The recovery of a series of photographs found in an abandoned house in Sant’Andrea, in the southern Italian region of Calabria, was the pretext—the “starting point”—for researching the people portrayed. The first time I spoke with Petra, I was immediately touched by her desire that I reflect on some annotations to her volume, which she refers to as “the pulp part.”
As large disconnected stones compose the streets of a town’s chilly center, and seem precisely arranged to slow one’s step, so are the photographs of Stavast: they oblige us to look around, to question ourselves, and in their succession, to lift our heads to admire the complexity of this seductive book made of articulate discoveries from the dusty colors. In the somewhat troubled origins of Libero is its uniqueness: the rediscovery of a part of this important archive of memory, in a house years-ago forgotten: the house of Delia Greco, the last inhabitant of the mansion, and sister of Libero Gerardo Greco. With the subsequent desire to track down the owners, immortalized in the same photos, the author has created a purely human landscape in a succession of images of various types. The impression is just that of visiting a house which reflects a time past—a time which has been taken, pillaged, (added?) or simply moved. Thus, the atmosphere is frugal, among memories perhaps prickly and uncomfortable.
In the air, soothed to the edge of slumber, a long jingle of introverted sounds suggests itself. A sweet sensibility, perhaps lost to the descendants of this family now transplanted in New Jersey, is nevertheless timidly hidden behind the work of the emotionally and photographically intense figure of Petra.
Valentina Isceri: How did you end up in Calabria and how did you discovered the house?
Petra Stavast: In 2002, I was interviewed about my first project (Ramya that was) by Martin Simek, a from origin Czech writer and journalist (www.petrastavast.com/stavast.mp3 – 58 min, Dutch spoken) who had been living in Calabria with his Dutch wife already for many years by then. He – out of the blue – invited me to the village of Isca sullo Ionio. He actually invited me to visit the village, not to be his guest. He wanted me to stay their on my own for a while because he had a feeling my work and interests would fit there. To achieve that, he organized a place for me to sleep in the middle of the village and got me in contact with the doctor, Vito, since Vito was the most important person in area, understanding almost all inhabitants being over 70 years old. I was intrigued and I went, hardly knowing anything about Calabria. I was hooked right away, on the beauty, the total atmosphere, also the sadness. I didn’t speak Italian (nowadays a bit Calabrese..) and Vito nor anyone I’d met spoke English. Except for Gina, Vito’s wife who is an English teacher. I spend my days walking around, going on house-visits with Vito, worked the land with Gina, watched her cook and had many beautiful diners with her and her lovely family. But as much as I felt in place, I couldn’t find a way to depict were I was without being disappointed when I developed my films back home, a disappointment about the cliché; the ladies dressed in black, the ruins, tablecloths waving in the wind with ivy covered walls in the background – that kind of things. I went back each of the following years, sometimes twice, for a month, circling my vague subject, gained a lot of knowledge about the area (+ the cooking and the language) but for 4 years I couldn’t find an visual entrance. Until in 2007 I heard something about a house that was abandoned for nearly two decades, robbed over and over and still had valuables in it, that looked as if the owners just stepped out for a minute but never returned. From the outside, you couldn’t tell it wasn’t inhabited.
You might be interested to this site www.ascosilasciti.com …
Yes and no: to me, the house of Delia in this state isn’t charming but vandalized. It makes me sad that a house where you can see the love of its inhabitants is being so brutally destroyed.
VI: The first images, the panoramic ones, were taken from a place very dear to you. Would you talk to us about it?
PS: Most of my time in Calabria I stayed in a tiny remote house up the mountain, a former stable with just a bed, a table and a sink. From the door, one can overlook the village and the Ionian sea behind it. The tranquillity of this sight to me, especially when dark, is something sacred. To my surprise, when I put my tripod and camera with fixed lens in the doorstep, the village exactly fitted my viewfinder. I made that image many times as I wasn’t sure what I was doing there, photographically speaking. Those were the only images made in that first four years that, out of hundreds of pictures, became part of the project.
VI: Libero had a huge sales success so much that is sell out. Did you know the public that has bought it? And if so, do you think there was a kind of paradoxical thrust linked in some way to a nostalgic sense of belonging to what is lost?
PS: I got to know a lot of people through the book, both buyers and people who contacted me since they could find it anywhere – I still get a lot of correspondence. Beside Dutch and Italians, a lot of Americans bought the book, not all from Italian ancestry but in many cases people talked to me about their migrated ancestors from European descent. So I guess in many cases there was some sense of personal nostalgia involved, in some cases people, like Libero and his sister, never visited their homeland after their parents died but felt a strong link once they became older and parents themselves. But actually going their and see what is there for themselves is something rare. That to me, without judging it,feels somewhat like a paradox. Also, something I hadn’t foreseen, was that I had an exhibition in China with ‘Libero’ and there, due to the high migration level, the story was well received.
VI: In Italy is very strong the concept of ownership that leads to a phenomenology related to the formation of the ego and to the size of the individual identity. For an Italian it is almost impossible to conceive of the idea of inheriting a house and to leave in total abandonment. How did you live this experience?
PS: At first, I found it unbelievable that no one took care of the house, not the family nor the community / municipality. But in this case, it’s so much more complex; as the inheritors are not Italian and not in direct relation with any of their Italian family, they were in the dark: as the first email of Libero (Lee) shows: he thought the house was donated to the church, not knowing that théy were the inheritors. They have little knowledge of their Italian family, there is no contact, their father was their last link. When through the project it became clear that they legally were the owners, or at least they could become that (Italian law, especially for non-Italians, is very complicated) they stepped back, it was too much for them to act upon. It is hard to explain this matter in just a few sentences, it is quite complex. Actually, the book circles this specific topic since this question – in time – became the main topic. In my book, I took a lot of effort to explain the case of the house of Delia in relation to Libero and his US family, I’m not judgmental and I tried to show each side of the story in a personal personal perspective, I tried to display the right amount of information needed for the reader to apprehend all sides of the story too.
VI: This book also talks about the phenomenon of migration movements. After seven years over its release could be a new beginning for a more complex anthropological project that investigates in a general way the life’s experience and transformations of the generations gushed by the migrants of the fifties… Do you know that exist an important Observatory about the process migration from Calabria which reported the existence and coexistence of some communities and cultural expressions very strong in Canada?
PS: Indeed that is of great interest to me and, starting from the almost entirely vanished archive of a photographer based in Sant’Andrea, I’m working on a new work that circles around that topic. Delia and Libero sr. had one other sister, Concetta, who owned a photo studio next to the house of Delia and Enzo. Concetta never married nor had children, she ran a successful business by herself which was well known in the surrounding area. I got in contact with a few migrated people from Sant’Andrea now living in the US and Canada, that had their portrait taken by Concetta for their travel documents in the late forties. When working on ‘Libero’ I figured the Concetta-story didn’t fit that project so I put in on a shelve for another time and another context. Last year I went to the house again where I discovered a handful of glass negatives and some 4 x 5 meter rolls of fabric painted in black and white with different sceneries that functioned as a picture background in her studio. This upcoming year and probably 2016 too I will work further on this story, starting from her photo studio. I have for instance several leads that end in the same overseas community. I’m not sure how all of this will turn out but I’m curious to see where it takes me. The material I have so far is beautiful and I hope I will find a way, together with the upcoming investigation, to make it into this ‘more complex anthropological project’ as you mentioned. Actually, I can’t wait to see where Concetta will take me, besides Canada and the US.
Petra Stavast (1977) is a Dutch visual artist. Through the media of photography, film and text Stavast unravels and structures complex social issues often departing from an seemingly insignificant personal observation. In her books ‘China/S75’ (Roma Publications, 2008), ‘Libero’ (Roma Publications, 2009) and ‘Ramya’ (Fw:Books / Roma Publications, 2014) she brings different fragments of research together and translates them into a compelling visual story. Her work has been exhibited in museums, galleries, cultural institutions and festivals worldwide such as the New York Photo Festival, Fundazione Giuliani Rome, Lishui Photographic Festival China and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Stavast received her BFA with honours form the School of Fine Arts St.Joost, NL. She currently teaches at the School of Fine Arts Utrecht, NL and lives and works in Amsterdam.