Manifesta is in Palermo for 2018: One city, 50 artists, twelve venues, palazzi, churches… A discussion between the urban environment, mostly temporary artworks… and the Mediterranean Sea. The Biennial opened on June 15 and will run until early November. Melissa Chemam was there in late July.

For a city facing the sea, capital of an island made up of multiple layers of history, marked by an incredible diversity of cultural influences, Palermo has excelled at keeping her secrets hidden and fostering surprises for those who persevere in finding out more. It is not an easy tourist destination, but it knows how to reward those who make the effort. Capital of the Province of Sicily, an island off the extreme south of Italy, Palermo thrives on its contradictions. It has been widely known in the second half of the twentieth century for its mafia – Casa Nostra – with its crimes or myths popularised by internationally-broadcast, polarising American cinema, and for its southern poverty. Yet, discreetly, in the past two decades, Palermo has also managed to fight back against the mafia leaders and to reinvent itself through solidarity, diversity and resilience.

All these elements make Palermo a surprising, almost odd choice for a European contemporary art biennial. But after Limburg in the Netherland in 2012, Saint Petersburg in 2014 and Zurich in 2016, this is the city the organisation of the itinerant art fair Manifesta picked as a radical and transformative choice. And a challenging, brilliant choice it is.

The Biennial was launched in the early 1990s. According to its founders, “Manifesta purposely strives to keep its distance from what are often seen as the dominant centres of artistic production, instead seeking fresh and fertile terrain for the mapping of a new cultural topography.” Through innovations in curatorial practices, exhibition models and education, “Each Manifesta biennial aims to investigate and reflect on emerging developments in contemporary art, set within a European context,” adds the team. Taking place between late spring and early autumn, this year’s Manifesta coincides with the hottest season on the largest island of the Mediterranean Sea.

A “Planetary Garden” to “Cultivate Coexistence”

Full of forgotten ‘palazzi’, sumptuous palaces built from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, in a typically southern architectural style, with large rooms, high windows, balconies and courtyards, Palermo also displays singular forms of Norman, Arab, Spanish and Baroque architecture. It is both a port city and a place filled with gardens, just two of the amazing assets the Manifesta’s organisers and invited artists eagerly seized on. Another source of inspiration the artists engaged with fruitfully is an immaterial and costless one: the everyday life, in 2018, of the people living on an island stuck between Europe and Africa, between the west and the east.

The Manifesta’s selection board explained that the City of Palermo was important for representing “two important themes that identify contemporary Europe: migration and climate changes and how these issues impact our cities”.

With wit and an interest in understanding the location, most of the artists invited to produce art for the Biennial wanted to grab Palermo’s challenges and deep historical lessons by the horns.

In order to capture the essence of a place that seeks to reconcile nature and culture, mankind and its surrounding environment, the Biennial is centred on Palermo’s unique Botanical Garden. The garden is composed of a series of greenhouses, two main buildings at the entrance and various tree-filled or floral areas, including a pond with water lilies. And once in, you can but think of Voltaire’s well-known observation “that we must cultivate our own garden”. Situated a few streets away from the seafront, near the palazzi also chosen to display the art, the Orto Botanico has been invested by six artists, playing with the grass, ground, trees and plants at centre stage. The garden acts as a place to receive these creations and stand-in for the Palermitan population, literally nourished by centuries of Arab, European and African cultures.

Malin Franzén lives and works in Gothenburg, Sweden. Her specially commissioned Palermo Herbal features natural prints using pressed plants, inspired by the botanical research of Sicilian botanist Paolo Boccone (1633–1704). They are on display in the garden’s buildings. With Palermo Herbal, Malin Franzén declared that she wanted to combines “Boccone’s nature printing method with modern systems of scientific imaging to depict plants capable of growing alongside toxic substances, such as the reeds or other plants found on the estuary of the Oreto River and in the abandoned park at Acqua dei Corsari in Palermo.” The results are elegant white panels featuring natural figurations in dark grey, exhibited in large scale on the walls of the main building.

In the central rooms, and in a similar way, Italian artist Leone Contini, presents Foreign Farmers, an installation that is “the result of ten years of collecting seeds and stories” in the shape of “an experimental garden where migrating varieties cohabit and are acclimatised”. It gathers a collection of fruits and vegetables imported to Sicily by immigrants from their homeland: legumes, gourds and pumpkins for instance. Here the theme of migration appears for the first time in the Biennial and will soon be followed by the artworks of other artists exploring not only the trajectories of vegetal species, but also those of the different peoples who have evolved along the Mediterranean Sea over hundreds of years.

Other artworks in the Orto Botanico include pieces from American artist Michael Wang, The Drowned World; a mesmerising video by Chinese artist Bo Zheng Pteridophilia (2016); a mixed media work Lituation by Lungiswa Gqunta, from South Africa, featuring glass bottles spread on the ground of a greenhouse; an installation by Palestinian artist Khalil Rabha titled Relocation, Among Other Things, gathering objects from daily life, including a watch, a radio set, and suitcases, reorganised in what the artist calls an ‘“experience of the trivial”; and, in the central Maria Carolina greenhouse, the drawings of Colombian artist Alberto Baraya.

Baraya’s drawings are among the most enchanting pieces of the biennial. Conceived as a “herbarium of artificial plants”, the set recreates “a symbolic collection of flora from Sicily and Palermo” with herbs gathered during the artist’s explorations of the island. Baraya has been particularly inspired by the votive shrines placed everywhere in the streets of Palermo and its surroundings, and wanted the greenhouse to look like a “symbolic place where cultures and flowers meet”. His drawings of herbs and flowers are for him a remembrance of these religious traditions. Placed, framed and vertically, all over the main greenhouse, they indeed look like orthodox icons on the walls of a cathedral.

“Culture For Change”

At the Manifesta headquarters, in the Teatro Garibaldi, the visitor is introduced to the Biennial and its projects. Most of them were thought as tri-dimensional creations and many travel back in time, and occupy the space. For instance, the ceramic tiles of the floorwork created by Renato Leotta, named Giardino, exhibited in the large entrance room of the Palazzo Bureta, offer a surface recording the traces of the fall of lemons from citrus trees onto the ground, thus using nature as a metaphor for human trajectories.

In the next room, the trio known as Fallen Fruit, an artistic collaboration between David Burns, Matias Viegener, and Austin Young, delivered an installation in the form of a fruity wallpaper, covering the entire surface of the four walls, and baptised Theatre of the Sun. Enchantingly coloured with bright pinks, purples, yellows and greens, the wallpaper intends to represent the territorial expansion of fruits through their own growth but also via their trade. It is especially suited to a Palermitan palazzo as the city once made its wealth from its natural harvests, before the industrial revolution made the north of Italy the epicentre of the country’s expansion.

London based Swiss Uriel Orlow was commissioned to create a series of video installations baptised Wishing Trees fo which he filmed three Sicilian trees: one cypress planted by St. Benedict, the son of African slaves in Sicily, in the outskirts of Palermo; a giant Ficus Macrophylla in the city centre next to the former residence of judge Giovanni Falcone, assassinated by the Mafia in 1992; and an olive tree, under the shade of which the WWII armistice was signed in September 1943. According to the artist, they hold memories of significant events and people, and relate the public to Sicily’s history, its local conflict and anti-mafia activism.

In the Palazzo Forcella De Seta, planting seeds figuratively through videos and speeches, Kader Attia, born in Paris suburbs of Algerian parents, set out to capture the essence of a difficult postcolonial debate, a real taboo in France.

With the film The Body’s Legacies – The Post-Colonial Body, Attia centres his work on post-colonial issues, using the body as his central interrogation. alongside the film, Attia is also exhibiting Untitled, a sculpture made of a piece of wood traversed by a fissure held together with clips, in a metaphorical representation of human fragility. The film is composed of three interviews with French activists denouncing police brutality against Afro-European youth, in urban environments. The narration focuses on a specific event, the horrendous attack by the police on young Théo Luhaka, in a Paris suburb in February 2017. Attia wants to interrogate the way the bodies of descendants of slaves and colonised populations are treated in French society. His interviewees explain how police brutality specifically targets the second generation of immigrants. They have in common to come from former colonies, where, for decades, the French rulers used their forces to discriminate against the local population. The film exposes one of France’s most sensitive taboo, the perpetuation of a racist view of society, not way back during the colonial empire, but in today’s so-called democratic and equalitarian France.

The question of migration is obviously at the forefront of the Manifesta artists’ preoccupation in the current context. Since the last elections in Italy, the new government has declared a clampdown on newcomers. Viewed from Palermo, a place created and regenerated by wave upon wave of arrivals, century after century, such statements seem oddly incongruous.

Closer to Palermo’s city centre, near the crossroad named Quattro Canti, Via Maqueda, the Palazzo Costantino displays the work of two artists: Italian Matilde Cassani and Nigerian multimedia artist Jelili Atiku, as well as a series of videos.

Atiku creates drawings, installation sculptures, photography, videos and live art performances. For Manifesta, he performed Festino Della Terra, a processional performance ornamented with plants and sculptural objects, which was inspired by traditional Palermitan processions for Santa Rosalia and by Yoruba legends in Southern Nigeria. The footage of the event was projected on multiple screens set up around the procession’s main carriage in the Palazzo Costantino.

The processors were inspired by the ancient archetype of the “Green Man”, from Yoruba and West African traditional stories, myths and beliefs about earth. Surrounded by trees, there is a figure supposed to represent Osain, the divine Orisha of plants. Atiku’s performance and installation use this reference to divinity and spirituality as an invocation for our modern days, almost in a shamanic gesture re-imported through his art. Thought of as a form of modern ritual or a parade, ephemeral in nature it introduces a reflection on the representation of performances in the arts. His colourful and daring Festival of the Earth stands out in the biennial, both by its form and in its content: it brings a strong African feel to the palazzo, including sounds, movements, and brightness, exploding with liveliness and joy.

Other stunning artworks, among the many displayed at Manifesta, include the deeply insightful films by Melanie Bonajo, in the Palazzo Bureta, Fake Paradise, Economy of Love and Night Soil, centred on a reflection about the place of Native Americans in the United States of America today.

Palermo: A place of constant change, and an example for other European cities

Taking over palazzi, churches and gardens, enabling artists to deliver some form of political statements as provocative as they wish, Manifesta 12 wanted to offer platforms to display an art that helps to position Europe in its contemporaneity and its relations with the rest of the world. Palermo itself comes out as the real gem of the event. The city has also been designated the Italian Capital of Culture for 2018, and it is a delight to wander its street as many venues, often left empty, are now displaying exhibitions. The city’s museums seem more interested than ever before in contemporary art and in the dialogue between art and social change, such as SISAL ART PLACE in Palazzo Drago and the Museo Riso, where can be seen an exhibition devoted to Gino De Dominicis.

Manifesta has also inspired the Fondazione Orestiadi in Gibellina, a small town in Western Sicily, founded in the 1970s after the original city was destroyed by a powerful earthquake in January 1968. The new Gibellina has since been filled with land art and the old Gibellina completely covered in the 1980s/1990s by a giant piece created by Alberto Burri, Il Grande Cretto. At weekends, the city’s cultural team organises a special tour taking art lovers to Gibellina, to the Cretto and to the Foundation. A captivating way to dig a little deeper into the island’s history.

Migratory, the European art biennial has never been as much so. For Leoluca Orlando, Mayor of Palermo, hosting Manifesta 12 in the city in 2018 is “a moment for Europe to appreciate the significance of its Mediterranean dimension and identity.” He was one of the people who convinced Manifesta to give Palermo a chance. Now, a unique venue like the Palazzo Butera, enhanced by the event, is set to finally reopen fully next year.

Manifesta wanted to be an occasion to bring the Mediterranean closer to Europe, to remind the other Europeans of the context that linked them to the rest of the world, through North Africa, the Middle East and beyond. The choice of Palermo comes as relevant as the current European governments tend to privilege values of trade, productivity and economic growth over human connections, solidarity, shared values and the remembrance of a common history, made up of terrible wars and a fragile peace. A situation which surely weights on the mind of an increasing number of artists, in Europe and beyond, as art becomes one of the rare dimension where these issues can be addressed directly and freely.

Written by Melissa Chemam

Melissa Chemam is a freelance journalist and writer, based between Paris and Bristol, regularly travelling to Italy. Her book on Bristol’s music and art scene, Out of the Comfort Zone, will be out in the UK in January 2019.