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The Land of the Overseas Territories

Il Paese delle Terre d'Oltremare is an art-based research project
conceived by artist Alessandra Cianelli. It started in 2012 and is carried
out through a series of performance-outputs (see "Project’s CV" file),
each realised in collaboration with different fellow researchers, coming
from several areas of expertise.
The project, which focuses on forgotten memories of Italian colonialism
in Africa, opens up the country’s (post)colonial archive, developing a
specific line of inquiry into archival work and collaborative editing
through a journey of critical wonder and astonishment. Il Paese delle
Terre d'Oltremare aligns itself with other critical investigations presently
concurring in the articulation of postcolonial theory as a global theory,

with a special focus on ‘the Italian postcolonial’. It also aligns itself with
the current interest in research and methodologies where the archive is
taken as a vehicle for both memory and future projections.
***
Taking the official (historical) and unofficial (personal) archives of
Italian colonial history as both the source material and methodology of
the research, Il Paese delle Terre d'Oltremare investigates and re-works
the complex relationship between past and future in post-colonial Italy
through aesthetics. It explores the traces of abandoned future scenarios
from the colonial past of the country, still lingering in the present, and
takes them as cues to read and deconstruct the present itself. It is not by
chance that this project comes from Naples, where the Maritime Station
and the Mostra delle Terre d’Oltremare (or Overseas Exhibition Centre,
now MOSTRA D’OLTREMARE S.p.A.) respectively opened in 1936 and
1940: both are impressive physical and symbolic sites of Italian
colonialism. According to the Italian colonial project, Naples – formerly
d capital city of the Kingdom of two Sicily, conquered by the “Italian”Piedmontes Savoia Army – was in fact
the privileged logistical and ‘narrative’ outpost from which to set out and
conquer the ‘fourth shore’: at the height of the Italian colonial enterprise,
ships set out from Naples to reach the colonies. The city was home to the
Istituto Universitario Orientale (now Università degli Studi di Napoli
“L'Orientale”, supporter of this research), where colonial civil servants
were educated and trained. From these starting points, where one time
imperial rhetoric and individual lives profoundly intersected, the project
highlights the role of colonial memory in the articulation of present and
future scenarios in the Afro-Mediterranean area.
The project’s exploratory journey starts from a very tangible outpost: the
Mostra delle Terre d’Oltremare, a now partially abandoned space on the
outskirts of Naples, which was built by the Fascist government in 1937-
40 as an exhibition complex. The Mostra celebrated ‘the Italian Empire’
by exhibiting the wide variety of its ‘overseas territories’. It was
complete with perfectly reproduced colonial villages inhabited by ‘real
natives’, who would later on mysteriously disappear leaving almost no

trace (see Labanca 2007, Arena 2011, Abbattista 2013, Wu Ming 2 2015),
an open arena, two theatres, a (still-functioning) zoo, the (still-
functioning) amusement park Edenlandia, a tropical aquarium, a
swimming pool, restaurants, real Roman ruins, and large extensions of
African flora. The Mostra’s declared purpose was to provide ‘the citizen
of the new Empire’, inhabiting the Northern shore of the Mediterranean
Sea, with a physical space devoted to the experiential exploration of the
cultural, political and military force of the Empire. On a deeper level, the
Mostra was therefore a phanta-exotic complex: a desire, a future
projection made real, which could be wandered through in the here and
now, in awe, amusement, curiosity, with a want for knowledge, a sense of
wonder. The opening of the Mostra Triennale delle Terre d'Oltremare
was in this sense a fundamental step in the realisation of the Fascist
project, concurring with other factors in the development of the Italian
colonial consciousness.
Walking in the footsteps of our antecedents, we (Cianelli and fellow
researchers) take a first-person exploration of the premises in the now
ruined, neglected and partially abandoned futuristic complex of the
Mostra as the core, departure point of the research project. Il Paese delle
Terre d'Oltremare is in fact an artistic narration of our expeditions into
this ‘lost land’, aiming to tell the story of an archaeological expedition to
the roots of our ‘Colonial Self’. We physically explore the place: walking
while writing, making video, recording audio, taking photographs,
narrating our journeys. The work re-activates dormant memories, which
have survived oblivion and exist to meet us now as souvenirs from the
past, suspended somehow, here, in a city on the Northern shore of the
Mediterranean Sea. Our aim is to investigate the potential they have to
both help us chart minor/alternative narrations of a specific moment of
history (Italian colonialism in Africa) and tap into the veins of the
country and Europe’s current state of affairs, facing the resurgence of
dualistic oppositions between 'us' and other projected ‘aliens from
overseas’.
Acknowledging Italy’s lack of official engagement with its colonial past,
we ask ourselves: What inhabits such a critical 'void'? What have we (as

a country) forgotten, buried and removed? How can ‘it’ be excavated and
brought to light? It is our contention that what has been buried is not
primarily an historical event (the Italian colonial enterprise in Africa,
1890s-1947) but a desire to construct the Self through the
representation of a colonial Other. ‘Desire', as a pure ‘belief’ and ability
to project the future, is more than just ideology. What this ‘desire’ has
produced (in terms of both official histories and personal accidents,
architectures, figures of the imaginary, artefacts, bodies etc.) configures
an embodiment of a future project/ion. What is left of all this, in the
present, is therefore an expanded, disseminated archive, containing
memories of the future. These often survive in unsuspected ‘carriers’:
words we use in common language (such as Ambaradan, the place in
Ethiopia where a ferocious colonial battle took place in 1936, now
merely evoking ‘mess’ and ‘chaos’), songs (like those accompanying the
colonial enterprise) and places (like the Mostra in Naples).
Il Paese delle Terre d'Oltremare is an archival exploration that aims to
remain self-reflexive. Through its practice, it wishes to confront
questions, which intersect several disciplines, while converging on the
question of the meaning of archives. From our research perspective, any
interrogation of the meaning of the archive is simultaneously part of a
wider and more subtle discourse on memory. We approach our
disseminated, partly material, partly immaterial archive, using artistic
practice as a means to both excavate and interrogate an existing archive,
and as a way of engendering, provoking and evoking an archive-to- come.
***
The development of Italy’s colonial consciousness was a long,
complicated process. In a country that was still striving to construct a
unitary, national identity for itself, the colonial project was instrumental
in constructing ‘the Self’ through ‘the Other’. However, at the end of
WW2 and the defeat of Fascism, the Italian colonial enterprise fell into
oblivion and colonial consciousness was buried deep down beneath the
visible surface of our (acceptable) national identity. For a long time, if
the topic was ever brought up in public debates, Italian colonialism was

even considered a ‘mild’ form of colonialism, requiring only ‘mild’
condemnation. A light need still be shed on these issues and how they
impinge on the way we construct perceptions of ourselves and ‘the
Other’ in Italy today.
To this end, a novel area of investigation has recently been developed in
Italy, which, for want of a better term, could be called ‘the Italian
postcolonial’. Firstly emerging as a sensibility towards the necessity to
discuss past facts and present effects of the colonial era in the country
across far-flung fields (literature, anthropology, musicology, history,
geography, cinema and media theory, sociology, art history and so on),
this broad area of investigation is now more decidedly dubbed
‘postcolonial’. This was particularly evident in February 2015 during
“Archives of the Future: Italy, the Postcolonial and the Time to Come”, a
conference organised by the “postcolonialitalia project” at the University
of Padua. The name also implies that the genealogy of this area of inquiry
lies in the interdisciplinary field of Anglophone Postcolonial Studies.
Over the past three decades, Postcolonial Studies have made evident,
from the perspective of the present, how important it is to gain an
insight into the hegemonic codes of memorialisation that regulate the
construction of ‘acceptable’ collective/national identities. In fact, the
term ‘postcolonial’ does not merely refer to what comes ‘after’ the end of
Empire. It refers instead to a longer time span covering the time of
colonial occupation, as well as the history of decolonisation and the
current state of the former colonising and colonised countries (which in
most cases refers to the global neo-colonial asset of the world). A major
contribution of this research area is also the exhortation to be attentive
to the traces of counter-hegemonic practices of memory-making
(History>histories>her-stories) which resist oblivion.
Similarly, the ‘Italian postcolonial’ line of inquiry applies such future-
oriented, criss-crossing temporal perspective to Italy and its relation to
Africa. It thus extends the inquiry to the study of race and representation
in the context of current migrations, as well as the cultural production of
the African diaspora in Italy (see the activities of the AMM – Archivio

Memorie Migranti, and Mezzadra 2008). Such a line of enquiry is not
only interested in the production of critical thought and in decolonising
disciplines (historiography, anthropology, ethnography, etc.), but also
very much centred on practices – including artistic production.
Aesthetics significantly raised the issue of Italy’s loss of colonial memory
long before the contours of a ‘postcolonial’ sensibility became visible in
critical theory across disciplines (Chambers and Ianniciello 2016).
Reciprocally, theoretical elaborations have corroborated artistic
practice, as revealed by the steady increase in experimental works
dealing with Italian colonialism (e.g. the works of Bridget Baker,
Annalisa Cannito, Anouck Durand, Alessandra Ferrini, Alan Maglio and
Medhin Paolos). Although a critical account of the similarities and
differences (in background, methodology, and techniques) between such
works/practices is not possible here, a ‘state of the art’ survey would be
very beneficial to this novel area of research. However, importantly,
various forms of archival research and methodologies are central to
these works.
Archives are indeed the privileged source material and methodology
mobilised by artistic practice in post-colonial contexts (examples include
Christian Boltanski, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Harun Faroki). More recently,
this interest is also evident in the field of art curating (Okwui Enwezor,
Carolyn Kristov Bakargiev, Jens Hoffmann, Massimiliano Gioni, Lucrezia
Cippitelli), art practices in Italy (Rä di Martino, Invernomuto, Giulio
Squillacciotti; the collectives canecapovolto, Studio Azzurro,
malastrada.film) and in postcolonial art specifically since the late 80s
(Petra Bauer, Ursula Biemann, Adrian Piper, Lorna Simpson, The Atlas
Group, Keith Calhoun & Chandra McCormick, Zineb Sedira). In this case,
the analysis of this general tendency should be broken down into a more
articulated study in order to discuss several critical issues which take
into account the specificity of each practice. For the sake of brevity, here
we would only like to raise the issue of positionality. In fact, the question
of how we work with (these) archives remains open.
When we deal with archives, positionality (which means, who works on

which archive, when, how and to which ends) is indeed crucial. Why do
we strive to open up closed archives? Do we seek reparation? Is it shame
that moves us? What about archives that fail to be opened? Are archives
only made of objects? What about immaterial archives? How do we
exhibit what we find in the archive? Whose archives are we talking about
– those pertaining to hegemonic power or the unauthorised archives of
‘the Other’? Do we equate ‘bringing to light’ with ethics or is ‘opacity’
also an ethical quality? In the age of eternal recall, how do we consider
the ability to forget? And who is ‘we’ anyway?
Il Paese delle Terre d’Oltremare is itself an exploration of the Archive with
a ‘capital A’, meaning that it explores the issue of the archival dispositif in
itself. The artistic gesture here is twofold. On the one hand, we are
‘breaking into’ an existing archive, excavating memories and
memorabilia to bring them to light. On the other, we experiment with
modalities that aim to provoke an archive. This means using ‘vision’ to
re-enact archival fragments that have not yet resurfaced, or are not (yet)
existent. In terms of practice, this means acting and performing the
research instead of assuming a passive position towards the memories
and memorabilia that one encounters during the research process itself.
This frequently involves the delicate work of negotiating access – both
institutionally and critically – to archives that are either highly restricted
or else are no longer considered to have that function. Behind officially
designated archives and the far wider fabrics of official and unofficial
memories, working the archive frequently becomes a work of counter-
mapping and counter-narratives.
In the current age of eternal recall, which is a retroaction of the digital
and connected realm extending well beyond the net, one experiences
what it means to be face to face with a virtually unlimited number of
records on a daily basis. This accessibility cannot be necessarily equated
with a form of active engagement with these records: under the current
conditions of memory, the appearance and disappearance, life and death
of a memory are closely connected and very often indistinguishable from
one another (see Parikka 2013). Is it possible, under these
circumstances, to conceive an ecology of the archive? Each single record

that comes to the surface might immediately disappear again in the
undifferentiated and indifferent ‘basin’ of a shared, overcharged
memory; unless one succeeds in finding a way to pass it on, filtering it
through an experience – which is personal and individual and yet shared,
simultaneously acting on the levels of the body and the word.
Throughout the different phases of our research, we have been
attempting this through practice. Through the research already realised
in this field, a series of critical intersections have emerged between
academic research agendas and ongoing artistic practices. If these have
most obviously orbited around questions of memory and contested
claims on the past, they have also shifted methodological procedures out
of the narrow confines of text-based research into grappling with the
realisation of artistic practices, events and a subsequent shift in the
tonality of critical interrogations.
An example of this methodology was the “Ruined Archive” workshop,
organised by the EU research project “MeLa* – European Museums in an
Age of Migrations” in Naples, May 2014. On that occasion, Alessandra
Cianelli and various collaborators carried out a collective performance-
presentation entitled “Biological Archives/ Biographical Archives” (see
Cianelli, Ferlito and Ferrara 2014). The presentation ended with the live
performance of the refrain of a colonial song, Faccetta Nera
(http://youtu.be/1PmUTJ-T33U). This propaganda song, which came
out in the 1930s, soon became extremely popular, and yet it is currently
near impossible to sing due to its Fascist legacy and its racial and
gendered implications. Nevertheless, the song is well-known to almost
everyone in Italy, transversally, across generations. Together with
similar songs, it is part of an archive that is at the same time non-existent
(unrecognised) and active (still very present in the deep strata of our
shared memory). Re-enacting this song (playing and singing it live, in the
here and now, deploying the recognised physical capacity of sound to act
on the deeper strata of memory, i.e. on the level of the body) put the
performers and the audience alike into a state of dis-comfort. It also
allowed a psychic immersion into the affective milieu of colonialism, in
order to try and understand how certain modalities of thought, vision,

and action were formed and how they work. These are the living roots of
our shared ‘sense’ of self. The experience allowed the performers and the
audience to be simultaneously here, there, and somewhere else, but now,
where ‘now’ means in the past, present, and future of our ‘common
sense’, at the same time.
This example is in some way paradigmatic of the project’s procedures.
Since we try to filter the many records we come across through the filter
of the ‘sense of individual and collective Self’, this methodology is a
positioning in itself: it is us, in the here and now, as white, European,
Mediterranean human beings, who look into, feel and sense this
expanded archive; and we can only do this as ‘us’, not speaking for any
'Other'.

Alessandra Cianelli & Beatrice Ferrara (2016-2017)
(Many thanks to Sarah Waring, a considerate reader and a generous writer)

Working Bibliography
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