New cultural routes between Sicily and indigenous Australia

Segmento meets Miriam La Rosa to talk about two organizations, Agency and FARM Cultural Park, committed to fostering connection to place in an authentic way.

Miriam La Rosa is a Sicily-born curator, researcher, and writer based in Melbourne. She is currently Art Projects and Research Manager at Agency. This Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-governed not-for-profit organization works as a catalyst to celebrate and promote Indigenous voices and Indigenous-led projects in the arts, cultural, and environmental sectors. In 2019, she started to pave the road for a cultural exchange between Sicily and Indigenous Australia. This Italian summer is going to see an exciting new chapter emerge through a partnership between Agency and FARM Cultural Park.

How was this exchange envisioned, and from where has it taken its current shape?

The background of this project is a cross-cultural exchange between Sicily and Australia that started in 2019 in the context of my PhD and then reached a much broader scope. The project comprised a series of residencies, exhibitions, and a public program of events between three locations in Sicily –Catania, Favara, and Palermo– and two in Australia –Gunaikurnai Country, Gippsland, and the Aboriginal community of Peppimenarti in Ngan’gikurungurr Country, Northern Territory. The three artists involved, Regina Pilawuk Wilson (NT), Steaphan Paton (VIC), and Giuseppe Lana (IT), were invited to perform the roles of host and guest – both hosting and being hosted by their fellow participants.

Ngan'gikurungurr woman and senior artist Regina Pilawuk Wilson in residence at FARM Cultural Park, Sicily. July 2019. Photo Timothy Hillier

Through this project, you established a connection with the Sicilian organization FARM Cultural Park. Can you tell us about your Sicilian host?

FARM is an award-winning and independent cultural center that aims to achieve social impact through urban and cultural regeneration. FARM is located in Favara, a small town in the heart of Sicily that, until 2010, had the highest rate of unemployment in the country. With the love, passion, and dedication of a pair of local philanthropists, Andrea Bartoli and Florinda Saieva, FARM managed to bring forward a project of rebirth of the city’s historical center which had been almost completely abandoned. Today FARM attracts over 100 000 visitors a year with a single event and is a major cultural hub, not only for Favara and the island, but also for the rest of Italy and beyond.

How has this connection with FARM further developed and grown?

We worked with FARM on location first, then they invited us to curate the Australian Pavilion of their Countless Cities Biennale, an initiative that celebrates the richness and diversity of cities from different parts of the world. In 2021 Agency brought to FARM a video installation of works by selected artists from the Mulka Project collective, the late Mr. Wanambi and Gutingarra Yunupingu, alongside a selection of images and videos from The Mulka Archive curated by Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre from the Aboriginal community of Yirrkala. This was the first contribution presented by Agency in the context of Countless Cities.

View of FARM Cultural Park, Favara, Sicily, July 2019. Photo Timothy Hillier

Was this even more engaging, considering the different ways we conceptualize the idea of a city across different cultures?

Yes. What defines a city is a rather complex and layered question. Is a city identified by the number of people that live there and the development of its infrastructure? Or by the importance that a place has within a region, for the people that inhabit it? In this case, Yirrkala is an example of a thriving city in the contemporary (art) world. 

What are the points of convergence between two organizations that operate in such vastly different contexts like Southern Italy and Indigenous Australia?

At a quick glance, Agency and FARM are two organizations that may not have much in common. Agency is based in Australia with a focus on the celebration and promotion of Indigenous people and projects in the arts and cultural sector. Agency’s programs include exhibitions, talks, events, residencies, publications, fundraising, and professional development activities. FARM’s scope is to expose the Sicilian community to a global discourse on art and culture, while retaining the authenticity and specificity of the place. In other words, acting as a bridge to the rest of the world from areas like Favara that are nothing like the touristy spots of Sicily where everyone goes on holiday. 

The connecting thread between FARM and Agency is something we were able to formulate when we first visited with Peppimenarti-founder and artist, Regina Pilawuk Wilson. The way FARM operates in Favara resonates with the social function that many art centers perform for Indigenous communities across Australia. They act as hubs for community regeneration and are places where, not only art, but various forms of cultural, economic, and interpersonal relationships develop. 

In essence, social impact links these two organizations located in two seemingly different and distant parts of the world. For FARM, making an impact is about creating otherwise missing opportunities for the local inhabitants, especially the younger generations. For Agency, the impact is about offering new perspectives to represent and support Indigenous arts and culture both nationally and internationally. In both instances, having a social impact is a clear objective.

Last year we contributed an exhibition for Radical SHE, an initiative of FARM that highlights women leadership and empowerment. Agency presented a video installation of works by Bundjulung and Ngāpuhi woman, visual artist, and dancer Amrita Hepi. There we strengthened the idea of a long-lasting partnership to continue exposing the work of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists to an international public while fostering reciprocity with projects that may also bring practitioners from the Mediterranean region to Australia.

Corben Mudjandi. Image Courtesy of Marrawuddi Arts and Culture

What will this thrilling connection bring forward in the next future?

In June-July of this year, for the 2023-24 edition of Countless Cities, Agency will once again curate the Australian Pavilion of FARM, which will feature an installation focusing on the town of Jabiru in the Kakadu National Park, as seen through the eyes and camera of Mirrar Traditional Owner and emerging artist Corben Mudjandi. Corben became very passionate about photography at a very young age and started taking photographs on film that document the life of his community and Country with an analog camera.

Jabiru is a peculiar place. The town was founded in the 1980s to accommodate the workers of the Ranger Uranium Mine. The Traditional Owners were dispossessed from their lands and their land rights were only recognized in 2021, after a long fight against uranium mining that began in the 1970s. The idea behind this exhibition, which responds to the Biennale’s themes of Pleasure in Cities and Youth Power, is to celebrate the re-establishment of a connection with place by the Mirarr people that Corben is documenting and putting at the forefront of his work.

The project will also include a residency for Corben in Sicily to meet local artists and organizations, and work with Palermo-based publishing house 89books, for the production of a folio on his work. The results of his experience in Sicily will be presented in a follow-up exhibition in Melbourne in 2024 that will comprise an expanded version of the body of work that Corben will have developed for the Sicilian Biennale and, possibly, new work inspired by his residency.

What will the legacy of this project be? Do you see this project leading to a long-lasting connection that will allow other practitioners to develop exchanges on the route that Agency and FARM are tracing? 

This project marks the beginning of a new, long-term partnership between FARM and Agency. The goal is to generate opportunities for professional development and practice expansion for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists and cultural leaders from Australia.

The reason we are developing residency programs like this is that residencies lead to the establishment of often long-lasting connections, and deepen the relationship to places that a site-specific installation alone cannot sustain. Agency’s approach to the partnership with FARM is not simply about ensuring the delivery of an exhibition overseas but about building a safe channel for exchange where both organizations can nurture and steward the development of relationships for their related communities.

Cover image: Agency not-for-profit organization