Orientation trips
The Mondriaan Fund organises orientation trips for visual artists and mediators to Asia, Latin America and Africa since 2004. The trips are aimed at exchange and cooperation between visual art professionals.

‘What effected me most is the Museo de la Memoria in Santiago de Chile’

Rossella Biscotti is one of the participants of this orientation trip. She is a visual artist, living in Brussels and Rotterdam. In her practice that moves across filmmaking, performance and sculpture, she explores and reconstructs obscured personal histories against the backdrop of state institutions.

Q: Why did you decide to join the trip?
‘It was kind of intuition; I was interested in seeing how the art reflected upon the political context of the dictatorship and violence in Chile and Colombia. I didn’t know much about it. I’m glad to discover how interesting and powerful art can be.’

Q: What has struck you most so far?
‘The Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos in Chile, in particular the temporary exhibition of Arpilleras, small colored-patchwork stitched tapestries made by groups of women – including relatives of detained, disappeared and political prisoners – during the times of the dictatorship from 1973 to 1990. Depicting scenes of imprisonment, violence and military assaults, they are a visual accounts – both private and political – of actual events.’

‘The practice of embroidering narratives from everyday events is a popular tradition in many cultures, though the arpilleras were organized collectively in workshops that not only provided a way to denunciate and artistically express personal and collective experiences, but also gave them social exchange and livelihood. The beginning of this practice can be attributed to the Chilean singer and visual artist Violeta Parra, who during a long period of hospitalization in 1958 started to narrate her experiences through embroidery. The making
of the tapestries can be seen as a form of therapy, but at the same time they were also exported and sold abroad in order to collect money for the women and the resistance. It was in Europe where I saw this kind of work for the time.’

‘I am looking for a possibility to talk about history in an informative and personal manner, yet with a certain abstraction. The narratives of these tapestries contain that. And the stories are not closed. The women still meet each other to investigate the history of their disappeared relatives, to fight politically.’

‘Yesterday in the National Museum of Colombia in Bogota, I saw a similar kind of embroidered textile. This one was bigger and made by a community in Mampujan, Bolivar. The tapestry visualized the communal history of their ancestors to the present, from the passage to South-America in slave ships, to the invasion of paramilitaries in 2000 into their village and the assault, displacement and violence related to that. Seven years after these events took place the community decided to return to live in the village, upon that a group of women started to meet and draw their experiences on textile collectively. They go back into history and trace it. There is no linear timeline. Everything is part of a larger story.’

Q: How do the embroideries that you saw in Chile and Colombia relate to your work?
‘In my work I often look at social histories and traumatic events, how they can be traced in the present consciously or un-consciously, and the processes that follow, mainly within groups or communities. An example is a project I realized for the Venice Biennale in 2013. This project was based on Dream Workshop conducted inside the Female Prison of Giudecca, Venice; it consisted of a group of about fourteen women who all met twice a week to share dreams, for a period of seven months. The focus was on each person’s night dreams; however, in our conversations there was a constant shift from dreams to reality and back again, which brought in stories of violence, displacement, and institutionalization.’

‘Unlike the rest of the prison, I managed to arrange a room that wasn’t guarded, where we could talk freely. I would bring in books, films and images. We collected various things. The room became a kind of message board of various documents, particularly poems and letters, and most importantly a space and temporary community in which each of us could articulate and bounce in circles their her own dreams (and nightmares). What is most important in this project is that we managed to give shape to a collective moment, and keep that open.

‘How do you begin to tell a story and let it navigate from one narrator to the other? Where does ones voice fade so that the other can pick it up? I was trying to create a space to exchange dreams, but more specifically this project was showing how personal lives and imaginaries navigate through institutions, and specifically through this prison.’

‘I think I turned to dreams because of my friendship with Nicola Valentino and his experience with the “Dreamers of Palmi”. Nicola was condemned to life-imprisonment in 1978 as a militant of the Red Brigades. In 2006 he was set free, after 28 years of imprisonment. During his time in prison, he often reflected upon his situation as a political prisoner. At the beginning of the 1980s his hard-line communist ideology had started to “crack” and instead he and some fellow inmates began to think more about how they reconstruct their individual identities inside their collective history and political past.

‘In the high-security prison of Palmi, Calabria they decided to write down their dreams and share them collectively. It was difficult because they lived in isolation and were denied communication. One of the prisoners, who was tasked with cleaning the prison’s corridors, passed their dreams secretly from cell to cell. The group called themselves “I sognatori di Palmi” [The Dreamers of Palmi]. This particular history was my main inspiration for the project in Venice. What I saw in Chile and in Colombia, somehow relates to this form of self-organized action – that is personal as well as collective – to deal with ones past or political situation. It is not the institutions that dictate the way we deal with history, rather it is about the will of the people to build up institutions.’

Q: Do you think you will come back to Chile or Colombia?
‘I would like to come back. At this point I am more drawn to Chile, but I also feel I don’t know the context well enough, so I would have to come back and do more research.

‘At the same time I also feel it is not always necessary to make a work about something that you find inspiring or important. In the case of Chile for example I think it is rather something that the people from there should develop themselves, local artists are perhaps better to deal with that history. But I could imagine to do something else, like organizing a workshop or a lecture, or to work with the community or professionals from different disciplines. I got lot of inspirations on a broad level.’

Q: You are now heading for Cali in the south of Colombia, to do what?
‘It is an interesting city, and a different context. I will visit a friend artist, Alberto de Michele, who is opening his show El Segundo Viaje, at the Museo Rayo in the town of Roldanillo, two hours away from Cali.’

Birgit Donker & Rieke Vos