Between political catastrophes (the defeat of the radical left-wing movements in which I had been militating in the 70s amidst various other distractions) and new euphorias (which left me less indifferent than I assumed at the time), after a few Middle Eastern sojourns, including the crossroads in Lebanon with the very unpeaceful “peace in Galilee”, the practice of a more adventurous than remunerative traffic of archaeological finds with Etienne Abboud, a few days in jail in a barracks in Sinai as the final act of the Middle Eastern Kermis(1989), I had begun to deal with contemporary art. The avantgarde of the 20th century, at the DAMS where I graduated in 1978, had been able to fascinate me. not by chance my dissertation was on dada (dada between theater and life). Written under the influence of the theses of the Situationist International, it earned me a radical lowering of my grade point average, a council chamber that lasted for several hours and an article in the local newspaper, since the event of lowering the grade point average had only had a distant precedent. Considering my proletarian background and a certain impatience with titles, it still seemed like an amazing accomplishment. If, however, the wind of the historical avant-garde resounded in the profession of art critic, which took a laborious shape a few years later (assuming it ever took any shape at all), it was also due to the fact that I didn’t really know what else to do. It was a great friend, Giorgio Cortenova (one of my seven fathers, as a witchdoctor from Chitral made clear to me a few years later. After that I interpreted for “father”, in addition to the natural one, Tiberio, who died too young, six others who had the characteristic of being older than me and who were able to teach me something) to convince me that I could even make a job. Looking for a space of action that was not particularly crowded and that was in my ropes of curiosity about the world, I began to study the relationship between tribal art and western avantgarde; a territory, however, dried up, on which there was no longer much to say and even less to discover, since the era was roaring in which everyone, especially in the West, had access to the complete archive of everything that had happened in the art of every time and place. It was Cortenova who suggested, thanks to his friendship and outside of any scheme, and because no one else was actually dealing with it, that I could curate the “tribal art” section of the exhibition Modigliani a Montparnasse (1987).
How did I get there, without any previous training and since it was evident that I had neither art nor part?
Previously, a chance encounter with an old friend (Alberto Forlivesi) and his fiancée had accidentally and almost without realizing it introduced me into the contemporary art circuit, since the girl in question, Daniella Leonardi, was the daughter of one of the great sculptors of the second half of the twentieth century, Leoncillo, who died in 1968 and whose work was not then in great health, but about whom (indeed, precisely because of this) she asked me to devise some decent exhibitions. The friendship with the other son of Leoncillo, Leonetto, did the rest. By the way, let it be said in parentheses but not even that much, I am still credited as Leoncillo’s greatest expert. Through Forlivesi’s father, a former partisan commander on the Gothic Line, we got to know his former comrade Mario Roffi, who, as mayor of Ferrara and a gifted intellectual, was passionate about the project and made us put it into practice at the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara (1983). After that, we moved it to Spoleto, the homeland of Leoncillo (and myself, as well as Forlivesi). It was through Leoncillo that in 1985 started my first collaboration with Cortenova, director of Palazzo Forti in Verona, and my definitive introduction, albeit in alternating current (and alternating with some old project that was dissipating while leaving some traces even in my new interests), into the contemporary art circuit was sealed. At the time, Palazzo Forti was the major Italian stage for the European avant-garde.
My interest in contemporary African art stemmed instead from my complicity with Sarenco, a leading figure in avant-garde visual poetry who had moved to Africa and was fascinated by various local artists, both for the undoubtedly fresh qualities of an art that still needed to tell stories, in the face of the Western art that was struggling with cuts and seams, and for the character of destiny that he found in the meeting with people of Africa. A tightrope walker, squanderer of assets (his own, but also those of others), and one of the five best artists of his generation (I have never been able to say who the other four might be), Sarenco knew how to get excited like a child about the most adventurous projects while never losing sight of the possibility of transforming them into business. Already well known both as an artist and as a dealer of dada and surrealism, it is not clear what he could have found in a collaboration with me, since my position in the milieu of contemporary art (we are around the end of the ’80s) was precarious and basically still sporadic, despite the fact that I enjoyed a reputation that, thanks to a few successful exhibitions (in addition to those with Cortenova, the collaboration and friendship with Fabio Sargentini was decisive) and the air I gave myself of being one who knows a lot, it was considered good, where the term in question did not include the judgement on what I organized and even less on what I wrote. In other words, I was considered someone who had a certain power in matters of art, which in the midst of “Milano da bere” (drinking Milan) was considered the only thing to be taken into consideration. If we want to be fussy, there was also something true, because thanks to my mother Giuliana, a dressmaker with a much stronger reputation than mine and ready to do anything to help my sister Maria Laura and myself in the most reckless enterprises, I had known and moderately frequented a series of ladies of Italian high society, that as the intelligent and generous Marta Marzotto allowed me access to collections and artists (of course Guttuso, of which I organized with Cortenova (1988) the first postmortem exhibition with the success of which you can imagine, since it was in the hottest phase of the clash between Marta and the “trust” Trombadori-Cardinal Angelini, so that she put polemically available even ca. 100 erotic drawings that Guttuso had dedicated to her and in which she towered in multiple variants of a only single theme – so much so that the section was banned to minors under 18 years and put in a dark room, of course augmenting the success of the exhibition). Immediately afterwards, the aforementioned arrest in Egypt and its widespread media coverage triggered not only a certain amount of anonymous letters (old italian tradition, to which I reacted by sending some of my own, so exaggerated and unbelievable that they were intended to ruin the credible and in some cases even well-informed ones, only to discover later that the most widely circulated theses were the most unlikely ones, but that’s another story) but also the need to restructure my activity in art. What better than Africa, and therefore the association with Sarenco? I can’t say how Africa is a great place to live, but there is certainly no better place to escape to. I know that Fabrizio Dal Santo, whose profession as a lawyer has never prevented him, along with Sarenco and myself, from frequent African trips in search of an art that could bite the hot guts of the time, is ready to confirm this. There, then, was another of my seven fathers, who was always clear about the fact that whoever deserves something must at least return another of similar quality. I have already mentioned how little he was interested in my presumed power in art, which was in a phase of accelerated collapse, but he was instead very stimulated by my familiarity with Asia and especially with tribal fabrics and war carpets. So Sarenco opened the doors of Sub-Saharan Africa to me and I opened the doors of Central Asia to him. I’m still travelling there, looking for the shoking war rugs I started to collect in the 80’s, a research I still continue, alone or with long-time accomplices like the artist Graziano Marini. My war rugs collection is now circulating in various US museums thanks to Annemarie Sawkins, who was also stroke and charmed by this small and powerful manufacts.
But what was I did there, between Peshawar and Almaty?
On my way back from one of the various and still active Middle-Eastern trips (I forgot to say that in the meantime I had also become an antiquarian dealer, a stimulating activity that almost ceased with the fire of the antiquarian fair of Todi (1982), which made disappear not only everything that my partners and I had in there, but above all many people who never came out of that building) I saw near my house in Rome, in Via Piè di Marmo to be precise, a new gallery called Akka which exhibited, with the rigor and refinement of an oriental Serraglio, a series of extraordinary Asian fabrics, African sculptures as voluminous and powerful as Brancusi’s Maiastra, and Moghol bas-reliefs as lyrical and fluid as a rippling liquid that has just thawed. Sandro Fantò and Guglielmo Lisanti were the owners, and thinking back on it now, I feel as if I have known them forever, just as it has happened and will happen with anyone else which I formed a friendship worthy of the name.
My interest in the textile cultures of Central Asia was thus determined by the frequent visits and travels I began in the mid-1980s with Sandro Fantò (another of my seven fathers), a great expert on that world in which surprising discoveries were possible, caught between the incessant Afghan wars, the Iranian revolution and the collapse of the USSR. My fascination with Africa and its art had at the same time to do with Guglielmo Lisanti and his tribal collections, especially his textile collections, which seemed to me to be more original, in that they were less seen and treated to masks and fetishes. When Sarenco showed me contemporary African art that was substantially freed from tribal typologies and in connection with that of every other continent, he therefore found prepared ground, at least on the level of the feeling of Africa as a place where semper aliquit novi.
Returning to Asia, from Pakistan and Afghanistan (where I had made a trip in the 1970s and a few longer ones about ten years later) I slipped into Central Asia as soon as it was possible, that is, close to the collapse of the USSR. The first frequentation was above all for sentimental purposes (an area on which I will not dwell either here or elsewhere, since this text is both a biography of events linked to art and, on the other hand, linked to a personal discretion on sentimental matters that remains perhaps my only bourgeois quality, although such matters have often and willingly intertwined with travel and transfers, and also with work on art. On the other hand, I have never considered the private to be political, and ultimately not even aesthetic). At that time I did not notice an interesting art scene, nor would it have been possible in conservative Uzbekistan. In Central Asia, in the so-called five stans+in that Xing-Xiang under Chinese slap, I looked for ancient felts, which Sandro had shown me in the bazaars of Peshawar, especially in the store of Ghulam Sakhi (among my seven fathers, the one with the longest beard) and of which I had already formed a small collection, before meeting, and traveling a few times, with Sergio Poggianella, who proposed to me to exhibit it in his new Milanese Foundation (Contemporanea) in 2000. Valeria Ibraeva, at the time (1990s) director of the Soros Center for Contemporary Art in Central Asia, taught me extensively about the existence of a strong and motivated contemporary art. A complicity was born with Valeria that has not yet ended and that at that time took the form of frequent trips from Bishkek to Karaganda to Shymkent, where the avant-garde group Kizil Traktor was active. In Almaty I also met Renato Sala and Jean Marc Dion, who at the end of the ’80s had moved from Vietnam to Kazakhstan along a journey mostly on foot that had lasted a couple of years, a few months spent as monks in a Tibetan monastery. From climatologist (Sala) and specialist in oriental languages (Dion) to recognized authority in the petroglyph sector, their change of profession as well as of residence took place. For me, a few trips to the steppe to discover petroglyphs and, above all, many discussions in their office at the Academy of Sciences in Almaty, where Eisenstein had already edited his Ivan the Terrible, which many considered offensive to Stalin, when the dictator was, if anything, gratified, was very productive.
Something similar, although of lesser perspective, happened during the same period in Pakistan, where through Salima Hashmi, artist and gallery owner, I met a surprising contemporary art scene under the banner of a true matriarchy, dominated at the time by artists to whom I have remained attached, such as Adeela Suleyman. Some of these encounters were provoked by Martina Corgnati, with whom I established an association that has never been interrupted, since it has to do with the same places and the same interests.
In the same period, it was through the friendship and frequentation of Gianni Emilio Simonetti, that I met regularly in the most unlikely bars on the outskirts of Milan (he chose them), that I came to better understand the question of the “negative avant-garde”, of which he remains the most ruthless (may be is better “merciless”). As far as what I call “negative avant-garde” is concerned (insofar as it is more suited to sabotage than to planning, or at most to the planning of sabotage), it was of course also the frequentation of Julien Blaine, a performer to whom inclusion in visual poetry is no less reductive than to Sarenco, and Francesco Conz, to whom the category of “great collector” is no less reductive too. With all of them, linked in one way or another to the avant-garde, which constituted the node of their respective cultural interests, I organized and curated exhibitions and catalogs of visual poetry, fluxus, lettrism…a bit everywhere, but above all (in the 90s) in the Rocca di Umbertide, until then known as the prison of Braccio Fortebraccio da Montone.