A foot in the past, an eye to the future

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Early on during my yearlong study abroad in Bologna, Italy, I was struck by how similar it is to Berkeley. The language is different, the food is foreign and the streets recall nothing of Shattuck or Durant avenues, yet there exists a striking connection between these two cities laying 6,000 miles apart — it’s some sort of vibe. I couldn’t help but notice the large student body and that certain energetic feeling that a university town offers. Like Berkeley, Bologna is perhaps most famous for its university, founded in 1088 and regularly cited as the oldest in the world. UC Berkeley has Sproul Plaza while Bologna has Piazza Verdi. For such an old city, there is a potent feeling of youth and vigor, as well as modern ideologies permeating the ancient streets.

Despite the progressive nature of Bologna and its relatively open and multicultural atmosphere, the country of Italy still lags behind its European counterparts — namely France, Germany and Spain — when it comes to LGBT rights. Those countries either allow same-sex marriage or have civil unions and afford various types of adoption rights for gay couples that Italy does not. Italy has done notably little in this regard. While there are proposals on the table from certain political parties, only time will tell if they see any traction. Many observers cite the influence of the Church and the Vatican as the source of the disparity, and while I wouldn’t contest that claim, there are surely other social factors at play.

Students in Bologna are certainly aware of this. They actively work toward changing the culture and progressing Italy’s position on equality through several student organizations of the type you might see on the Berkeley campus. They discuss relevant topics and what they can do to affect change.

These factors all informed my decision to work as one of many student interns for Il Cassero, the main LGBT organization in Bologna and one of the most important ones in the country. The offices are kept in a historic structure, of the typical kind that peppers the streets of Italy and was already centuries old when our own country was founded. It houses a massive library and offices on one level and a fantastic dance club on the ground floor that helps fund Il Cassero. My internship was under the direction of the library’s director, Sara De Giovanni, a woman with a catching smile and a proclivity to speak only in Italian, even though her English is much better than she would ever admit.

I worked with Sara on a project that coincided with Il Cassero’s annual “Gender Bender” event that took place this November. Gender Bender is a weeklong festival of art, music, performance and film showcasing themes relating to gender identity in contemporary culture. The specific project I worked on was “Migrating Archives” (“Archivi Migranti”), a project developed by visiting UC Santa Cruz professor and artist E.G. Crichton. I was halfway around the world working with an Italian organization, but in the most ironic manner, my work was on an exhibit by an American artist from California. Crichton arrived several days in advance of her show and we got to spend time together as I helped show her around Bologna and act as a translator when needed. We often met at Piazza Maggiore near the historic Neptune’s Fountain (Fontana di Nettuno), and she was always sporting trendy clothes and chic glasses — appropriate dress in a country so famous for its fashion. With a twinkle in her eye and an obvious enthusiasm for the project, she spent our time together elaborating on the effort and complexities of putting together a show like this.

“Migrating Archives” is a labor of love by Crichton, who reached out to numerous LGBT organizations around the globe to collect historical material and information on notable deceased members of their communities. These individuals made relevant and meaningful contributions to their local communities as activists, creators, performers or sometimes even simply as people with infamous reputations that stirred and motivated the community to unite or get involved. She curated and created material on influential individuals from South Africa, Hungary and the Philippines, to name a few. Through Crichton’s work, these individuals are given new life as their stories and work migrate across borders and cultures.

Each person’s display was quite different, influenced not only by who they were (artist, writer, activist, etc.) but also by the limitations to what Crichton was able to collect. But many of these people would be lost to time if not for Crichton’s efforts. One of these people was Granny Lee, a provocative and outspoken drag queen from Johannesburg who had a notorious reputation in the 1960s during apartheid in South Africa. Photos of Lee adorned large hangings on the wall with accompanying text and biographical information. As Lee was no stranger to profanity and possessed a sharp tongue, some of her more colorful and provocative quotes graced the walls of the exhibit.  

My personal favorite was the display of Ethel “Monte” Punshon, an Australian woman born in 1882 who didn’t come out until she was 103 years old. An audio recording and headphones allowed visitors to listen to Punshon’s real voice in a captivating audio excerpt. I often went home after visiting the exhibit and looked up some of these people to find whatever precious bits of information I could. Crichton’s collection of texts, photos, physical objects and recordings created an immersive multimedia presentation that allowed us to not only see but also touch and listen.

The exhibit was housed at the Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna — better known as MAMbo — and saw a generous amount of visitors. Aside from all the text being in Italian, the show could have easily been in a famous modern art museum in San Francisco or New York. I was often struck by the diversity of the crowd at the museum, from families with children to elderly couples. It was all very encouraging, and we all determined it a success. Crichton isn’t quite sure when or where the exhibit will travel to next, though with its success in Bologna, I would suggest a return to Italy, perhaps Milan or Rome. These are exactly the kinds of things that the Italian public needs to see to help them advance their position on equality. I am sure this progress will happen; it is a matter of when, not if.

As for me, I’m in the middle of my year in this fascinating ancient city. No, I haven’t yet tired of pasta or pizza, though I do miss Mexican food terribly. I don’t return to California until late June, but I am excited about the projects I’ll be working on in the upcoming months. I will continue my work at Il Cassero and am proud that I get to be a part of the movement to progress Italy’s stance on LGBT rights. In Italy, the streets and buildings may be ancient and ripe with history, but from what I see, the future of Italy looks just as exciting.