CURATOR MIRIAM LA ROSA TALKS ABOUT AN EXCHANGE ARTIST RESIDENCY BETWEEN SICILY AND AUSTRALIA

Miriam La Rosa is a Melbourne University-based curator from Sicily currently involved in the cross-cultural and cross-regional artistic project “Preservation is an act of political warfare. An exchange artist residency between Sicily and Australia”. The Italian promotional, cultural organisation CO.AS.IT is hosting a documentary screening and exhibition opening on 12th November and running until the beginning of 2020. (Photo - from left to right - Kade McDonald, Jesse Gibbs, Miriam La Rosa, Regina Pilawuk Wilson, and Xena Wilson. Mondello beach, Palermo, Sicily. 28 July 2019. Photograph: Timothy Hillier)

The upcoming exhibition as a cross-disciplinary platform brings together works by artists from different regional and cultural contexts, of whom one of the most prominent is multi-award-winning Ngan’gikurrungurr woman Regina Pilawuk Wilson, senior artist and Cultural Director of Durrmu Arts – an Aboriginal corporation located in Peppimenarti, in the Northern Territory. Wilson was conferred the General Painting category of the Telstra National Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander Award in 2003. Her both nationally and internationally acclaimed works acknowledge faith, identity and belonging and are held in collections of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Victoria, Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art, and the British Museum. Her paintings were also included in the 3rd Moscow Biennale of Art, 2009.

Other artists also celebrated in the rapidly approaching CO.AS.IT exhibition is Steaphan Paton; a Gunai and Monero Nations artist residing in Melbourne, and Giuseppe Lana; a Sicilian artist who lives and works alternatively in Catania and London. Operating in a different medium, photographer Timothy Hillier has followed the three artists in their journey from Sicily to Australia to document their residency experiences. As clarified in the CO.AS.IT exhibition program, what links all these artists’ work and practice ‘is their commitment to reflect on the legacy of their places of origin and their participation in the struggles associated with the validation and preservation of their heritage. The conversation among the three artists is established through exchange residencies that took place in Sicily (Italy), in Gippsland, Victoria, and in the Aboriginal community of Peppimenarti, Northern Territory’.

This project, which ‘looks at … ways of preserving culture through art while offering powerful opportunities to challenge and expand geographical and political borders’ is supported by the Australia Council for the Arts, the University of Melbourne, the Durrmu Arts Aboriginal Corporation, CO.AS.IT, and the Cultural Institutes in Sydney and Melbourne, and is jointly curated by La Rosa and Kade McDonald, Executive Director for Durrmu Arts. Highlighted in the exhibition is the different interpretations of ‘community’, and the concept of dreaming sites for the Ngan’gikurrungurr language group in the Daly River region in the Northern Territory.

An Italian native with a PhD project that investigates the artist’s residency from a hospitality perspective, also expressed as the relational roles of mutual empowerment between host and guest, manifested in a process of exchange, Miriam La Rosa is currently based at the University of Melbourne where she is a founding member of the Graduate Academy of the Centre of Visual Culture (CoVA). Her varied and cosmopolitan academic trajectory has taken her to London Metropolitan University (from where she holds an MA in Curating the Contemporary), the Reinwardt Academy in Amsterdam (Master in Museology), and the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (BA Honours in Art History) in the Italian city of Brescia. An independent curator, Miriam is ‘Researching, Connecting, Curating and Building bridges through the contemporary world(s)’.

What follows is our interview on 5 November, 2019:

Where does your interest in art curatorship come from?

To some extent, a tendency towards ‘curating’ has always been part of my personality. Since a very young age I used to enjoy games that involved some sort of planning, writing and staging of spectacles; be they theatre performances with makeshift costumes, dollhouses built with found objects in my grandma’s house, or role-plays of several kinds. Dancing, then, has helped me a lot to shape my interest in art, in general, and particularly in curating. Choreography as well as teamwork are in fact features that I understood, at first, while dancing and that I apply today in my practice. Besides, I have always had a passion for history (later, I started to call this art history) and fiction. This passion, joined with my character and life experiences (before moving to Australia, I have lived in different countries beyond Italy such as the UK, the Netherlands and Brazil), has perhaps organically turned into a need of observing critically, conceiving alternative ‘worlds’ that take into account diverse perspectives and, more pragmatically, making things happen. The first time I curated a show was for my BA’s thesis project, where I decided to put in practice what I was researching, organising an exhibition in my hometown that brought together the work of a local artist collective active in the Sicilian art scene since the late 1970s. On that specific occasion, I realized that I was interested in taking care of – curating? – the manifestation of some contemporary phenomena and their contexts. This has, with time, and in combination with my further studies, evolved into a strong commitment to working with creative practitioners as well as using art as a tool to reflect and respond to what happens ‘today’ in the world. My current curatorial focus revolves, geographically, around the Mediterranean region and those territories (everywhere else in the globe) I can establish a conversation with, based on common grounds such as shared histories and cultural hybridity. Conceptually, I am in search and support of practices that express authenticity. This to me translates in a persuasive match between the aesthetical and political dimensions of art; in other words, the tension between how a work looks like and what it intends to do, challenge or advocates for.    

What do you regard as some of the most important curating tasks?

While I feel that curating stands for a lot of different things, which include organizing, producing, theorizing and provoking, to mention but a few, one task above all is what I would consider to be ‘the most important’: deconstructing. This can apply to practices, places, contexts and, of course, works of art. It stands for the ability to ask questions and encourage conversations to take place, even when they are uncomfortable.  

What overall vision guides you in your role preserving art and culture?

My vision can be summed up through the following keywords: inquisitiveness, integrity, respect, learning and unlearning.  

Your academic background and also professional career have taken you to a number of different countries and cities. What place inspires you the most in the execution of your work?

Each city and country I have lived in has contributed to shape my identity as an individual and professional. The north of Italy, especially the cities of Milan and Brescia, where I did my undergraduate studies, gave me a first understanding of what contemporary art could mean to me; Amsterdam initiated me to the world of art institutions, as I studied museology and worked as exhibition intern in two different museums, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven; London was a slap on my face. I did a master in curating and started my first independent activities with a curatorial collective and an artist-run space then got my first full time job in an arts agency, to which I own a knowledge of the difficult functioning of the art market. Rio de Janeiro was pure research as I lived there right before starting my PhD and with the project I am currently working on in mind, so I spent a lot of time visiting and researching artists and all sort of residency-minded institutions. Melbourne feels like a place I could settle in. I like the artistic community here and I can visualize opportunities for different projects that, paradoxically, bring me back and forth from my homeland as well. In fact, funnily enough, it took me to move all the way down (or up?) here to realize that my connection to Sicily and the Mediterranean region is where I need to especially focus on, i.e. to depart from and return to, curatorially speaking.

That is a certainly an interesting realization. How come you ended up in Melbourne and at the University of Melbourne?

After finishing the master in curating in London I worked for a couple of years at the intersection of the curatorial and commercial field. This made me understand that, while I was interested in the function and functioning of the art market, my passion for research needed to be nurtured further so I began thinking of a curatorial project that would combine theory and practice and that I could use to apply for a PhD. Melbourne was a city I took into consideration for both personal and professional reasons. Part of my family was based in Australia already for a while and I wanted to get away from the European artworld that had become, to my eyes, a bit too self-referential. On top of everything, the University of Melbourne is a great university and also good scholarship-wise so this added more reasons to give it a try and apply to for a PhD here.  

What brought you to embark on curating the current cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural artistic project hosted by CO.AS.IT?

This project is linked to my PhD, which investigates the artist residency from the perspective of hospitality. My original idea was to develop four individual residency projects with four different artists to analyse the role of hospitality in them; Sicily and Australia where two of the locations I had chosen, being my homeland and the country I am currently living in, and also being the places of origin of two of the artists I was interested in working with since an early stage (Steaphan Paton and Giuseppe Lana). The format of the exchange came into the picture when the third artist (Regina Pilawuk Wilson) became part of the project as well. By that point, I had started a conversation with Durrmu Arts’ Executive Director, Kade McDonald, who then became my co-curator in the project, to explore possibilities of collaboration and consider Peppimenarti as one of the residency locations. Durrmu Arts had in fact launched in that same year their very own residency program, Marrgu Residency. An exclusively Aboriginally-led initiative, Marrgu was a unique type of residency I wanted to include in my research. The more I discovered the work of Regina the more I realized it would have been really interesting to have her as well as a resident artist. I had in fact began to pay attention to both differences and similarities between Sicily and Aboriginal Australia so the idea of a cross cultural exchange progressively started to make sense. We were lucky enough to get the support of the Australia Council for the Arts, which funded the project, but for me it was relevant to reach out to the communities of all participating artists as well. CO.AS.IT and the Italian Institutes of Culture of Sydney and Melbourne have therefore played an important role to connect with the Italian community in Australia. They have supported the project with a financial contribution, and while the two Institutes of Culture have hosted artist talks in their venues (Sydney’s Director Lillo Guarneri also joined us in residence in Peppimenarti), CO.AS.IT will house the exhibition that marks the end of the project.

Regina Pilawuk Wilson at work

What prompted the name: Preservation is an act of political warfare?

The title is inspired by a quote by black American writer, poet, feminist, womanist and civil rights activist, Audre Lorde, stating: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” I endorse the idea of care as a synonym of resistance and political fight so I borrowed from Lorde to widen the reference to the notion of country, land and culture and to highlight the importance of preserving the heritage of a place, which is what the three artists involved in this project address in their practice.    

Very interesting. Can you please expand on what the exchange artist residency between Sicily and Australia entailed more specifically?

The exchange implied for each artist to play the role of both host and guest, hence to visit their fellow participants in their place of origin, as well as to welcome them in their own. This defies the traditional understanding of a residency where an artist is always and only a guest and an institution (in this case, also a community) is always and only a host. Since the project is linked to my PhD research, another purpose was to complicate the otherwise hierarchical relationships in the practice of hospitality – and of the residency – while experiencing different, or perhaps essentially similar, hospitality practices in each context.

The project explores the potential of ‘innovative cultural practices in places that are remote or peripheral’. How do Sicily and partly aboriginal Australia connect as part of this project?

Although belonging to the geo-political North, both Sicily and Aboriginal Australia can be considered part of an expanded notion of Global South since they are often addressed as remote or marginal territories on the periphery of capitalism. Like many other areas of the South of the world, they however hold the potential to foster the flourishing of alternative economies, overlooked cultural systems and non-mainstream narratives. Beyond the connection with my own personal history and that of the artists, this is the reason why establishing a dialogue between these locations made sense to me in the context of this project.

What do you envision will be the audience response to the exhibition and will the reactions be different depending on whether the spectators or visitors are of Italo-Australian, first-generation Italian, Aboriginal, or a more Anglo background?

I imagine that audiences’ reactions might differ based on background, knowledge of the subject matter as well as personal interests. However, I am hopeful that this project will bring together people with different experiences and expectations towards contemporary art and the role that it plays in society, especially when it comes to establishing connections between the past and the present of places like Sicily and Australia and their histories of migration and colonization.  

Generally speaking, what approach do you feel a curator should adopt to make exhibitions more accessible for the audience?

I can only speak of the way I approach accessibility in relation to exhibition making; that is, bearing in mind that your audience can potentially come from all walks of life and not necessarily be familiar with the reference systems that you, as curator, would adopt. Aspiring to make contemporary art more accessible also means to experiment with exhibition platforms that are not the most conventional ones (where conventional here stands for directed towards a specialist audience). Working with CO.AS.IT and the spaces of Museo Italiano has been a very positive challenge in this direction, because it entailed to deal with a place that is not generally or, at least, exclusively, used for the fruition of contemporary art and that, with it, brings a new potential audience for the project.  

Finally, where will your curatorial and research work take you in the future and will you be drawing from your doctoral thesis in upcoming projects?

I cannot fully answer this question as I do not have a crystal ball (smiles) but, certainly, the issues I am investigating in my doctoral thesis are laying the foundations for more projects to come in the future.  

Jytte Holmqvist

Jytte Holmqvist is a movie enthusiast with a doctorate in Screen and Media Culture from the University of Melbourne and a keen interest in contemporary Spanish and Italian culture. She has established a publishing record and presented at conferences nationally and abroad. Her interest in Italian film began in earnest at the University of Auckland when in the paper Italy on Screen she explored films by Fellini, Rossellini, De Sica, the Taviani brothers, and Pasolini - to mention but a few. With that grew a love for Italian cinema and the fascinating world that it opens up to the viewer.