Material Culture as an Inventory of Histories for a Creolizing Space

Diasporic Communities’ Crafts(wo)manship


Francesca Gattello, Zeno Franchini

With colonization, the principle that governs the body politic became that of differentiality: the management of disparities between citizens and other groups, and among citizens themselves. One of the tools of differentiality has been the constant denial of one’s culture, especially in the form of material culture. As Azoulay writes:

“From the beginning, art has been imperialism’s preferred terrain. Much has been written about the impoverishment of different cultures whose artistic treasures were expropriated to enrich Western aristocracies and embellish Western museums. Less has been written about the reduction of art from a polysemous set of practices endemic to the rituals, habits, and needs of various communities to a unified activity whose products are exchangeable objects, destined to be interpreted and cared for by experts according to allegedly neutral procedures that have been made into the transcendental condition of art. Even less has been written about the danger of depriving people of their material worlds.” [1]

Colonized people have been deprived of a secure place among objects and people that one recognizes and where one is recognized as more than a piece of property, a unit of labour-power, or a source of tax revenue. When we think of the current criminalization of migration, we should also see it as the movement of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing their homes for the countries of their ex-colonizers in Europe, to join part of the wealth and culture that was denied to (and stolen from) them.

Similarly, Sicilian material culture has been set aside in favour of industrial development and progress that never succeeded. As with other so-called ‘under-developed’ territories that were exploited to grant the wealthier part of the world an unsustainable lifestyle, Sicilians were denied their cultural identity, becoming a periphery of Italy and Europe. Today Sicily finds itself no longer at the center of the Mediterranean, but on the border of fortress Europe, part of the Western societies but still reminiscent of other world orders and exchanges.

As refugees land on its coasts, a cowardly political balance keeps them segregated and denies their right to citizenship, ‘warehousing’ them as both potentially dangerous and passive subjects in need of help, deprived of their past and their culture, considered unworthy to be ‘integrated’. Both migrants and Sicilians have been deprived of their material heritage in different ways, but the ruination of material infrastructures is a common trait that emerges in striking evidence when looking at traditional and vernacular manufacture and crafts.

In working with newcomers, we take advantage of the density of the urban dimension and the collection of narratives around its making, to position Design and crafts in a ‘vernacular’ trajectory – a process of centuries that has always been based on encounter of the other, and relation to one’s surroundings. As the city of Palermo was stratified with successive colonizations and influxes, today we question what this layering and juxtaposition produces. While the management and reproduction of material culture are deeply elitist and unequal, together with newcomers we carve out workspaces in which we can deepen the research in and around these questions, in an attempt to establish an exchange and co-design process.


[1] AZOULAY Ariella, ‘Plunder, The Transcendental Condition Of Modern Art And Community Of Fabri’, curated by ROELANDT Els and BAROIS DE CAEVEL Eva in Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise, Berlin, Sternberg Press, 2017.