A Bomb to be Reloaded

by Alessandra Ferrini

A Bomb to be Reloaded is a long-term research project articulated through a series of collaborations and outputs. It was born out of a chance encounter with the history of Giovanni Pirelli and, specifically, an interest towards his involvement in Third-Worldism in Italy. In particular, what struck my attention was his friendship and collaboration with the Martiniquan psychiatrist and decolonial thinker Frantz Fanon. Indeed, starting from Pirelli, the project aims to investigate the influence of Fanon’s thought on a generation of militant intellectuals in Italy. If, on one hand, the project wishes to ‘reload’ this influence by making it relevant in the present, it also strives to maintain a position of criticality towards these issues. Pirelli’s life and work, though, offered the ideal framework and critical approach. Following his involvement in the resistance against Fascism in the Second World War, Pirelli refused his predestined role at the head of the Pirelli industrial dynasty to dedicate his life to cultural and political activism. As the historian and archivist Mariamargherita Scotti suggests in Vita di Giovanni Pirelli (2018), given the radicality of this choice, Pirelli was often forced to explain his motivations, so much so that he reiterated it in several pieces of writing targeting different contexts. These passages display a striking lucidity, selfanalysis and criticality that became a pivotal element in the project. In the exhibition, they were present as inscriptions on mirrored surfaces and in the form of collages, printed on textile banners, which were realised by the students of the Academy of Fine Arts of Brera in Milan, who were involved in the initial stage of the research.

Rather than saying that “it’s difficult to live with one’s own dreams and to be worthy of them”, I would say that it’s difficult to live in a historical reality that with our personal
dreams has nothing to do.
My ladder? I burnt it.
How can I, without a scale of values, know where I want to arrive? It will depend on the extent to which the old waste will be scraped off, on the way in which a new thrust of humanism will be bestowed on the new.
When you will have read it, I ask you not to stop at the judgement: it’s beautiful, not bad, bad. I want you to ask yourselves the question: does such a book help or not (for the very
little that a book of stories can help) to clarify certain ideas, to change the world?

The centre hosted conferences, translated and published updates and analysis on the various revolutionary movements of the time. This interest in the publication of direct sources and testimonies was a hallmark of Pirelli’s editorial and historiographic work and it is fundamental also for the formalisation of the exhibition. Pirelli, as a matter of fact, published several collections of letters – most notably the seminal book Lettere di condannati a morte della resistenza italiana (Letters of Italian Resistance Fighters Sentenced to Death) and first-hand testimonies such as Racconti di Bambini d’Algeria (Stories of Algerian Children). He was not interested in offering an interpretation, rather he believed in the power of unmediated testimony and documents. Methodologically speaking, the exhibition follows this strategy, letting primary sources dialogue within the space and the different ‘chapters’, while allowing Pirelli’s critical voice to strike at the validity of such approach in the creation of an artwork. As he writes in a personal notebook while working on the performance A Floresta e’ Jovem e Cheja de Vida (1967) with composer Luigi Nono:

But one cannot conceive of a representation in which what must be expressed is written or
declaimed!! One should therefore identify a concatenation of episodic situations, with an emblematic, paradigmatic value (I mean not anecdotal) and that dialectically expresses the
complex reality that one wants to represent. Perhaps not even this is enough. It’s not enough because some situations are not comprehensible if one does not understand how we got
there.

Yet, little has been left behind in terms of documents and primary sources related to the Centro Documentazione Frantz Fanon. As I began the research, though, I immediately began to wonder what happened to the extensive library of books and periodicals on the decolonial movements that they hosted. I was immediately caught by this collection, because its sheer volume and materiality meant that it had a better chance of having survived in some form. Even more, I was interested in understanding the afterlife of this material, as I felt it could provide an insight into the legacy of the militancy and the Third-Worldism that swept the post World War 2 Italian leftist cultural scene.

About one year after the beginning of this research, I was able to locate some parts of the collection. Now dismembered, it is disseminated through different archives and ‘resistant spaces’ in Milan: from archives of the Resistance movement against fascism, to social centres, and private collections. These places were visited and documented through a collaborative research process realised during a week-long workshop with the students attending the course Coloniality and Visual Culture in Italy (Academy of Fine Arts of Brera in Milan). A bomb to be Reloaded (Chapter 0) explores the relevance of this material today and brings attention to the non-institutional spaces/groups of activists who take care of such materials today, as well as to the international networks of solidarity with the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements developed by the Centro Documentazione Frantz Fanon. It includes a series of pictures of these places (which I referred to as ‘resistant archives’) taken with disposable analogue cameras, as well as extracts from interviews with representatives of such spaces. These textual elements were presented in Italian, in the form of a photocopied (diy) handout pamphlet. Presenting primary sources in their original language as well as the practice of translation were indeed at the core of Pirelli’s, Nono’s, and the Centro Documentazione Frantz Fanon’s work. As a result, the exhibition also followed this approach. Next to the original documents, English translations were presented as an almost sculptural element, printed on transparent acetate sheets pinned to the wall. In this way, they also entered in relation with the exhibition space, as foreign objects, independent yet connected to the other textual elements on display.

Next to the photographs, a selection of the documents, magazines and bulletins produced by the Centro Documentazione Frantz Fanon was included, in order to highlight the reach of the militant networks of the time and the connections of the Centre with the liberation struggles in Africa. These documents were found and explored during the workshop. The students’ reaction to them was pivotal for the selection as it allowed to assess which elements still retained an ‘explosive’ charge in the present.

The question of ‘explosivity’, as the title implies, is indeed the backbone of the project and it draws on a passage from the film I Dannati della Terra (The Wretched of the Earth, 1969) by Valentino Orsini (an homage to Fanon’s homonym oeuvre), in which Fausto – a white, Italian filmmaker – is ridden with ethical and ideological angst as he attempts to complete a film on decolonisation struggles that was left unfinished by his late friend Abramo – a black, African filmmaker. Fausto defines this work as a “a bomb to be loaded so that it might make noise”. This expression acts here as a methodological compass: to think about the potential intrinsic to the activation of this historical material in the present, while considering the ideological commitment that has allowed for both its formation and current preservation. As Fausto is faced with the task of paying homage to, and expanding on, Abramo’s revolutionary work, similarly, Pirelli took it upon himself to build on Fanon’s legacy. Considering the resonance of the Centro Documentazione Frantz Fanon’s work today can be thought of as a similar process, thus raising many of the same questions that are voiced by Fausto in the film. Furthermore, Orsini’s adoption of Third Cinema aesthetics (or as Neelam Srivastava defines it, a ‘resistant aesthetics’) and ethos, provides both a visual and methodological reference to the project. In the exhibition, some of the most critical musings in the film are put in dialogue with Giovanni Pirelli’s reflexive writing within the installation A Bomb to be Reloaded (Chapter 1).

Finally, the work is held together by the presence of the actress and singer Kadigia Bove, who recollects her work on both Orsini’s film and the performance A Floresta e’ Jovem e Cheja de Vida (1967) by composer Luigi Nono, in collaboration with Giovanni Pirelli. Based on testimonies of decolonial and anti-imperialist fighters of the time, the complex and multi-layered work was developed through a series of diagrams that worked as an expanded score and which are presented in the exhibition, within the installation A bomb to be Reloaded (Chapter 2). A series of sculptural elements composed of music stands, photographic backdrops and various documents printed on hard surfaces create a staged setting evoking the interplay of various voices while attesting to the resistance aesthetics at the heart of this work. Moreover, the installation wishes to stress the influence of Fanon’s thought on this performative piece as well as the importance of the direct testimonies collected painstakingly by Pirelli, which are sung and vocalised by an array of performers, including the Americans Judith Malina and Julian Beck from the Living Theatre. The piece premiered in 1966 at La Fenice Theatre during the XXIX International Music Festival at the
Venice Biennale.

The sculptural elements are juxtaposed by a video installation that frames the work through Kadigia Bove’s memories as one of the main performers of A Floresta e’ Jovem e Cheja de Vida. These are interwoven with recollections of her experience as an Italo-Somali woman in post War World 2 Italy. Her stories, spanning from joyful recollections to re-enactment and technical explanations of her role in these oeuvres, provide a rather unsettling testimony: despite a deeply humorous and captivating tone, she recalls episodes of discrimination and harassment on the workplace, due to her gender and race. In particular, in the video extract placed in A bomb to be Reloaded (Chapter 1) she recalls her work on Orsini’s set as a rather degrading experience, as she was left naked all day, on display for the predominantly (white) male film crew. This disparity of treatment resonates with the
way Italian militant intellectuals seemed to be interested in the liberation movements often in a selfserving way (either as a continuation of their previous involvement in the liberation movement from Fascism or as stimuli for the uprising of the European working class, as suggested by Srivastava) and thus reiterated structural discriminations. The exhibition, as a result, does not attempt to celebrate or idealise these characters, rather, it aims to provide a complex set of clues and tools for the audience to evaluate what is worth to ‘reload’ in the present and what ought to be problematized, discussed and hopefully fought in the present. This also applies, as was my intention, to Fanon’s thought, which, I believe, should be acclaimed as much as criticised for his gender bias – an issue noticed by several postcolonial thinkers, first and foremost by postcolonial, intersectional thinker Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

Kadigia Bove’s recorded testimony, moreover, works as a reminder that this history is actually a living memory, which belongs to the present as much as to the past. Moreover, her story expands on my previous work and on the very beginning of my research practice – that is, the essay film Negotiating Amnesia (2015), which investigates Republican Italy’s relation to its colonial past. Her life and her body become a vessel through which a wider meditation on the legacy of Italian colonialism can be developed, while also standing as a monument to the presence and achievements of black and brown Italians, who continue to be dismissed from most conceptions of Italian national identity and culture. This blindspot is also reinforced by the disregard that Italian militant intellectuals (and political factions) reserved for the Italian Trusteeship Administration in Somalia between 1950 and 1960. If on one hand, Italy – having lost all colonies between 1941 and 1943 – did not experience a direct confrontation with decolonial movements such as other imperial powers, Somalia was still under direct Italian rule at the beginning of the decolonization struggles. Indeed, when discovering Giovanni Pirelli’s story, my initial inquiry was into his possible opposition of the administration of Somalia – a hopeful expectation which was met by disappointment. As in the 1950s the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and many militant intellectuals vocally and substantially sustained the FLN (Algerian National Liberation Front) in their fight for independence, I had to reconcile myself with the complete disinterest towards the subjugation of Somalia. In addition, I was unable to find any concern for the faith of the African countries formerly occupied and brutalised by Italy, nor for that of the mixed-race children of Italian colonisers and soldiers (mostly resulting from sexual violence). While the Black Panther movement was supported and celebrated, domestic racial inequalities seemed to be ignored. As a result, the presence of Kadigia Bove as the main framing voice and (live) presence in the exhibition becomes a symbolic act of disruption to the way intellectual militancy on the left has been historicised. It is a way to propose an intersectional approach to this history and explode the present with a renewed awareness of the ingrained biases at the heart of historical knowledge production. In order to take this further, the exhibition at Villa Romana serves as the backdrop for the creation of a network of cultural workers that aim to propose a series of interventions within the Italian education system and art world, specifically targeting the development of postcolonial discourse. This long-term project is realised in collaboration with Archive Books. All photographs are from the exhibition at Villa Romana, 2019.

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