Shhh: Southern high hidden histories
Ornella Mazzola was born in Sicily, near Palermo, in 1984.
She studied at the University “La Sapienza” of Rome” Cinema-documentary, Anthropology” and History of Art. The subject of her graduation was Visual Anthropology with a thesis developed with the documentarist and anthropologist Vittorio De Seta. She started to explore the world of photography, naturally, from the visual research to socio-anthropological aspect inherent in it. She carries out different kinds of projects: personal research, social photography, reportage, intimate stories. Her stories are often focused on Southern Italy and the female universe. She has participated in several solo and group exhibitions, project and publications.
SANGU MIO, a visceral name, which does not betray its origins. How much is your work connected to your land?
The relationship between my work and my land is directly proportional to the deep bond that I and Sicily share. Since childhood, the sound of drums has accompanied my life. Those born in the south and especially in a small Sicilian provincial village, get used from an early age to having life marked by the roll of the drums. Processions, Saints, Passion Fridays, every occasion of sociability linked above all to the sphere of spirituality has as its protagonist bands and drums that resound in the streets. This rhythmic and hypnotic sound has become a part of me so much that every time I hear a drum today that I am an adult, I associate it with that feeling of when I was a child. It’s as if that sound has always been part of me, even before I was born. It is an ancient, vibrating sound that you feel in the stomach and cannot be explained. It is the same sensation I feel when I talk about my land, I feel it vibrate like those drums and so do I.
Where does your interest in photography come from: can you tell us about your epiphany?
There was a moment when I had my personal revelation around the age of 23-24: I discovered that I could pour out my inner self with photography. For some time, I felt the strong need to express myself in some way, to channel my emotions, and the epiphany was a small camera (which also gave me the opportunity to photograph) given to me, by chance, by my grandfather. Since then, photography has become a life partner. But if I have to say when everything was really born, I would say as a child. I lived my childhood-adolescence in the old historical city centre of my town (Capaci, Palermo). I was a very curious child, I loved to peek at other people lifes. In those years the women of the neighbourhood sat in the balance between the sidewalk and the street, their stories, superstitions, authentic life, crowded my imagination. It is in those places that I listened to and visualized in my mind the first stories of my life.
In your work there are always two great protagonists: Sicily and women. Why did you decide to focus your attention on this region and tell it from the women’s point of view?
Sicily is wild, generous, honest. I imagine her as a woman and with Rosa Balistreri’s voice, hoarse and deep. For example, how could I not have turned into images the poetry of my great-aunt Iole, one of the two sisters of my grandmother, who never married, lived alone in the province of Ragusa in a house full of trinkets and the smell of almond biscuits coming up from the pastry shop downstairs. With her backcombed hair and a look that has never lost its fierceness even now that she is 93 years old. Sicilian women and generally from the south have a mysterious and archaic strength that stays through life, love, pain. Days ago, for example, I went in a southern city to say goodbye to a woman I met and who was a pillar for her entire neighbourhood. It is customary in this area that for a whole month relatives, friends and neighbours crowd the building and the house of the deceased person, in a never-ending come and go. That day there were women of all ages dressed in black sitting inside, outside, around the kitchen table, around the house, everywhere. Women who smoked endless cigarettes, who talked with quivering emotion about the person who had passed away, food, smiles and silence. And this ritual is repeated every day for a month. I was able to perceive in a strong and clear way the power of all those women gathered to comfort, to make an eternal farewell less painful. I will always take that scene with me, even if I haven’t photographed it.
In your projects there’s a constant intimate atmosphere. Even when you photograph on the street, the viewer relives personal and family memories. Can you tell us about your style as a photographer?
My photography always comes from an harmonization between my feeling and the world that go through me. I try to make reality mine as I see it, to rework it, and then return it into the form that most resembles me. I am interested in life, in all its forms: interiors in dim light, family ties, the Mediterranean atmosphere that surrounds me, the streets, curtains slightly moved by the wind that allow a glimpse of a nostalgic grandmother in a room, the Madonnas coming from the sea , cigarettes consumed slowly, glances that tear you apart.
The cities in your photos frame the protagonists, they are often abstract, evanescent frames. But in “Inside my island” the landscape emerges with more force.
What changes in this series?
“Inside my island” is a story born during the pandemic. It was a parenthesis aside to the story that I have been carrying on for about eleven years about all the women in my family in Sicily: “Females, a Sicilian story”. During the first wave of the pandemic, I and 40 other photographers from north to south Italy were chosen by the Collettivo Covisioni to tell from different points of view the effects of a global event of this magnitude on our lives and on society. It was natural for me to focus on my family ties, given that the pandemic has created difficulties in relationships, anomalies and distances especially in relation to the people we love most. Not hugging my nieces, being afraid to get close to my mother or my sister, using a mask were all destabilizing effetcs, for me as for everyone. To see each other, during the periods in which it was possible, we chose neutral fields such as the countryside that surrounds my parents’ house, the sea, open spaces. Here nature has become the protagonist, it has been our salvation. Our island, Sicily, has taken care of us with its often wild beauty, with its brilliant sunsets, with the boundless Mediterranean Sea. In those days we felt all its power more than ever.
The girls in your images often have a serious and resolute attitude that does not recall the childhood sphere. Who are they and why did you decide to photograph them like this?
Sangu miu is an expression that is often used in Palermo.
My blood is said to a person you love madly, for which there is a deep bond. Palermo represents this for me. An irrational and visceral bond. I started taking pictures a few years ago, precisely in Palermo, walking for miles alone. And what I happened to find was the sudden beauty and the paradoxes, the dense scenes, the scars, but most of all the women and the girls. And most of the time I found myself too.
The girls I usually photograph are proud, they have in their eyes an infinite dignity and a strength that belonged to their mothers and to the grandmothers before them. They are adult in spirit, charged with a power they have inherited and that they will pass on.
What are your future projects, what would you like to work on?
There are stories that I will carry on throughout my life: the collection on Palermo and the story of all the women in my family. I recently started two new stories: one is about a group of Muslim women who founded an all-female association in Palermo. The association is involved in creating integration, fighting against any form of violence and supporting other Muslim women who are far from their countries of origin (mostly Tunisia and Morocco). Another story is about some girls and teenagers who live in a difficult neighbourhood of Palermo. I follow their life, games, friendship. Although I have told and will tell stories even outside Sicily and the south, I will always prefer the stories next-door.