealed the gateway with cement bricks, walling off the gateway's open portal. 2 Designed by Pio and then made by a local fabricator for the work's installation on site, the bricks were modeled after headstones found in Lampedusa's cemetery, specifically those used to mark the graves of anonymous migrants, many of whom are interred on Lampedusa. Each of Pio's bricks was inscribed with the following words: “migrante non identificato qui riposa”: here lies an unidentified migrant (Pio, 2016). They were stacked inside a structural frame, also made by the fabricator, placed inside the gateway. As the artist began stacking the bricks, locals inquired about the intervention, and then lent a hand. The resulting work, entitled Porta d’Europa, was in place for only a few hours (Figure 6.2). It was installed by the artist temporarily after requests for municipal permits were declined. It was the only time the work was ever assembled (Pio, 2019).

Figure 6.2 Arabella Pio, Porta d’Europa, 2016. Artistic intervention in Mimmo Paladino's Porta di Lampedusa, porta d’Europa (2008), October 5, 2016. Photo: Arabella Pio. © Arabella Pio. Courtesy of the artist.

In the short decade framed by Paladino's and Pio's works, Lampedusa was at the center of intense debates in Europe around renewed migration from the Middle East and Africa. While Paladino's work has been celebrated as a somber artistic work and popular symbol of accoglienza (hospitality) or Italian State empathy for migrants and immigrants, a point the artist wanted the work's opening to symbolise (Paladino, 2019), Pio's intervention received little attention. The intervention and its surrounding circumstances led to a crisis of practice for Pio, who became disillusioned with institutions (including municipalities, in her case, as a public artist). She thereafter increasingly distanced herself from her work. Its components now reside in the artist's garage in Milan (Pio, 2019) – stored simultaneously ready-at-hand, like surplus building materials, and out-of-sight, like something precious or occasional, for which there's no room or need in the day-to-day.

Building upon recent scholarship in Italian studies, which has addressed histories of Lampedusa's role in Italy's mobility regimes past and present, and supported by interviews with the artists, this chapter examines Paladino's and Pio's works within the contexts of cross-Mediterranean migration from Africa to Italy, the related colonial histories of this space, and contemporary debates on monumentality and migration within postcolonial discourse in Italy. Using formal and social art historical analysis, with special attention to the position of the Porta within the context of Paladino's practice, as well as these works’ divergent framings of monumentality, memorialization, and Italian-African relations, the chapter examines the inattention to Pio's intervention and argues that these works index shifting contemporary responses in Italy to shifts in migration policy. At the same time, as a study of contemporary Italian artistic responses to migration, it situates both works in relation to their art historical precedents. It argues that these works model what we might call an entropic monumentality: a condition and articulation of temporary historical memorialization which, in this case, in contemporary Italian culture, is distinguished by its inclination to undermine coloniality that undergirds monuments and their function as exertions of power. In the context of Lampedusa, these works position the territorialized Italian Mediterranean as a site of failed empathy, in Paladino's case, and as a site of Italian colonial and neo-colonial violence and popular apathy in Pio's. The chapter concludes with a discussion of related explorations of monumentality by artists responding to Italian narratives of postcolonial reparation, including one work made contemporaneously to Paladino's by British-Ethiopian artist Theo Eshetu, on Italy’s repatriation of the damaged Axumite fourth-century Stele of Axum to Ethiopia.

A sea change: contemporary counter-migration and Italy's former fourth shore

Oriented toward Zuwara, Libya (instead of the nearer Tunisia), a key point of cross-Mediterranean departure for North and East African migrants, Paladino's gateway and its siting frames the Mediterranean between Europe and Africa as a geography in crisis, yet still a Eurocentric one. The work's title and position underscore the point that control of cross-Mediterranean mobility falls under the dominion of European territory. Its title also means “Gateway of Lampedusa – Gateway of Europe” – as in “Lampedusa's Gateway, Europe's Gateway.” Access to Europe and the ability to move across borders, the work suggests, is a proprietary form of agency that belongs to Europe. The monument frames, pictorially and architecturally, a view of waters where thousands of people continue to lose their lives only a very short distance away, as in the disaster of October 3, 2013, when 368 migrants died in a shipwreck less than a half mile off the shores of Lampedusa, so close to the gateway to Europe, so close to Europe's gateway to itself. 3

In an interview in late 2019 with the author, Paladino looked back on the work and described the site as a marginal place in both geography and topography: “l’idea era di fare un’opera direttamente su uno scoglio estremamente distante, e quindi diciamo forse un luogo più estremo dell’Europa” (“the idea was to do a work directly on an extremely distant cliff, and therefore perhaps on the outermost place in Europe”). The work's siting on a double precipice – on a cliff, on the so-called edge of Europe – and orientation toward Libya call to mind histories of Italian empire and colonization, which expanded this boundary and reframed the Mediterranean, North African coast, and large parcels of North and East Africa as Italian territory. In ancient Rome, North African territories were consolidated into Roman provinces including Africa Proconsularis, spanning from northeastern Algeria to Tripoli (Bullo, 2002: 1–3); in the early twentieth century, in liberal and Fascist Italy, North and East African colonies were formalized in the Italian colonial states of Africa Settentrionale Italiana (1911–41) and Africa Orientale Italiana (1936–41). 4

The Porta's design as an architectural form associated with passage and dwelling – post-and-lintel archaic architecture was a key reference for Paladino – is complicated by its “open-door” invitation. At the very site of geographical and historical confinement, that is, on a former carceral island, we find the work as a symbol for welcoming that is nevertheless haunted by violent histories of state geographical constructions across this borderland. This borderland also serves as a center for migrant detention in the present, in a folding over of past into present that Stephanie Hom has called “empire's Mobius strip” (Hom, 2019; Deleuze and Guattari, 1983: 139–46). 5 Indeed, under Mussolini, Libya was famously dubbed Italy's quarta sponda, Italy’s “fourth shore.” Italy's Mediterranean colonies under Fascism were to be populated by Italian workers; mass population projects in the 1920s and Italy's agricultural colonization of Libya culminated in the presence of 30,000 Italian colonists by the late 1930s, tasked with farming Italian land in Libya (Cresti, 2005: 74, 80; Locatelli, 2016: 135). This expansion was driven by a form of internal colonialism in Italy, which sought to maintain northern wealth in the country by channelling southern peasants into emigrant colonial communities in Africa, luring (and expelling them from mainland Italy) with the promise of work (Srivastava, 2018: 2–3). 6 This expansion was also imagined in mass culture of the period, as David Forgacs (2014: 78) has demonstrated; Italy's Mediterranean colonies were positioned through photography and mass media as both an extension of the metropole and margin thereof.

In Paladino's work, less than a century later, the relationship between Lampedusa and Italy's former fourth shore is reversed. The Porta underscores Lampedusa as the European (and European-controlled) site of migrant entry, even though migrants, as historians of contemporary Italy have noted (O’Healy, 2016: 152; Foot, 2018: 406), more often arrive by other means. The work repositions a rocky outcropping on a tiny island, far flung from Italy and Europe, as the gateway to an expansive but unified European state – a point that would be underscored by later historical discussions of Lampedusa's position, “where Europe began, and ended” (Foot, 2018: 404). The work also positions the Mediterranean between North Africa and Europe as one of unidirectional transit. In turn, it marks Libya in the contemporary moment as a non-European site despite its function as a European borderland, as underscored by its policing by Frontex (the EU's unified border agency). It also positions Libya as a synecdoche for a unified but fragmenting Africa, whose peoples long to emigrate.

Events that were contemporaneous with the realization of the Porta also called to mind Italy's historical conquest of Africa, and Libya in particular. The work was commissioned and made during the same year as Italy's apology and accord with Libya (signed August 30, 2008 by Libya's then president, Muammar Gaddafi, and Berlusconi) for atrocities committed during its colonial occupation and rule of the country from 1911 to 1943. On August 31, 2008, Berlusconi apologised to Gaddafi for Italy's colonial occupation of Libya from 1911 to 1943 (Hassan, 2013: 53). Under Italian colonial conquest and rule, 100,000 Libyans – then approximately 1/8th of Libya's population – were killed by chemical warfare, concentration camps, and other means by liberal and Fascist Italian forces following victory in the Italian–Turkish war of the early 1910s through the dissolution of Italy's colonies (Del Boca, 2003: 25–7). The Trattato Italia–Libia di amicizia, partenariato e cooperazione (Italy–Libya Treaty of Friendship, Partnership and Cooperation) of 2008 granted reparations in the amount of five billion dollars to Libya as well as repatriation of the so-called Venere di Cirene (Venus of Cyrene), a classical Roman marble copy of a Hellenistic original sculpture, uncovered by Italian soldiers in 1913, which was shipped to Italy in 1915, where it had since remained (Sarrar, 2008). The 2008 apology was the first ever from the Italian State for its colonial history, the glaring absence of which was remarked upon just years prior in 2005 by Italian historian Angelo Del Boca (2005:195–202). Repatriation of the statue and a formal state apology veiled a key goal for Italy: the solidification of new counter-migration and maritime agreements between Italy and Libya, which sought to have Libya police migrants seeking to reach Italy and to instead return them to Libya. Indeed, restitution of the statue had been promised in 2002 – both by decree from the minister of the Ministero per i beni e le attività culturali e per il turismo, Giuliano Urbani, and by Berlusconi during a State visit to Libya. 7 The fact that the promise of restitution had been made six years prior to its eventual 2008 return suggests that the timing of actual restitution on Italy's part was closely connected to state desire for new counter-migration policy with Libya – a desire perhaps veiled itself by the dedication of Paladino's Porta to the memory of deceased migrants on the eve of Berlusconi's apology. After all, the Porta was an indirectly government-funded work of art; we recall that its corporate sponsor, publishing house Arnoldo Mosca Mondadori, was owned at the time by Mediaset, Berlusconi's media corporation.

The fraught relationship between Italy's contemporaneous address of Mediterranean anti-migration policy with Libya on the one hand, and its colonial history with that same state, on the other, is prudent to discussions of artistic discourse in Italy on the migration crisis, especially given Italy and the EU's continued work to have Libya police migration and force asylum seekers back to Libya. 8 It is in this context that migration and histories of colonialism were first linked in contemporary Italy in mainstream media and culture.

Flanked by World-War-II era bunkers for the Italian army, located not far from Lampedusa's military port where rescued migrants are brought, but well away from the inland immigrant detention center on the island, as architect and researcher Chiara Dorbolò (2018) has noted, the monument seems to stand at odds with the assertions of what Dorbolò has called an “invisible border” in Lampedusa and across the Pelagian islands to which it belongs. As a door, however, as Dorbolò asserts, it is a kind of sign for an “invisible wall,” a wall between Italy and Africa that we cannot see. This narrative becomes more complicated when we consider the title of the monument, which underscores broader European control of migration that has emerged in recent years. This reading aligns with what Sandro Mezzadra has called the “new European migratory regime,” as opposed to historical “management of mobility” bound up with the creation of national territories (Mezzadra, 2012: 40, 44). By contrast, the new European migratory regime, as Mezzadra argues, is characterized by the EU's post-national work with organizations such as Frontex to police the “external frontiers” and borders of the EU.

Other scholarship on Italian histories of mobility control necessitate both a national and post-national approach to this problem. In her important study of the connections between Italian colonialism in the past and migration-related “crises” in the present, Stephanie Hom has examined Lampedusa's detention centers in relation to the island's historical function from the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries as one of Italy's many carceral islands for members of the Libyan resistance and other political dissidents (actual or accused) (2019: 16–17). The violence of Italian transport and incarceration of members of the Libyan resistance is little known, as are many of the atrocities committed by Italy in Libya. 9 In Italy's contemporary spaces of “mobility control” and an extension of the country's historical space of empire, Hom has similarly argued that migrant detention in Lampedusa offers a shift away from the free flow of a globalized world. She writes: “What is happening on Lampedusa, then, can be seen as a renewed Manichean division of the world into those who move by choice and those who are moved by force … a rigidity that takes shape among the flows and liquidity said to characterise our global age” (2019: 23).

Paladino's Porta d’Europa has been upheld by Lampedusa's local government and by the Italian State as a poignant monument and icon of Italian hospitality. Despite contemporaneous expansions of anti-migration policy, it has been used as a political tool to articulate Italian State empathy for refugees, as evidenced by President Sergio Mattarella's visit on June 3, 2016. It has also figured prominently in popular culture. In late 2016, the Porta appeared in a music video (directed by Stefano Carena) for rapper Willie Peyote's (Guglielmo Bruno) 2015 song, “Io non sono razzista ma…” (“I'm not racist but…”). In the video, which was sponsored by the municipality of Lampedusa and Linosa, Peyote performs on various sites around the two Pelagian islands, including the famous graveyard of migrant boats on Lampedusa, as well as broader Italy, emphasizing long histories of migration that were formative to “Italian” culture. Peyote is joined through montage by multi-ethnic community members who dance and lip sync at major sites associated with migration and immigration in Peyote's native Turin in the northwestern province of Piedmont; the open-air market of Porta Palazzo and the city's neo-Moorish synagogue figure prominently throughout the video (Figure 6.3a–c). Peyote repeatedly performs in front of Paladino's Porta, singing about widespread racism and xenophobia in Italy, highlighting domestic fears of unemployment despite public discourse on Italian accoglienza and integrazione of migrants. For the discerning viewer, the Porta d’Europa in Lampedusa is juxtaposed with the porte (doors and gateway spaces) of the synagogue (which features distinctive Arab-influenced horseshoe arches) and Porta Palazzo in Turin – a place that is frequently racialized and discussed among white torinesi as dangerous, due to the high presence of multi-ethnic vendors. This juxtaposition serves to underscore a national need for the welcoming of immigrants around Italy and the influences of histories of migration on Italian culture. In the video, Peyote also points to widespread Italian perceptions that recent waves of migration are a new phenomenon, citing recent histories of Italian emigration: “L’immigrazione è la prima emergenza in televisione, che poi non è tutta ‘sta novità, pensa a tuo nonno arrivato in Argentina col barcone” (“Immigration is the first emergency on television, that in the end isn't all new, think of your grandfather who arrived in Argentina by large boat”). The Porta here functions as a symbol of anti-racism.

Figure 6.3a–c Screenshots of Willie Peyote, “Io non sono razzista ma…” (“I'm not racist but…”), music video, 2016. Colour, 3:56. Directed by Stefano Carena. From top to bottom, left to right, the sites are Porta d’Europa (Lampedusa), the synagogue of Turin, and Porta Palazzo (Turin).

These concerns with the politicized mediation of spaces associated with migration align with existing concerns regarding the biased depictions of migrants. More specifically, they draw our attention to specific representations of Lampedusa – a site which major art exhibitions, namely La Terra Inquieta (curated by Massimiliano Gioni, La Triennale di Milano, 2017), have problematically positioned, vis-à-vis the mayor of Lampedusa's own words about the island, as a site of dignity for migrants. Italian maritime and immigration policy became even more restrictive in 2015, when the Italian navy began refusing to assist migrant ships in need of rescue, as documented in recent works by American and Italian artistic duo Lorenzo Pezzani and Charles Heller in their project, Forensic Oceanography (est. 2011): a “sub-domain” of the pair's Forensic Architecture agency. Through an intensively research-focused creative practice, Forensic Oceanography documents this shift towards non-responsiveness and sea closure that led to the deaths of thousands of people, while forcing (and criminalizing) rescue efforts by non-governmental organizations and private companies; their works, Death by Rescue (2016) and Mare Clausum (2018), both of which were also featured in Liquid Violence (2018), use data visualizations and installations to inform viewers of specific operations that have led to the unnecessary death of migrants at sea. 10 Changes that Forensic Oceanography has traced were expanded by the 2018 elections of interior minister and Lega leader Matteo Salvini and the Lega-Cinque-Stelle Coalition government. Prior to the elections, the Porta had been slated to appear on a commemorative Italian postage stamp; the stamp, planned for a series on civic duty, was subsequently canceled in September of 2018 (“Migranti,” La Repubblica, 2018).

The work's opening seems to align with Paladino's broader reflections on islands not as sites of confinement, as they have been historically used (as under Fascism), but perhaps of great opening:

Però è sempre come dire un’apertura – ma, insomma, cosa c’è di più ampio e libero di un’isola in mezzo al mare. Cioè non hanno confini naturalmente, se non il mare, insomma. ... C’è il mare. ... Quindi è qualcosa di appparentemente è costrittiva, ma poeticamente o concettualmente la cosa più ampia e aperta che ci può essere, penso lì. La forma più ampia di libertà probabilmente, no? Però un’isola non si può scappare facilmente. Quella è anche vera, insomma, come non si può arrivare facilmente, perché c’è il mare. Quindi c’è la doppia possibilità: di grande apertura sull’infinito ampio che è il mare inversa anche una difficoltà di scardinare e di andare via (Paladino, 2019)

(But it’s always, you know, an opening – but, really, what is there that’s wider and freer than an island in the middle of the sea. They don’t have borders, naturally, if not [that of] the sea, in other words. ... There’s the sea. ... So it’s something that at first glance is constrictive, but poetically or conceptually [it’s] the most wide open thing there can be, I think. Probably the widest form of liberty, no? But you can’t escape an island easily. That’s also true, in the end, just as you can’t get there easily, because there’s the sea. Therefore, there is the double possibility: of a great opening onto the vast infinity that is the sea, countered by the difficulty of scattering and of leaving.)

The rhetoric of opening has long histories in migration and empire for Italy. Paladino's words in this case are haunted by spectres of Italian Fascist imperialism. On May 9, 1936, following Italy's conquest of Ethiopia, Mussolini proclaimed the establishment of Italy's Empire. In his “Discorso di proclamazione dell’Impero,” Mussolini outlined two new laws, declaring Italy's rule over Ethiopia's Empire and its peoples, while proclaiming the king of Italy now emperor of Ethiopia. For this discussion, of key importance to the proclamation is Mussolini's framing of the establishment of empire by way of an analogy of great opening: “Ecco la legge, o italiani, che chiude un periodo della nostra storia e ne apre un altro come un immense varco aperto su tutte le possibilità del futuro” (“Here is the law, oh Italians, that closes a period of our history and therein opens another, like an immense gap that is open to all the possibilities of the future”), reads the lead-in to the new laws. The establishment of the Italian Empire (and the territorial expansion that came with it) was imagined as a great opening to the future, to a new future history. With this semiotic history of empire in mind, this opening in Paladino's Porta indexes a clear shift in its symbolism: from a colonial symbol of imperial expansion (and persecution of peoples) to a postcolonial symbol of hospitality for migrants in the present who, as in Italy's colonized subjects in Libya and other parts of Africa, were also persecuted, only this time by non-assistance.

Entropic monumentality: an operation of small destruction, of telluric agitation

Existing scholarship – predominantly in cultural studies – has framed the Porta as a “colossal monolith” (Hom, 2019: 61) and as a “monument” among other “symbolic acts of remembrance” on the island (Ritaine, 2015: 135), emphasizing an impressive scale and monumentality for the work even as they have acknowledged its subsequent erosion. Closer art historical study of the work, however – in addition to the artist's own assertion that he does not make monuments – reveals qualities that challenge these readings. The work's relatively earthen materials and structure (purposely used by the artist), seen best in the two terracotta facades, as well as its exposure to the elements, human scale, and slim profile (from which view it is, notably, rarely photographed), underscore its potential frangibility (Figure 6.4). It is a rather slight slip of a structure. None of these are characteristics of a colossal monument.

Figure 6.4 Mimmo Paladino, Porta di Lampedusa, porta d’Europa, 2008. Side view. Screenshot from video posted to YouTube by Luca Urbinati, “Porta d’Europa e bandiera della Pace – Lampedusa,” May 22, 2017: www.youtube.com/watch?v=c7JeRTgXstM (accessed February 16, 2022).

In my interview with Paladino, he recounted that he was asked to make a monument dedicated to the memory of migrants who died during their attempts to cross the Mediterranean. His response to the request was “non faccio monumenti” (“I don't make monuments”; Paladino, 2019). Indeed, contrary to its function as a public memorial and permanent work of art, the Porta was not necessarily conceived to last. Paladino envisioned turning the work, made of natural materials, over to the environment:

Diciamo che simboleggiando anche che doveva forse diventare un problema drammatico ma limitato nel tempo, e quindi come questo problema poteva come dire esaurirsi, questo sbarco di immigranti, così la porta non ha più senso di esistere insomma. E diciamo che poi alla fine questo era la mia idea molto poetica … sto facendo un’operazione di piccola distruzione, ma non distruzione, per consuma, l’eroda, e per cui, questa terra comincia di essere corrosa dal mare

(Paladino, 2019).

(We can say it's also symbolizing that perhaps [migration] had become a problem that was dramatic but limited in time, and so this problem could, you know, have expired, this landing of immigrants, in which case the gateway would no longer have any reason to exist. And let's say that in the end this was my very poetic idea … I'm executing an operation of small destruction but [also] not destruction, rather to eat away and erode it, and because of that, this earth begins to be corroded by the sea.)

For Paladino, the idea was that the work's natural material repertoire would lend itself to adaptation by nature itself.

The terracotta slabs were made in the historic ceramic-arts center of Faenza, located in the north-central province of Ravenna. The Porta was then assembled in the artist's native Paduli in southern Italy, ninety minutes inland from Napoli, in the province of Campania, after which it was transported to Lampedusa for installation. The potential fragility and archaic nature of the artist's material repertoire underscores his interest in making a non-monumental work. The Porta has faded and eroded over the years. The glazes have faded, some of the terracotta slabs have been replaced, and ceramic objects have detached and broken off of its surface. The work has deteriorated so much that in the summer of 2020, Italian corporations launched campaigns to “save the Porta d’Europa” as a “symbol of the solidarity of Lampedusa” through matched donations for its restoration. 11

A regular grid of ceramic square slabs comprises the facades of the Porta, each measuring ten squares in height by six squares across, held together with iron rivets. The rivet process is a historical method of ceramic repair that pre-dates the development of synthetic adhesive in the mid-twentieth century (Albert, 2012: S1–S2). The resulting effect is an aesthetic of joining and of historical repair. Upon closer inspection, however, we find that some rivets appear in the middle of an uncompromised slab, in the absence of a join. The rivets are present to create an aesthetic of reconnection rather than reconnection in actual fact. The decorative rivets undermine the constructivist aesthetic of the rivets elsewhere on the work. The suggestion is a disruption of an aesthetic of structural logic. Rivets are used to repair; in this case, however, repair (and reparation) is superficial. It is an empty gesture.

Underscoring this point are the everyday items that appear in partial or unpaired form, with jagged edges (seen on ceramic bowls) and in piecemeal compositions. Forms that read at first like pairs are revealed to be uncoupled singles; the modeled feet at upper left are both right feet, and the shoes are both left. The not-a-pair of un-paired shoes resonates with the iconography of migrant death that has consolidated on Lampedusa; un-paired shoes that wash ashore are shown in an exhibition space in town (at the associazione Askavusa) alongside recovered prayer books, Qur’ans, and other possessions (Turrisi, 2011). The objects are, for Paladino, the most “umani e poveri” (“human and impoverished”), the simplest – whatever people who are migrating can carry (Paladino, 2019).

The work is partially glazed with a matte black, ink-colored wash-like glaze, smeared upwards, poured, splattered. One blot, on the right post if facing the ocean, includes a figure whose arms are stretched upward. Incised into the clay in sgraffito, the figure's corporeal form is rendered by the removal of material – that is, its presence is articulated through material absence. In another area of the Porta, one square seems to have been removed. It is covered with a mirror panel that reflects the sky. Another cut-out still was made into a pass-through shelf, further underscoring the work as one that frames passage. A pair of heads, one facing right, one left, also indicate a dialogical encounter.

The monument is constructed of two iron portals framed by facades of ceramic slabs, held together with iron brackets as described above. Sculptural elements decorate the surface in low and high relief. We see modeled shoes at lower-left, a group of bowls, a line of nine right hands in the upper-left, adapted hamsa, perhaps, a few fish, and a number of hats, including one, now broken, in a cutaway on the right-hand side that looks out onto the sea. The Porta's iconography includes objects that are familiar but without owners. The objects seem abandoned. Their groupings suggest the many who have lost their lives. Other signs, like the hamsa, might be signs of protection for those still to come. A few heads in profile stand out in low relief, painted with images of the sea, as if to say the sea is on their mind. A trio of hats is also present; one appears to have been swept up, another sits horizontally, brim to the tile, while another is turned over entirely on the shelf, topsy-turvy. The sculptural imagery found on the Porta includes iconography that is commonly found in Paladino's works. The head, numbers, and geometric sequences have long appeared in his work, as have references to travel and nomadism, frequently made through the use of boats, airplanes, and geographical forms as motifs in his work.

Paladino is best known as an artist associated with the Italian neo-expressionist movement of the late 1970s and 1980s known as the Transvanguardia, whose artists were theorized by the Italian art critic Achille Bonito Oliva as “nomads.” Unlike the model of nomadism that modeled an “internationalistic utopia of art,” which Bonito Oliva found in Arte Povera – the movement that preceded the Transavanguardia – the Transavanguardia's nomadism would be “both diverse and diversifying” between individual works. Paladino has been celebrated in Italian art criticism and in certain discourses of contemporary art history as a postmodern nomad, for his pastiche of signs and symbols, suggestive iconographies, and, in Bonito Oliva's view, ability to render painting “a meeting and expansion place,” with “the range of vision of cultural motives” (1979: 20). For Paladino, a southern Italian artist, the Transavanguardia was appropriately a southern phenomenon, as opposed to the northern Italian orientation of Arte Povera. The artist has frequently discussed the qualities of “l’artista meridionale” (“the southern [Italian] artist”). In 1984, Paladino reflected on the energy and vitality of the south of Italy, as a southern Italian artist, in association with the Biennale Sud:

Mediterranean artists wish to communicate in a linguistic form bound up with their homeland but without any sacrifice of an international vocation. Decentralization stimulates a different form of creative intelligence. I say this as an artist who was born in the south, left the south and returned to the south. Here there is the art of centuries, there are signs of thousands of invasions and thousands of cultural interferences that come from the Byzantines, to the Normans, to the French … But landscape is certainly one of the elements of telluric agitation [irrequietezza tellurica] that characterize the southern artist. 12

Paladino often refers to this telluric agitation – an unease, or restlessness, of the soil and earth as planet – alongside references to the subterranean. The connection to geologic time held specific potency in the turbulent socio-political context of the late 1970s and early 1980s in Italy, that is, toward the end of years of unrest in the country.

Indeed, the Transavanguardia was also an implicit if not willed response, as Paladino put it, to the horrible historical period in Italy known as the “anni di piombo” or “years of lead,” in which Italy experienced paramilitary domestic terrorism and widespread socio-political unrest. If the political years of the 1960s had transformed into terrorism, as Paladino sees it, then artists felt an imperative to bring formal liberty back to their work, to tell history in a different way (Paladino, 2019). Bonito Oliva would call the work of the Transavanguardia an affirmative practice, characterized by flows and an expansive “fluid penetration” (1979: 20). Of importance to this discussion is that Bonito Oliva's expansionist rhetoric often positioned the work of art as one that acquires land: “The work becomes a microcosm which grants and establishes the opulent capacity of art to repossess, to return to being a land-owner” (1979: 20). Indeed, many of Paladino's works of the period referred to faraway places and people, relative to the artist.

Alongside his exploration of nomadism through iconography, Paladino explored this theme through quasi-cartographic strategies and topographical mark-making, beginning in the early 1970s. His Geografie mentali (Mental Geographies) and Costellazione (Constellation) drawings conjure imaginary places of the mind, in visual language that looks scientific (Celant and Borromeo, 2017: 61). In an untitled work from 1971, Paladino included textual elements that referenced “territorio ignoto” (“unknown territory”) and a “confine naturale” (“natural border”): imaginary geographies and refusals of cartographic logic (and state borders).

If the Porta d’Europa extends a much longer current of imaginary and conceptual geographies in the artist's practice, it also includes more concrete references to the realities of the one it frames. On both sides of the Porta, a series of numbers borders the top edge of the gateway. When facing Lampedusa – that is, when facing Europe – the numbers are, for the most part, neatly ordered and spaced; two of the integers appear in reverse or mirror script, resulting in an aesthetic of two perspectives encountering one another on a typographical surface positioned between the two. When facing the sea – that is, when facing Africa – the numbers appear in a less logical jumble. Nearly all appearing in mirror script, they are also crowded together and rotated around a vertical axis. The numbers are illegible. Adjacent to the numbers is a splatter of black glaze that extends to the numbers’ surfaces; the numbers appear to have been scrambled as a result of a violent action. Theirs is a condition of aftermath.

Supporting this point is the artist's own reflection on the semiotics of reportage surrounding migration in relation to this work. As he put it to me: “We never hear where [migrants] are from. We only hear the numbers: 100 Arabs, 100 Africans” (Paladino, 2019). The numerical forms on the Porta, for Paladino, nod to this depersonalized, arguably dehumanizing rhetoric that circulates around migration of non-European peoples. As John Foot has described the coverage of sbarchi (landings) on Lampedusa in his history of Italy since 1945: “The stories were rarely human ones, but largely transmitted through faceless numbers” (2018: 404).

Two gateway structures precede the Lampedusa Porta within the artist's practice: Porta selvaggio-selvatico (Savage-Wild Gateway) from 1979 and Sud (South), a cast bronze work from 1984 (Figure 6.5 a–b ). In Sud we encounter a partially open portal that measures nearly twenty feet in height. Its doors feature wild animals and figures emerging out of the metal panels in low relief. Reflecting on the work, which Paladino regards as more closely aligned with architecture than sculpture, the artist recounted: “And so it is like a gateway, a gate left half-open onto something, onto an imaginary edifice, like ancient medieval gates” (Paladino, 1984). 13 Alongside these sculptural works, Paladino also made a series of painted Porte in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the form of large shaped canvases, each seven to eight feet in height, which lean against walls. These works include Porta (1980) but also Tropico (Tropic; 1979).

Figure 6.5a Mimmo Paladino, Sud (South), 1984. Collection: Sherry and Joel Mallin, New York. Photo: Unknown. © Mimmo Paladino. Courtesy of the artist.

Figure 6.5b Mimmo Paladino, Sud (South), 1984. Collection: Sherry and Joel Mallin, New York. Photo: Unknown. © Mimmo Paladino. Courtesy of the artist.

Of particular relevance among these precedents is Paladino's Menelik (1978; Figure 6.6). The work bears the name of the Ethiopian emperor (Menelik II, 1844–1913, generally referred to as Menelik), who famously defeated Italy at the Battle of Adwa in 1896, and thereby ended Italy's first attempted colonization of Ethiopia. In the artistic context of the late 1970s in Italy, these works were received as modelling an expansion of interiority. Jean-Christophe Ammann (1979: 99) described Paladino's works as having “il prolungamento per eccesso … di una condizione tutta interiore” (“the extension to the extreme … of an entirely interior condition”, emphasis in original). Notably, in his review of Paladino's exhibition at Franco Toselli in Milan, where Menelik was shown, Ammann omitted the title of the work even though an installation photograph of it was published in the review. Without the title, Ammann's description of the immensely long tongue that diagonally spans the canvas is decontextualized. In Italy, Menelik's “linguistic cunning,” as some Italian artists have described it, which protected Ethiopian sovereignty in international policy, is well known; paper party horns in Italian are sometimes referred to as “lingue di menelicche” (tongues of Menelik) (Bick, 2021). 14 Might these works have been bound up with an interest in envisioning histories of anti-colonialism, specifically in relation to Italian colonial conquest of Africa?

Figure 6.6 Mimmo Paladino, Menelik, 1978. Installation at the Galleria Franco Toselli, Milan. Photo: Salvatore Licitra. © Mimmo Paladino. Courtesy of the artist.

Unlike these precedents, Paladino distinguished the Porta di Lampedusa as having a wide-open gateway: “Quindi era proprio una volta doveva essere aperta, logicamente simboleggiava l’accoglienza” (Paladino, 2019) (It was therefore really a time where it had to be open, logically symbolizing hospitality). We might also see the work as being simultaneously aligned with these precedents; Paladino's works of the 1970s seem to suggest a colonial gaze or nostalgia, as well as a neo-Orientalism and primitivism found in many areas of Italy's avant-gardes in the 1970s. At the time, these works reflected the impact of the post-World War II formation of terzomondismo or “Italian Third-Worldism” in the Italian Left. Neelam Srivastava (2018: 197) has discussed terzomondismo as a form of internationalism in post-war Italy, which had roots in anti-colonial and anti-Fascist movements in Italian culture. Terzomondismo was the site of an anti-imperial imaginary, in which the Italian Left found “new forms of solidarity with Marxist and anti-imperialist decolonization movements outside Europe”. But Paladino's frequent references to the South (writ large), to tropics, and to historical anti-colonial figures like Menelik, championed by liberal Italy's first anti-colonial movements in the late nineteenth century, suggest not only a form of international “Third-Worldist” solidarity but an appreciation of and identification with both Italian and global Southernness that would be highlighted in the critical framework that distinguished the Transavanguardia. 15 This identification with Southernness goes beyond existing readings of meridionalismo (Southern Italian-ness) in Paladino's work of the 1980s, as Arthur Danto has argued. For Danto, the “spirito del Sud” the “spirito del Meridionalismo [sic]” is registered in Paladino's interest in “manufatti – gli utensili, le armi, gli animali – che appartenevano alla cultura greca, etrusca, troiana e gotica” (“artifacts – utensils, weapons, animals – that belonged to Greek, Etruscan, Trojan and gothic culture”) and use of “frammenti amalgamati” (“amalgamated fragments”), as found in southern Italian architecture (Danto, 2014). Some decades later, looking through the lens of Paladino's Porta on Lampedusa – a gateway that opens onto a specific history of Paladino's practice and “Southern” Italian avant-gardism in the Transavanguardia – we can perhaps see that this Southernness in Paladino's work may have been aligned with broader anti-colonial and anti-imperial thought in Third-Worldism and the global South.

Indeed, the Transavanguardia often called for a return to the self, for a reinvestment in cultural roots, and reflected an appreciation of southern Italian culture and Southernness associated with agriculture and archaism. Southern Italy has often been understood as a different Italy than the north, often qualified in racialized terms as theorized by Antonio Gramsci ([1926] 1978) in “the southern question.”  16 Paladino's works often referred to a generalized South, suggesting his exploration of areas and places distant from those that were familiar to him nevertheless reflected an affinity (however problematic) with Southernness, in terms of a connection with the earth and with nature.

To that end, while the memorial was a thing done, for Paladino, qualified by a need in a specific moment, it was also something that the artist imagined might be given over to nature itself. “Per me,” Paladino (2019) recounted, “la Porta è lì. Se un giorno resterà niente, va ben. C’è un altro significato. Non è fatta di qualcosa che volutamente sparisce. È che è fatta con qualcosa che forse sparisce. … una materia fragile, e comunque immaginavo che la stessa natura potrebbe essere modificarla” (“For me, the Porta is there. If one day nothing remains, that's fine. There's another meaning. It isn’t made of something that deliberately disappears. It’s that it’s made with something that might disappear.

What I propose is that we might understand Paladino's work as one that models an entropic monumentality, which might be found in other locales and geographies. This proposal is distinct from Hom's reading that the work's erosion, understood as accidental, models a temporary permanence that aligns with the island's model of detention under the terms of permanenza temporanea (temporary permanence/residency). Recent debates surrounding monuments in various contexts have provided occasion for new conceptualizations of the function of monuments that align with this model. In 2018, South African scholar Sarah Nuttall wrote: “I think that monuments ought to be built now with an inbuilt understanding that they are interventions of sorts, temporary exhibits of a kind, that stand or fall on what they have to communicate and that must face the possibility of their demise, replaced by a better set of occasions for public thought” (2018: 111). While Nuttall's argument for a monumentality to be intervened in aligns with contemporary debates surrounding monuments to colonists around the world, earlier discussions of such monuments might be traced to artistic debates of the 1960s.

Discussion of entropy and monumentality dates to 1966, when American artist Robert Smithson famously framed experiments in new anti-Classical, anti-illusionistic, geometric sculptural practices associated with Minimalism as characterized by an “entropic mood” and “sub-monumentality.” For Smithson, the works of Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and other American artists of the period were not works that encouraged historical reflection. Rather, these works were characterized by a new kind of monumentality, tailored “to or against entropy” (1966: 26–7). In “Entropy and the New Monuments,” published in Artforum in the summer of 1966, Smithson wrote: “In a rather round-about way, many of the artists have provided a visible analogue for the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which extrapolates the range of entropy by telling us energy is more easily lost than obtained, and that in the ultimate future the whole universe will burn out and be transformed into an all-encompassing sameness” (1966: 27). Associated with cultural theory around new technology, Smithson's framework envisions that the work of these artists “neutralize the myth of progress” (as he wrote of American artist Sol LeWitt's works). Smithson's ideas were followed by discussions in the critical discourse surrounding Minimalism, most specifically by Gregory Battcock (1968) who suggested that Minimal artists were interested in a monumentality that would be characterized by temporariness (as opposed to permanence). For Battcock, Minimal artists wanted to make monuments that would give way to new directions in the future, as opposed to the historicity associated with (permanent) monuments that, in his view, served as an impediment to future innovation (1968: 20). It is important to note that the Transavanguardia and earlier Italian avant-gardes of the 1960s were keenly aware of Minimalism, whose perceived commercial aesthetic for some Italian critics reflected a dangerous trajectory in artistic practice. 17 They were also keenly aware of Smithson, who, in collaboration with Fabio Sargentini's Galleria l’Attico in Rome, completed his first earthwork outside of Rome: Asphalt Rundown (1969) (Sullivan, 2021) – a work that, along with Smithson's Post-Minimalist work of the period, is associated with catalysing the turn toward entropy in sculpture of the period. Smithson's work, realized by pouring “several tons of asphalt” down the edge of an out-of-use quarry, has been described as a massive but temporary intervention. The “expressed monumentality” (as opposed to de facto monumentality) of Smithson's “Italian intervention,” as Marin R. Sullivan (2021: 236) has deftly written, is characterized by an impermanence and industrial engagement that offered a “new monumentality for the postwar transatlantic world.”  18

Similar issues to Smithson's would be navigated in the critical discourse of the late 1970s and early 1980s surrounding the Transavanguardia. Writing in Domus in 1981, Tommaso Trini described Paladino's work as “facendo errare un’opera smemorata” (“causing an absent-minded work to wander”. Emphasis in original) – notably using the Italian smemorata to describe the work of art as forgetful, with a word form that signals a removal of memory. Trini would connect this anti-mnemonic operation to broader shifts in the configuration of time in the space of memory in the present; for Trini, “il futuribile coincide con il prestorico” (“futurity coincides with the prehistoric”) in new memories, even as he hopes for the growth of “l’arte della smemoratezza” (Trini, 1981: 124) (the absent-minded art). 19

Forgetting has also been recently addressed in scholarship on Smithson. Art historian James Meyer has narrated the renewed interest in entropy and monuments in contemporary art as “the Smithson return”: part of a broader return of artistic strategies of the 1960s in art of the present that, in this case, focuses on an exploration of “entropy as monument” (2019: 151). Meyer adeptly situates Smithson's works of the late 1960s and early 1970s – which explored entropy in informalist ephemeral sculptures made of piled and poured organic materials, as well as earthworks and architectural interventions – within the “dialectic of the transitory and monumental” (2019: 253) explored in Post-Minimalism (as well as late nineteenth-century Baudelairean modernism). Writing on Smithson's Partially Buried Woodshed (1970) – one of the artist's best-known works, realized through the dumping of dirt on top of a woodshed at Kent State University until the central beam cracked – Meyer traces the other lives of the work – as a symbol of the Kent State massacre that followed, for example. He finds in Smithson's entropic work an “anti-monument that countered the Ozymandian fantasy of eternal memory through its slow erasure” (2019: 254).

With these earlier discussions in both primary and secondary scholarship in mind, what differentiates the contemporary entropic monumentality I want to get to here is its clear imbrication with (undoing) coloniality associated with monuments in Italy as exertions of power. This form of entropic monumentality is inclined to decolonial fluidity (as opposed to imperial “openings”) and flows of shared terrain (Mignolo, 2018: 135–42). 20 Monuments in the contemporary Italian context, and specifically surrounding the commission of this work, are bound up with the widespread theft of artworks and monuments in North and East Africa that accompanied liberal and Fascist colonialism, not to mention longer histories of monuments as war spoils dating to ancient Rome. They are also bound up with articulations of empire. Brian McLaren has recently discussed Mussolini's privileging of ancient sites and monuments in Rome to model contemporary Rome as a racial and imperial urban landscape. During Hitler's 1938 visit to Rome, he was paraded by ancient Roman monuments and sites (the Colosseum, the Via dell’Impero, the Arch of Constantine), as well as the Stele of Axum, on Viale Africa. This route, as McLaren has adeptly demonstrated, was a “curatorial effort” through which Rome's ancient monuments and sites would be “fused with Fascist and Nazi-inspired expressions of power” (2021: 23–4). Ann Thomas Wilkins (2005: 61–2) has also discussed the function of the Obelisk of Axum in Fascist Italy, specifically as a symbol of Roman victory over an African nation. In 1937, a photograph of the stele was juxtaposed with a photo of the Augustan Circus Maximus obelisk (as well as the also-stolen Lion of Judah) in the Mostra Augustea della Romanità: “Mussolini, like Augustus, appropriated a monument symbolic of its place of origin – a nation that had fallen to his troops – and reerected it in Rome. … the obelisks exalted Augustus and Mussolini, the individuals responsible for the Roman victories over two African nations’ (2005: 62). With this history of the imperial (and racial) function of monuments in Italian space in mind, what Paladino's work seems to suggest is that the logic and form of this memorialization is not monumental – cannot be monumental – because monumentality in Italy is undergirded by coloniality – that is, following Walter Mignolo, exertions and acquisitions of power.

This point is further supported by the timing of Paladino's work. The Porta was made in the early moments of a (short) wave of repatriation. The fourth-century Stele of Axum was repatriated to Ethiopia in 2005, after nearly seven decades of display in Rome following its theft by Fascist colonial forces in 1936. It was brought to Rome in 1937 (Thomas Wilkins, 2005: 61). It was only returned after it was damaged by lightning in 2002, leading the Italian State to store it for years before returning it to Ethiopia. The Venus of Cyrene was repatriated to Libya in 2008. Alongside the repatriation of these monuments came the respingimenti (turnings-back or push-backs) of asylum seekers (Foot, 2018: 405).

A monumental intervention, ignored

As detailed above, it is in the context of these changes – shifts to Italian and EU non-assistance practices, and the worsening crisis in 2015–16 – that Porta di Lampedusa, porta d’Europa became a site of intervention for another Italian artist: Arabella Pio (Figure 6.2). Citing a frustration with the use of the Porta to create an image of Italian welcoming, Pio, on October 5, 2016, having been denied permission by the city to execute her work two days earlier, on the third anniversary of the 2013 shipwreck off the island's coast, closed the gateway with re-creations of headstones found in Lampedusa's cemetery, where there are many dedicated to anonymous migrants.

Pio's interventionist work aimed to critique the socio-political and distinctly moral image that had been constructed around Lampedusa by 2016. What I mean by interventionist art, as I've written elsewhere, is creative practice that intervenes in or alters an existing form. In this definition, form should be understood expansively: it includes material, site, and place. An intervention calls attention to and disrupts that original form and its significations. Through strategies of adaptation and revision, interventionist practice interrupts and recodes their sites. Interventionist art has both a formal and operational logic then: these are works that make and do things. At the same time, they also unmake and undo seemingly naturalized orders of signification and worldviews. However temporary, interventionist art can destabilize entrenched systems of meaning.

Through this mode of practice, Pio's intervention destabilized the moral image of Lampedusa that had been upheld despite the disasters of migrant deaths that resulted from Italian and EU non-assistance. At the time of Pio's intervention, Lampedusa had helped many migrants, but the withdrawal of support from Italy and Europe more broadly had strained the island and ran counter to the singular narrative of hospitality that had been constructed around the island at the center of debates around migration policy and controls (Pio, 2019). As she put it in 2019:

Lampedusa adesso è meno al centro nel dibattito politico, ma qualche anno fa lo era ancora molto, e, intorno all’isola si è creato una sorta di narrativa di come questa isola fosse un esempio morale nel Mediterraneo di accoglienza … c’era una spinta io credo in Italia, generalmente di accoglienza, adesso sicuramente non tutti ma prevale anche una grossa spinta di chiusura.

(Lampedusa now is less at the center of political debates, but a few years ago it was still very much so. Around the island a sort of narrative was created of how this island would be a moral example of hospitality in the Mediterranean … there was a push I believe in Italy, generally for hospitality, certainly not from everyone now, but a big push for closure also prevails.)

I want to highlight that Pio's intervention walled off the gateway from the shores facing in. Each brick reads: “migrante non identificato qui riposa” (“here lies an unidentified migrant”; Figure 6.7). The words span three lines of text, one above the other, recapitulating the stacked form of the wall; the lettering, however, is slightly irregular in kerning and alignment, which suggests an urgency in production. Lasting only a few hours, the intervention, entitled Porta d’Europa, was and remains documented on Pio's website but has gained little to no attention. Her intervention not only registered shifts in Italian (and EU) migration policy in artistic form, but connected the many who died at sea, whom we think about as we look through Paladino's gateway, to the contemporaneous delay, and at times refusal, of the Italian government and the EU to respond to shipwrecks in which migrants are losing their lives, especially at the peak of the so-called “crisis” of renewed Mediterranean migration in 2016. If rescues were conducted, and more resources were deployed, Pio's works suggests, fewer people would tragically lose their lives so close to Lampedusa. Fewer would be interred in the Lampedusa cemetery. What her work positions at the gateway to Europe, at Europe's gateway to itself, is a site of indirect genocide.

Figure 6.7 Arabella Pio, detail of Porta d’Europa, intervention in Mimmo Paladino's Porta di Lampedusa, porta d’Europa (2008), October 5, 2016. The text reads: “Here lies an unidentified migrant.” Photo: Arabella Pio. © Arabella Pio. Courtesy of the artist.

Pio's own reflections on her family history offers one potential reason for widespread Italian inattention to her work and general disregard for the State's non-response to migrant deaths in the Mediterranean. Her grandparents lived in Somalia for many years, as did her mother, when it was an Italian colony; her grandfather worked for an Italian company near the American military base. Her family has fond memories of the period, and of vacations on which they would return to Somalia thereafter. While for Pio and her family, colonialism provided economic opportunity and beautiful memories, these experiences point to the complexity of historical events and the necessity to deal with issues in collective memory. As she put it:

dall’altra parte ha creato una serie di situazioni con cui noi oggi tutti facciamo i conti … L’idea credo di queste due realtà, di come un evento storico possa avere queste due faccie – c’è la mia, quella della mia famiglia, e quella di altre persone. Come si incontrano, e come interagiscono tra di loro, ha in qualche modo sempre fatto parte della mia vita.

(on the other hand, it created a series of situations that we're all dealing with … The idea, I believe, of these two realities, of how a historical event can have these two faces – there's mine, that of my family, and that of other people. How they meet, and how they interact with each other, has always in some way been a part of my life.)

Pio's practice is therefore aligned with two key directions in post-war and contemporary art. First, we are reminded of work by artists in post-Fascist contexts who have explored problematic family histories – as in German artist Gerhard Richter's Onkel Rudi (Uncle Rudi, 1965) (Curley, 2013: 136–7), and in Italy, recent work by Alessandra Ferrini (see My Heritage? 2020). Second, Pio's work is aligned with interventionist public practice – especially work that is unsanctioned. Contemporary street art in southern Italy has proliferated in response to Italian non-assistance of migrants, calling attention to the high numbers of migrant deaths that continue even today. Consider two works of street art in Palermo in 2018: both by an artist who signs their work “VIA,” these works call for passers-by to pay attention to migrant deaths in the Mediterranean and to speak out against racism (Figure 6.8a–b ). Allowed to remain in place for longer than Pio's work, they remind people of the crisis in real time – not in the poetic form of entropic monumentality, but as urgently explicit reminders of the human lives at stake. These are calls to action in the space of the everyday.

Figure 6.8a Street art by VIA, Palermo, July 2018. The text reads: “The government kills in the summer too. 630 dead in the Mediterranean in June ’18 alone.” Photo: Tenley Bick.

Figure 6.8b Street art by VIA, Palermo, July 2018. The text reads: “Speak out against racism!” Photo: Tenley Bick.

The inattention to Pio's intervention is additionally remarkable given that the Porta has recently been the site of another intervention that by contrast received some news coverage. In June of 2020, the Porta was shrouded in fabric, mostly colored black, and bound with circles and circles of brown packaging tape. The result was a wrapped structural form that recalled the works of French artists Christo and Jeanne Claude. Indeed, media coverage reported that Paladino noted the action took place a few days after Christo's death (Cadolini, 2020). The mayor of Lampedusa, Totò Martello, denounced the 2020 intervention. Major national newspaper La Repubblica quoted Martello at length in its reporting on the event for its Palermo edition:

It is a petty action that hurts the image of Lampedusa … and above all hurts Lampedusians … The State has to reaffirm its presence on the island and also has to do it through concrete actions of support for a community that continues to “hold open” this gateway in the name of human rights, notwithstanding enormous sacrifices and notwithstanding someone's intention to close it. (Reale, La Repubblica, 2020) 21

Of note is that Martello emphasized the need to keep the Porta open rather than Lampedusa, Italy, or Europe, as places of asylum.

Conclusion: the work of art as decolonial gateway

Alongside these works, contemporary Italian artists of African descent, and other African artists, have made works that address repatriation of monuments by Italy to African countries – much of which has been aligned with the shifting discourse on Italian colonialism. Italian author Igiaba Scego, who is of Somali heritage, has written extensively on monuments and urban space in Italy in relation to Italian colonialism, racism, and popular amnesia around its histories. In Roma negata: Percorsi postcoloniali nella città (2004), Scego poignantly narrates a visit to Rome's Piazza di Porta Capena, where the stolen Obelisk of Axum had been displayed since its theft by Fascist forces in 1936. The site is now home to a memorial dedicated to the victims of September 11. The absence of monuments dedicated to the memory of the hundreds of thousands of victims of Italian colonialism, as Scego writes, is an act of erasure, driven by a collective will to forget (Scego, 2014: 16–9; Bick, 2021: 65–6).

Other artists in Italy of African descent have since made works that seek to visualize the Stele of Axum (Tigrinya: ሓወልቲ ኣኽሱም), which is also known as the Obelisk of Axum, perhaps as a sign of mnemonic insistence: that is, of an insistence to remember these histories. Contemporaneously with Paladino's work on Lampedusa (and with the repatriation of the Venus of Cyrene to Libya), British-Ethiopian artist Theo Eshetu (b. 1958), who moved to Rome with his family at age ten, has also considered the historical and mnemonic resonances of the Ethiopian stele in his work, The Return of the Axum Obelisk (2009). Eshetu's fifteen-monitor video installation screens footage of the disassembly, storage, and eventual transport and reinstallation of the stele in its original site in Tigray in northern Ethiopia, the historic site of the ancient civilization of Axum. The stone column historically had many functions, first as a symbol of power in the Axumite Empire (Axis Gallery) and as a funerary stele. Eshetu's work undermines the long assertions of colonial power that had been associated with the display of the Stele of Axum in Rome, where it was originally displayed in front of the Ministero delle colonie (Ministry of Colonies) (Axis Gallery) – even after the formal end of Italian Fascist colonialism. Interspersed with footage of the Stele's return to Ethiopia, Eshetu includes the story of the Queen of Sheba and her son by King Solomon, a narrative of great importance for modern Ethiopian history; born in Ethiopia, her son would later rule as King Menelik I (Axis Gallery).

At the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown in Italy, Jem Perucchini (b. 1995), a Milan-based Italian artist of Ethiopian heritage, began painting the Stele of Axum based on a photograph of the monument from Wikipedia; the result, shown to me over video chat during lockdown, was a painstakingly crafted oil painting that depicts the monolith in situ (Perucchini, 2020; Bick, 2020; Figure 6.9). Unlike the photograph, Perucchini's depiction of the Stele casts a single stark shadow, unconventionally rendered as a beam of light. This work recalls the telluric agitation that Paladino described decades prior. At the moment of confinement, in his adopted homeland, Perucchini turned to a monument whose famed repatriation, some fifteen years prior, in his work seems to signify postcolonial resilience, thereby modelling a narrative of the inevitability of return and telluric diasporic connectivity. Perucchini also détourned landscape itself. By removing other structures on the grounds around the stele and erasing the dirt path in front of it, where we now find ochre soil, Perucchini created new logics of earth and light. Recasting shadow as illumination, he also transformed the blue, earth-bound sky in the photograph, opening it up, with a break in his now stormy clouds, into a celestial swirling galactic cosmos, stippled with interplanetary dust. In Axum, both content and work of art serve as decolonial gateways onto different histories and futures, as well as geospatial orders. Telluric agitation here has given way to expansive belonging and cosmic thinking.

Figure 6.9 Jem Perucchini, Axum, 2020. Collection: Daniele and Karen Rigamonti. © Jem Perucchini. Courtesy of the artist.


I am indebted to Mimmo Paladino, Arabella Pio, and Jem Perucchini for generously discussing their work with me and for providing image permissions for this chapter, as did photographer Franco Guardascione. I am also grateful to Helen Solterer and Vincent Joos for their editorial stewardship of this volume. Research and writing of this chapter was facilitated by the support of a scholar-in-residence position at Magazzino Italian Art Foundation (Cold Spring, NY), and by Florida State University. My sincere thanks to Nancy Olnick, Giorgio Spanu, and Vittorio Calabrese at Magazzino. Additional thanks to the Galerie Christian Stein, Silvia Valisa, Kristin Dowell, Victoria DeBlassie, and especially Stephanie Hom for conversations about this work.


1 Author's note: all translations in this chapter are by the author unless otherwise noted. Published English translations have been used when possible. Artist interviews by the author were conducted in Italian.
2 Pio confirmed with the author that she alerted Paladino to her plans to stage an intervention in his work. He responded, per Pio, in full agreement, citing the appropriateness of the moment for such a work, and viewing his own work as a kind of “appoggio,” or support, for Pio's intervention, as Pio put it. Paladino did not recall the request, in conversation with the author, but was undisturbed to learn of the intervention.
3 Reports of the recorded deaths for the 2013 shipwreck vary, with some numbering in the 380s. This number comes from UNHCR Italia: www.unhcr.org/it/cosa-facciamo/la-nostra-voce/3-ottobre/ (accessed February 20, 2019).
4 Bullo's study opens with a discussion of waterways as means of internal communication within Africa Proconsularis and the Tripolitan coast as, by contrast, “the way out to sea” for the main routes that pass through the “desert hinterlands” of the province. The Libyan coast has, from Italy's imperial history from the ancient world to the modern period, functioned as a colonized point of maritime departure.
5 This passage draws upon Deleuze and Guattari's discussion of deterritorialization and the primitive territorial machine, in which earth is unified, even if people are divided. Also see Hom's excellent chapter, “The Island” on Lampedusa's carceral history and present as a detention center.
6 Srivastava draws upon Mark I. Choate's theorization of emigrant colonialism in Italy. See his Emigrant Nation: The Making of Italy Abroad (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008).
7 Italian newspaper reports highlighted these earlier promises of restitution as well as initial discussions dating to 1989. See “La Venere di Cirene torna in Libia restituita la statua della discordia,” La Repubblica (August 30, 2008).
8 We might think here of Matteo Salvini's work in Libya as Deputy Minister of the Interior. Salvini's anti-immigration policy aligned with the far-right nationalist party, the Lega, of which he is a key figure in Italian politics.
9 Hisham Matar has written of the atrocities incurred by Libyans under Italian occupation, and the condition of being Libyan today as living with unanswerable questions about what transpired during this period, for which little documentation remains. See Hisham Matar, The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between (New York: Random House, 2016), pp. 126–40.
10 See, for example, Forensic Oceanography, Mare Clausum: The Sea Watch vs Libyan Coast Guard Case (2018): https://forensic-architecture.org/investigation/seawatch-vs-the-libyan-coastguard (accessed February 20, 2019).
11 See Unicoop Firenze, “La Porta di Lampedusa” (July 31, 2020): www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvrRIuF9G2w (accessed October 17, 2021).
12 Paladino, “Abbiamo resistito ai tempi bui: Ora l’energia è tellurica,” Corriere della Sera (September 13, 2004): n.p. [Corriere Eventi]. The majority of this passage was published in an English translation in Celant, Paladino, 2017: 624. I have translated the passage regarding “the art of centuries”.
13 Partially reproduced in English translation, which I quote here, in Celant and Borromeo (2017: 251).
14 The artists I refer to here are Luca Cinquemani, Andrea Di Gangi, and Roberto Romano of the collective Fare Ala, based in Palermo.
15 More recent work in contemporary Italian art has highlighted the history of Italian anti-colonial movements that championed Menelik in their rallying cry, “Viva Menilicchi!” (“Long Live Menelik!”). See Fare Ala and Wu Ming 2's 2018 project, entitled Viva Menilicchi! for Manifesta 12, and the chapter on the project in Bick (2021).
16 Also see Stephanie Hom on the southern question in relation to Lampedusa's history (Hom, 2019: 36–7).
17 The most notable example is Germano Celant's theorization of Arte Povera. See Celant (1967).
18 See Sullivan (2021): my sincere thanks to the author for sharing the manuscript of this essay with me in advance of its publication. Also see chapter 3, “Slow Dissolves: Robert Smithson in Rome,” in Sullivan (2017).
19 Translations of “il futuribile …’ through “l’arte della smemoratezza” are by the author. Other cited passages are quotations from the abridged English translation that was published in Domus alongside the original Italian.
20 This theorization is informed by Walter Mignolo's discussion of coloniality as the hidden space of modernity, and of fluidity as anathema to foundational ideas of Western civilization.
21 The intervention recalled Christo and Jeanne Claude's trademark sculptural and architectural interventions, in which the artists wrapped fabric around major museums, structures, and sculptural monuments. From the late 1960s to early 1970s, Christo wrapped a number of monuments in Italy, including the monument to Vittorio Emanuele II in the Piazza del Duomo in Milan (1970) and a large section of the Aurelian walls in Rome (1974). These followed his “Temporary Monuments” of 1968, in which he had proposed to wrap the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome. See Lippard and Jon Chandler (1968), and Marson (2014): https://lagallerianazionale.com/blog/wrap-museum-il-progetto-di-christo-per-la-galleria-nazionale. Accessed 1 September, 2021.


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