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La Pietra Dialogues On the World On-Line
Always Present
Joshua St. Clair, NYU Florence student
La Pietra Dialogues
December 3, 2014

The word is “contradiction.” Monday night, Italian writer and journalist Pap Khouma pointed to one simple statistic to illustrate Italy’s migratory contradiction: In the year 2013, 93,000 Italians emigrated from the peninsula they call home; 43,000 individuals passed them on the other side of this migratory path—43,000 immigrated to Italy. And yet, the narrative that media outlets continue to construct seems to tip the scale in the opposing direction: the immigration is an “invasion.” Despite the flux of emigration, Italian anxieties concentrate on the adjacent lane—clogging migratory roads with hostility and barriers to attaining citizenship. Contradiction: 93,000 emigrants—93,000 Italians looking for another home, emigrating from a nation which hampers the very acclimation they themselves seek in other countries. The migratory road connecting Italy to the outside world is a one-way highway, and its signage to the African traveler is clear: do not enter. 

“Italy is a fundamental region in the African world,” began Professor Alessandra Di Maio, opening the night’s dialogue. Italy is also, however, a nation that tends to carry with it very specific images of identity, images as self-ascribed as they are externally imposed. This cultural facade, however, projects imagery much more problematic than pizza, pasta, and the mafia; in many ways, it incorporates a deeply geopolitical and racial designation, a designation both ideologically dangerous and historically anachronistic. 

Italy is many things—its various regions, its historical heritage, its language—but the country’s identity is also transnational—its membership within the European Union, and, ultimately, its proximity to its southern neighbor, Africa. Africa, in one way or another, is part of Italian identity—part of what Italy effectively is. It’s important to “think about the world in global terms,” advised Di Maio. “But it is also important to keep in mind that world cultures still work along national lines.” The question then becomes: how can national boundaries incorporate transnational identities? “Representation of Africans has been very present in Italy’s history, in Italy’s literature, in Italy’s folktales,” enumerated the professor; “we just don’t think often times about connecting all these threads.” 

Italy’s cultural contradiction is reflected in the country’s “homogenous narration”—a narration at odds with objective historical reality. Italy is rather a nation of heterogeneous storylines. “These heterogeneous narratives represent, in a way, the heterogeneity of Italy, which is not a monolithic nation or culture,” Di Maio reiterated. This “lack,” however, is good thing; it is the vector of diversity. Yet, even in a nation ripe with the very heterogeneity necessary for the setting of a cosmopolitan stage, one tool resists such diversity: citizenship. “In Italy, citizenship is transmitted by blood,” exclaimed the professor. And it is here we begin to see the underlying contradiction of Italian migratory reasoning. The issue of immigration is not simply cultural or historical; it is decidedly racial. 

“It’s all a question of the perception of people,” explained Pap Khouma, and that perception has been a primarily racial one. Pap described the depth of such prejudice. Police will stop immigrants on the street, he explained, and say to them, “These can’t be your documents at all, because you don’t look Italian.” To not look Italian—it’s a frightening concept. “He’s as Italian as me,” Professor Di Maio defiantly exclaimed before introducing Pap. “We both have citizenship.” Why is it not as simple as that? 

In the course of writing his novels, Pap asked himself the underlying question to this identity dilemma: “What does it mean to be Italian?” What is Italy? The questioned spawned months of historical research, culminating with an answer that is almost too obvious for any scholar of European history—the answer: like most other nations of the classical world, Italy is the product of migration, the crossroads of invasion, and the center of imperial expansion. If Italy had not first incorporated a people into its initial boundary, it had most certainly encountered them upon expansion. The country’s racial and cultural heritage is as homogenous as the UN General Assembly.

So why such stark contradictions? “Western powers—when they went to Africa with their troops—the term they [used] is not ‘invasion’; they go to make ‘civilization,’” Pap explained. “But if it happens the other way around, that becomes an ‘invasion.’” The pathway between continents is once again but a one-way street, a one-way street whose historical foundations have been always two-laned. Italian people are the children of “the most mixed race of all Europe,” the author passionately exclaimed. The Italian’s blood is a “mixed blood,” it is the reflection of a mixed history—how could the hereditary blood required for citizenship be purely Eurocentric when the nation’s history suggests otherwise? Citizenship remains arbitrarily racial, “despite the fact that [Italians] for centuries have always taken in and been able to absorb these different peoples.” Absorption is the “driving force of Italy,” Pap declared. Where has such a tradition gone?


Throughout the night, a certain duality permeated the discussion. It was one of positive and negative dimensions, “absences” and “presences.” The blackamoor exhibition, helmed by NYU Professor Awam Amkpa, explores this very dichotomy. The project “works with idea of the presence of absence and the absence of presence,” explained Amkpa. “When Africa and Italy were more distant, more Africans were represented in the museums, in the paintings, in the sculptures, etc.” One can imagine the intrigue 19th century Africa presented to the vastly ignorant European colonizers. There was a tantalizing lure to the continent that found itself manifested in the art of aristocratic Europe, the art displayed in the very room of La Pietra where the night’s dialogue was being held. But as migration and physical presence increased, the African’s artistic and cultural presence seemed to subside. “The exhibition is a way of playing with what exists,” explained the Tisch professor, and displaying the “spectrum of representation.” 

The vitality this artistic representation embodies is of paramount cultural importance. “We will be juxtaposing the original object with other stories of these African bodies,” displaying not only the original artwork, but also the contemporary artists influenced by such creations. “So it’s about identification as objectification,” Amkpa summarized; it’s about modern artists “using African bodies to tell the stories of their past subject as opposed to their past decorative objects.” The blackamoors are objects. The aim of modern artistry is to use the human form in its dynamism as a reflection—a reinvigoration—of that past objectification. “The work looks at the broad spectrum of representation and re-representation. We’re hoping that it will generate enough curiosity and enough relief to what’s going on”—to bring to the foreground a presence that has contradictorily been consigned to the background. 

Pap described his own experience with this dichotomy—both the challenges presented by absence and the hope born by presence. “The Europe of my dreams was rather different than what I was encountering,” Pap said, reflecting on his initial trip through Europe. Confused, lost, and overwhelmed, he returned home. “When I went back to Senegal—to go and find my heart, to go back to what I thought was my homeland—I then realized that my heart and my head as well—and my friends—were in Italy.” The nostalgia marked the beginning of what immigrants call a “double absence,” a detached emotional state—never quite identifying with either “home.” This phenomena, however, never deterred the young migrant. “I had transformed this so called ‘double absence’ into what I call a ‘double presence’—I see it as something positive,” Pap proudly explained. Rather than becoming absent on both fronts, Pap had made both nations his home.

This transformation is perhaps the crucible of assimilation. The challenge, however, falls not to the immigrant to create a new home, but to the host—the nation that must establish both legally and ideologically the means for this transformation to take place. Africa’s presence is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. If the Black Italia project epitomizes anything, it is the pervasiveness of foreign influence on the Italian identity, an influence whose roots have not just begun to spread, but whose seed had been planted long, long ago.

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