The problem of difference is proximity not distance: impermanent nigeria
Catalogue essay for Mario Rizzi, 2008

The colonials, post-colonials, migrants, minorities - wandering peoples who will not be contained within the Heim of the national culture and its unisonant discourse, but are themselves the marks of a shifting boundary that alienates the frontiers of the modern nation. (…) For it is by living on the borderline of history and language, on the limits of race and gender, that we are in a position to translate the differences between them into a kind of solidarity.

Is it possible to grasp the perspective of the present from the movement of the emigrant? What potentials can this perspective carry? How does belonging conform our identity, influence our yearning for cultural roots or pushes us in a cultural gap? Why is belonging a more pressing need in situations of instability and impermanence? These are the questions pondered by Mario Rizzi’s latest piece, impermanent nigeria.

As a project, impermanent nigeria consists of a 16mm film, 15 photographs, a slide projection and a sound piece. The film focuses on the ritual liturgy at the Christian Pentecostal Church in Turin on the last Sunday of May 2007. The event unravels with individual and collective praying, singing and dancing.  The respect of memories and traditions in the ceremony is formally underlined by Rizzi's choice for a 16mm film. Three cameras inside the church capture the mass in its totality, while the narrative is provided by the process of the ritual. Although the film focuses on the ritual as a whole, it implicitly unravels the individual and collective aspects of belonging to a community.

The photographic component of the project is mostly intimate portraits of the participants to the ceremony. Women with beautiful, colorful costumes and towering elegant headgear;  men and women praying in semi-hypnotic state, women vibrantly dancing and imploring God; an adolescent girl holding a banner emblazoned with the name of Jesus Christ like a cheer leader at an American football match; women on their knees listening to the pastor preaching. The slide projection consists of 80 photographic images and is accompanied by 20 minutes of soundtrack.

To film this central event, Rizzi became acquainted with the Nigerian community living in Turin. The spectator is offered a glimpse into the life of the community. People behave naturally as if undistracted by the the filming process. As in his previous works, Rizzi builds a relationship of trust with the community, careful not to objectify or distance himself from the members.

impermanent nigeria draws its strength from the location of the church, the characteristics of the dance and the history behind the brilliant dresses. The film could have been possibly realized in a gospel church in Harlem. This initial impression is heightened by the fact that the spoken language is English. However, the fact that English is the official language of Nigeria is related to British colonization which lasted until 1960. Also the printed multi-colored fabrics, which we would associate immediately with African culture, were in reality imported by the English colonizers, while the suggestive movements of the women closely relate to the ritual gestures during the hard work of the African slaves in the American plantations.  

What significance can Turin’s Nigerian community have in a socio-political context? According to Homi Bhabha, it is to the city that emigrants, minorities, the diaspora come to change the history of a nation. He adds that in the West, and increasingly elsewhere, it is the city which provides the space in which emergent identifications and new social movements of the people are played out. It is in the city that the perplexity of the living is most acutely experienced. As a city, Turin has fielded great waves of immigration from the South of Italy since World War II and from abroad because of the developed industry. And Nigeria is a country from which millions of Nigerians have emigrated at times of economic hardship to Europe, North America and Australia. In Strangers in Paradise: Foreigners and Shadows in Italian Literature, Graziella Parati asserts that Italy is the choice of many Africans who cannot accept moving from the colony to the ex-motherland, in most cases France or England. Italy presents an alternative country, where an anti-immigrant tradition has not yet been established, but where an immigrant faces heavy discrimination. In this case, the difficulty of being an immigrant in Italy is amplified by also being black.
impermanent nigeria also generates critical reflection on the forgotten colonial history of Italy. In Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, Slavoj Zizek discusses “unknown knowns”, or things we do not know that we know, which correspond precisely to the Freudian unconscious. According to Zizek, these disavowed beliefs and suppositions construct part of our vision of the world. In this respect, the work recalls Italy’s amnesia in relation to its colonial past, which extended to Somalia, Libya, Ethiopia and Eritrea, and ended with Italy’s defeat in World War II. Since self-knowledge is important in understanding the Other, the Nigerian community, even though it has never been colonized by Italy, stands as a reminder of Italian colonial history.
impermanent nigeria shares common ground with Esra Ersen’s Brothers & Sisters (2003), a video work that focuses on the African community in Istanbul, Turkey. In one sequence of the video, Ersen films the black community gathering in an apartment following a death. Suprisingly, just like in impermanent nigeria, people gather to mourn, to eat and to dance. Even though they focus on different aspects of the community, in the former case a religious rite and in the latter a non-religious mourning ritual, both pieces demonstrate the indispensable need to belong to a community – be it in the church or a private sphere – in a setting like Italy or Turkey, where the countries’ monocultural structure makes it almost impossible to integrate into society. Although they are set in Istanbul and Turin, both works speak of economic and ethnic marginalization, which demonstrates the bitter reality of a life disintegrated by a prejudiced society.  

In impermanent nigeria Rizzi looks at present-day Italy from the movement of the immigrant. It is only through “the process of dissemiNation” - of meaning, time, peoples, cultural boundaries and historical traditions - that the radical alterity of the national culture can create new forms of living and writing. This dissemination and cultural crossovers that impermanent nigeria makes explicit – be it the Nigerian native culture, the British, the American or the Italian culture – is a source of inspiration for Rizzi.

The title ‘impermanent’ implies temporariness, change, transience and fragility, but also, in its negation, expresses the human longing for stability. It conveys both the precarious conditions that made the community come to Italy and the precarious conditions that they endure today and that can make them leave again. Geographical displacement creates a new concept of religious identity and social role in relation to the new structure of a given ethnic community. By concentrating on this micro-community, Rizzi goes beyond documenting the religious practices of the Nigerian community; he highlights the forceful need to belong, when social solidarity fails.

At the same time, by concentrating on a single simple event, a brief moment in the life of a community, the artist implicitly makes the presence of the Nigerian community visible. This engaged aspect of Rizzi’s practice, in which he deals with the “border”, the fringes of society, the conditions of the subaltern, is echoed in all his recent projects from impermanent nola (2008), where he built up a taqueria in the Center of Contemporary Art of New Orleans with the illegal community of Hispanics who came to the city to work after Katrina, to nextdoor (2006), where he created a film piece with Daghdha Dance Company on the condition of being different in the Irish town of Limerick, to Out of Place (2005), a video installation on second-generation inhabitants of Paris, or Art Makes It Happen (2003), a work aiming at allowing the celebration of the wedding of two young Kurds, whose marriage was held up by the regulations of Fortress Europe for unrecognized asylum seekers.

Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge Books, 1994).
Ibid.
Graziella Parati, Strangers in Paradise: Foreigners and Shadows in Italian Literature (in: Allen-Russo, 1997).
Ibid.
Slavoj Zizek, Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle (New York: Verso, 2004).
Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge Books, 1994).