My name is Ana Rosa Louis, and I am a 34 year old Artist from London. In 2017 I decided enough was enough with regards to ongoing toxic and abusive family relationships. As an Artist my work dealt mostly with love and exploration of the self. I like to focus on moving forwards and not dwelling in, nor dealing with the past as the case may be! In the wake of the pro-Brexit Vote in the UK, I decided it was time to explore Europe. I organised an Art Exhibition, sold most of my work and saved up enough money to live for a year in the poorest part of Southern Italy.
I paid for a voluntary placement in Calabria (the group shut down 7 months later), working alongside a refugee integration project in a tiny place called Camini. It’s a “paese di accoglienza” – a place of welcome, which means they take in migrants and refugees. I was told by Italian friends that I should be very careful going to Calabria because the region was considered to be a dangerous wilderness: corrupt and “full of mafia and Africans”… Being a long-time anti-racism campaigner, this sparked my attention even more.
I landed in Calabria on the 15th May 2018 to torrential rain, and cars sliding across the bridges. As I listened to people speaking I realised that Italian was not the dialect spoken here: instead, it’s a mixture of ancient Greek and Arabic with Italian. So far, I haven’t been able to learn Italian well, due to the dialect!
In all honesty, I did not like the voluntary work experience at all. I met a lot of really amazing people, but I felt that all the problems one usually associates with volunteers were true here (white saviour complex/only here for the CV). There is a locally-run Cooperative called “Eurocoop Jungi Mundu” that re-homes migrants and refugees, and helps them with work and training. I stopped working with the volunteers, and hoped to work for the Cooperative also on a voluntary basis. But then there was a very unpleasant experience of sexism which meant I decided to work alone.
Whilst taking some time to consider my options sitting on a bench in the Piazza I heard the click clack of stilettoes on cobbled stones. I looked up to see a Nigerian woman in a floor length, gold, sequinned dress with a huge Afro wig. A few minutes later I realised that I had found my calling… Blessing and her family of 4 children are migrants who fled Libya during the war/slavery/attacks on Black people in 2014/5. She survived the boat trip and was rescued by an Italian ship.
Blessing was a dressmaker by trade, who was lacked inspiration and computer skills. I figured we were meant to be together -for a few months at least. I helped her with fashion drawings and setting up an Etsy store. We did fashion shoots, sold lots of products together, and I would make jewellery from her fabric scraps. But after the Salvini Decree (the right-wing leader for a time in Italy) she felt it was time to start a new life in Germany. Salvini created a very uncomfortable environment for migrants and refugees to remain in Italy, so many decided to leave the country last year in 2019. I am relieved to hear that Blessing is finally safe in Northern Germany with her family, and new grandchild.
When I came to Italy, I did not originally plan on doing my own art work -I wanted to lose myself completely so I could find myself again… I wanted to reboot my whole existence. But I needed to paint: it was a compulsion. My first piece was a painting inspired by a dream, and the Malian music of my neighbours. I worked with their 6 Year old daughter, gluing fabric and collage paper to a piece of wood. Eventually the Mayor of Camini asked his office staff to buy it for him as a gift for his office. I also took part twice in a Street Art – Borgo in Fiori festival in Placanica– the village where I now live. (I was hoping to help organise this year’s festival but COVID-19 has ruined our plans!).
In November 2018, the Mayor of Camini asked me to paint a Mural at the village water fountain. I said no at first as I wanted to concentrate on helping my Nigerian friend. But I was suffering from depression and I could feel it winning- so I agreed to paint the water fountain as a way of working through the clouds in my mind. I also experienced “Impostor Syndrome,” and was really struggling. Thankfully I found a good friend in the Mayor, and even though we did not speak the same language, our friendship helped me see that I am a good artist. Within a month I had recovered from that recent bout of depression. The villagers got to know me, and saw me in a positive light: they paid me in Oranges and Mandarins from their orchards.
In January 2019 I met Scottish Artist, Lynne Colombo who visited the village I was staying in. She taught me the basics of Mosaic art. Together we created a metre long mosaic of Camini made from the broken tiles and sea glass that we had collected from the beach. Lynne donated the final piece to the Comune di Camini.
During this period the Mayor asked me to paint another mural. With the lack of forthcoming funding for such a large project, I suggested that we organise an exhibition instead seeing it would only require a smaller amount of finances. I received financial support from the local Municipality who provided a large gallery space. I designed some call out leaflets which featured drawings of crumbling buildings and cats. My theme was Curiosity – “Curiosità,” inspired by an abandoned kitten I had rescued. I managed to get fifteen artists involved, and fundraised enough money to cover expenses. I worked from the Mayor’s office in Camini, but lived in nearby Riace– a village famous for its welcoming attitude to refugees although that changed dramatically in 2018.
I had artists from all over the world. London, Scotland, Denmark, America, Italy, Bulgaria and other places – it was amazing. Especially considering the challenges – the Italian postal service owes me a lot of refunds. 24 hour delivery took 3 weeks so some pieces arrived the week before the show closed.
Another major issue was that many of the local people had never been to an Art exhibition prior to this one. This was because the area is poor, and also isolated from the nearest town. I wanted to curate something special for them that reflected the conversations we’d had together, or at the very least something they could connect with culturally. One man questioned my reason for doing this because he thought I was wasting my time. But I challenged him to have a look, and after 10 minutes he seemed surprised and serene. I witnessed him having an emotional connection with each piece, which appeared to be the same experience for many of the local people: I could see an energy between the viewer and the artwork. I hadn’t seen this before at other galleries/exhibitions – it was like an aura.
After 3 weeks of a painfully hot August I closed the show. It was far more successful than anything I had ever done in London. On the opening night over 60 visitors passed through the gallery doors. The exhibition drew great reviews from both locals and refugees alike! It provided the opportunity to train up an Eritrean teenager to be my assistant, and the gallery became a popular “hang-out” space for the kids; they really enjoyed being around the artwork.
After it had ended, I was invited to be a guest lecturer at an “Anthropology Summer School” in Malta – (a collaboration between University Malta and Bicocca in Milan). I did a lecture about my experiences in Italy and also taught an art class for Anthropology students. It was one of the best moments of my life.
When I returned to Camini, I formed a collective inspired by the exhibition, but I have had to put it on the back burner due to the current state of the world!
In October 2019, I briefly moved to Sweden. This was the beginning of a dark chapter for me personally – and when it ended, COVID-19 began. Quarantine is a whole new article and I am on a whole different journey these days!
Words by ana rose louis
Here are some of my links: