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In a flyby on the Ambe in Ethiopia, Giulia Patrizi Carrega, grandmother of Elena Chioccarelli, artist, observes the mountains and the fields from above and writes in her diary "Here you can see that there is life!" as if her mind blossomed for the power of the colors she observes "Reds are the flowers of the Euphorbie, reds the Berber, peppers put in the sun in front of the Tucul." 

"Vita" is the first painting by Elena Chioccarelli that I have seen, it rises streaked with mineral red, an oxymoron of power-evanescence.


Elena Chioccarelli never went to Ethiopia. In his paintings where she measures between abstract and figurative, she creates a trace on canvas or paper that intersects with the footprints of her grandmother. Giulia, at the age of thirty, had moved to Addis Ababa with her five children in 1938 to join her husband, Saverio Patrizi, explorer and zoologist, sent to the colonies a few months earlier as an expert on African fauna.


The artist’s colors remain suspended, veiled, a hint of brushstrokes to describe the journey of his ancestors in "Depart", a spooky ship carrier of excitement and "dismay" from which the island of Capri vanishes on the horizon to take them to the unknown Africa. Giulia Patrizi’s writing brings out sensitive and violent worlds that her grandaughter collects, incorporates and makes her own; she embroiders on diaries with a brush where colour becomes a generous embroidery-recall. 

This familiar lexicon is inspired by the memories and words of her grandmother in the titles. 

The artist translates the colors described in the travel diary: "the light is so blue and unreal that it seems a dream, and those mountains over there after the plain serene, blue and gold too." In LUCE Elena Chioccarelli lays out oils of blue empire, blue of Prussia, white blues and scorching hot wheat fields. An uncertain red line draws an abstract separation between fields and mountains, a delicate thread of blood that creeps in, a premonitory sigh, in many of the works. 


Barely visible bodies of white filigree are distinguished by their fragility in portentous and degrading landscapes; you have to look for them to see them, they remain on the surface, as if they did not belong, as lives crossing landscapes not theirs.


The issue of Italian colonialism in Ethiopia brings a complicated legacy that only now begins to become an attempt at national awareness. In the writings of Giulia Patrizi the love for Africa and its colors, animals, plants and the hospitality of the locals is implied, even if never declared, by the idea of possession of a land, which idea is put to the test after a few years when, In 1941, British troops took it from the Italians. 


The events that followed constitute a less known story, the long tribulations of 28,000 Italians imprisoned in concentration camps in Ethiopia and then being evacuated on the "White Ships" in extreme and harsh conditions described by Giulia Patrizi: "then I knew they were sea funerals. They were almost always children coming and already weakened, from concentration camps, poorly covered and poorly fed. They died of bronchitis and enteritis. It wasn’t very cheerful. With her incisive, refined and evocative style, the author never drowns in self-pity despite the fears, fatigue and sadness she observes all around her during the endless exodus.


The artist brings back in her works this indomitable and at the same time light spirit of the grandmother, similar to the "flying beaters" that observes the grandfather in the birds he studies during his imprisonment in Kenya. Elena Chioccarelli describes a familiar perception of life, a way to detach from suffering through the words of Giulia Patrizi and her colors: her grandmother keeps a sharp eye on the beautiful and the curious that surrounds her even in the most uncomfortable conditions, disastrous and agitated "enjoying" (word that often reappears in the diary) of the life that surrounds it. The artist grasps this ability to make abstraction of pain by suggesting a look translated, other ways of seeing, other ways of understanding the landscapes. Hers is a non-invasive work, a discreet look at the diary carefully perused, a delicate countersong to the voices of the past.


A grey mountain dominates and attracts in the distance (Cammino), preceded by blue-white wetlands filled with small red wandering shapes; they could be flowers or people, headed towards a new unknown. The dreamlike dimension reveals the feeling that the artist does not want to interpret reality, he can only imagine it. In the resplendent and daring "Unknown Flowers" syncretizes the passion for the flowers that shared her grandparents and that helped them to remain resilient in front of their harsh destinies, shrouded in despair in the darkest hours (grandmother’s evacuation and grandfather’s imprisonment), separated for five years, often without news of each other for months, even for a whole year, due to communications interrupted by the war. The torment of this violent gap is healed by the thin red-blood thread that weaves Elena Chioccarelli and that unites between them the canvases and her family history in an embroidery of resistance and courage before the hardest tests. As an interpretation of the Stoic words of Rudyard Kipling that amused the British soldiers when they found the poem in the handbag of Giulia Patrizi at the beginning of the departure from Addis Ababa: 


"If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs ...."


The sharp and strong sketches and photographs of her grandfather Saverio and the accurate botanical drawings of her grandmother Giulia made in the exploratory trips accompany the family memories of her grandaughter with a scholarly-scientific meditation. When the artist takes inspiration for "Donna etiope" from a drawing of Saverio, reveals a face disappeared, a go to something without ever being able to catch it. 

The photographic gaze of the Italian colonizers on the Ethiopians has been studied above all from the point of view of the horror of the humiliations and tortures carried out on the Ethiopians and the photographs of naked, pseudo-anthropological Ethiopian women.

We rarely talk about photographs made with respectful looks or empathetic attitudes: I would like to suggest that this is the case of the portrait made by Saverio Patrizi of an Ethiopian father wrapped in a white shawl with his son in his arms and a hand gently bent over his daughter’s shoulder. It is a photograph full of emotions still to be deciphered that recalls some of the shots of Curzio Malaparte kept in the dark until the eighties: portraits of Ethiopians with whom it seemed there was a relationship of friendship and intimacy in contrast with his victorious writings-colonists as correspondent on the Corriere della Sera. 


The long rows of refugees that populate the paintings of Elena Chioccarelli in the closing of the cycle of works describe the increase in the number of evacuations with each stage of the sad and humiliating journey back to "Patria". In "Il viaggio", "Lascio dietro di noi", "Fuga" or "Esodo" we can better distinguish the gray human shadows moving so slowly by opinion scratches in limbo, an uncomfortable memory of our very serious current.


When Saverio Patrizi questions himself in his diary from the London prison camp in Kenya "will the surviving ants be able to supply the colony? Even we Italians are today like the freaking ants from the destroyed nest", perhaps the niece takes inspiration from it where, sometimes, the rows of human beings seem rows of traveling ants, looking for a shelter under an African sky that could crush.


Like her grandfather Saverio who in prison built a microscope made of cans and bottoms of bottles, Elena Chioccarelli proposes another lens, blurred and dilated, from which to perceive a moment of her family history like that of many other Italians, complicated, violent and forgotten. Elena invites us to look at this resurfacing of a story in all its contradictions, in psychoanalytic terms ” Das Unheimliche”, the perturbing, on which we often prefer not to reflect too much to avoid thinking about those who suffer today.



                                                                                                 Martina Ludwina Caruso

                                                                                                             Art historian

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