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Elena Chioccarelli Denis

A journey through memory to paint the present. 


Exhibited in VITA, solo exhibition of Elena Chioccarelli Denis, about seventy works, different in technique, format and materials, all united on the common thread of a single story: that of Giulia and Saverio Patrizi, maternal grandparents of the artist.

VITA recounts the journey of Giulia, who embarked for Ethiopia in 1938 to follow her explorer and zoologist husband, and her return to Italy in 1941, alone with six children, in the terrible exodus  of thousands of other women, children and wounded, fleeing war and British invasion. A story that came to Elena in a fragmentary way, through diaries, letters and photographs of the time: intimate and personal testimonies, emotions lived in first person and written on the pages of a diary, in which Elena recognized herself as a woman and as a mother, establishing a new and confidential relationship with Giulia. Moved by these "fragments of life", Elena embarked on a journey into the past of about a century ago to reclaim her roots.

A past recovered, reassembled and used as a starting point to write a new story that also speaks of itself. A story that, with the brush of art and imagination, transforms the black and white of memory into a present of colors, shapes and emotions. In VITA veiled paintings, fragments of photographs, fabrics and sculptures become the different sentences of the same story, which narrates the various stages of a journey suspended in the mysterious atmosphere -between the dreamlike and the nostalgic- of an inherited memory, rediscovered, imagined and finally expressed in form and color. A journey that begins with enthusiasm: the joy of a barely thirty-year-old Giulia who embarked with her 5 children to a distant land, to a future full of promises. This enthusiasm is translated by Elena into warm colors, bright and vivid tones spread on large-format canvases to paint the profiles of African landscapes beautifully described in the pages of Giulia’s diaries. Ore Calde (Hot hours), Terre calde (Hot lands) . In Terre calde, Ore calde, Cartografia I and II (Cartography), brushstrokes of ochre, yellow and red - colors of the desert and savannah - blend with the blue of the sky and the green of the vegetation illuminated by the sun. Images radiated with light, reflecting Giulia’s radiant thoughts:


«Leaving, a word that inebriates», (Giulia’s diary). A departure that is a metaphor for youth, an age in which the future excites and starts is synonymous with adventure, a journey towards freedom in unknown lands. Lands where joy, lightheartedness and wonder reign: the same sensations that marked the first period of happy Giulia in the land of the Sun, Cartografia I and II (Cartography), Partire (Leaving), Primavera Africana (African Spring).

 Like a little girl who discovers new things in every moment, a shrub, a ditch, a bird; "I go out in the morning alone, in canvas dress and sandals, down in the strong scent of jasmine and I look... and I look... and I enjoy...and I feel free and happy", (Giulia’s diary). Gushes of happiness that, on the large canvas of Libera e felice, run in free flows of blue, green and white, drawing a symbolic landscape, metaphor of the state of exaltation and carelessness typical of the early stages of adult and independent life. A spiritual spring, suspended in a moment of eternal present; not a thought about the past nor any concern for the future. You live here and now, free, enjoying every moment. 

But there always comes a time in life when the hard reality shatters the dream of our illusions.

For Giulia this moment came in 1941, with the outbreak of the Second World War: a sudden and violent slap, which plunged her into a brutal reality, throwing pain and suffering in her face. Separated from her husband Saverio, who was a prisoner of war until 1946, Giulia and her children were forced to leave for a long exodus, first on foot, then by truck and freight train and then at sea, aboard the "white ships" of the Italian Red Cross, To escape the British concentration camps and return home, the protagonists of a humanitarian operation involving thousands of other women, children, wounded and disabled. From Libera e Felice (Free and Happy) to Ombra (Shadow), everything changes. Wonder and enthusiasm give way to restlessness, anguish and uncertainty. The warm colors of the African landscapes run away, fading in a few strokes of a gray and black of sadness and pain combined with blood red, to give shape to bare and sinister trees, arid lands, mirror of inner desolation that follows the collapse of an illusion (Ombra, Terra bruciata #1 and #2, Le radici non bruciano). The atmosphere plunges into a ghostly, motionless, deafening silence. Human figures lose their corporeity and dissolve into hints, thin, ethereal shapes reduced by war to fragile existences.


One in a row to the other, they drag with difficulty, in works that illustrate the tiring journey towards the white ships (Fuga; Lascio dietro di noi; Esodo, In fila; Il viaggio etc.). Here the exodus takes on the contours of a journey in the shadows, in the darkness of  Le radici non bruciano , (The roots do not burn), Terra bruciata #1 and #2 (Scorched Earth), an uncertainty that wears us down, making us fragile, like threads suspended in a middle space, unstable and distressing. Leaving, again. But this time the departure is separation, abandonment, escape. «The step is made, we have come out of free life, channeled on a track that we do not know where it will take us», (Giulia’s diary). Esodo (Exodus), Lascio dietro di noi, (I leave behind us), Fuga (Escape), In fila (In a row). There is no enthusiasm. The present is painful and the future is difficult to look at: it has undefined contours, it is uncertain, it is scary. «I look at that beautiful landscape that runs away fast... The train that takes us away, towards a hope, only a hope! We look at those mountains that move away and with the boys we repeat the names, remembering the beautiful trips made in those places», (Giulia’s diary). It is then necessary to strengthen one another, get in line and walk, to turn back from time to time - like the woman portrayed in Omaggio al popolo etiope (Homage to the Ethiopian people) - and give a last look at the joyful past that you leave behind, forever.

Leave, abandon, depart. Memories are tinged with nostalgia, in Giulia’s life we now find a story that speaks of resilience, of mothers who, for the love of their children, have been able to resist fatigue, hunger and pain, clinging to the hope of bringing them to safety, towards a better life and future. Between the lines of this exodus we can now read the plots of the many exodus of history and today, with the war in Ukraine and the Syrian refugees. Events that led Elena herself to continue the story of VITA with the sculptures Diaspora and Bottini di guerra. VITA therefore places us in front of an open path, on which different journeys cross and overlap: Giulia’s journey in Ethiopia and Elena’s journey in her family history. Past lives and present lives, which meet on the same path. And in this story of lives we can also meet ours when, in retracing it, we recognize the themes and stages of the journey of all of us, who from birth we venture on a path made of arrivals and departures, meetings and farewells, unions and abandonments.


"Autobiographies of others, immediately, had become autobiographies for me because suddenly they were a fundamental part of my life and of the books that sooner or later I would write. Yes, the discovery that the lives of others can contain and tell our own." - Rodrigo Fresán, The invented part.


Martina A. Parri

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