White tinted glasses: on the ‘difficult’ heritage of Italian colonialism (Journal of Visual Culture & HaFI, 31)

This is the thirty-first instalment of a collaborative effort by the Journal of Visual Culture and the Harun Farocki Institut, initiated by the COVID-19 crisis. The call sent to JVC’s editorial board, and a wide selection of previous contributors and members of its extended communities, described the task as follows: „There is a lot of spontaneous, ad hoc opinion-making and premature commentary around, as to be expected. However, the ethics and politics of artistic and theoretical practice to be pursued in this situation should oblige us to stay cautious and to intervene with care in the discussion. As one of JVC’s editors, Brooke Belisle, explains: ‚We are not looking for sensationalism, but rather, moments of reflection that: make connections between what’s happening now and the larger intellectual contexts that our readership shares; offer small ways to be reflective and to draw on tools we have and things we know instead of just feeling numb and overwhelmed; help serve as intellectual community for one another while we are isolated; support the work of being thoughtful and trying to find/make meaning…which is always a collective endeavour, even if we are forced to be apart.'“ TH


White tinted glasses: on the ‘difficult’ heritage of Italian colonialism

By Alessandra Ferrini



On May 25, 2020, the Museum of Civilizations in Rome announced the foundation of the Museo Italo-Africano “Ilaria Alpi” (Italo-African Museum), re-housing the collection of the former Colonial Museum. Established in Rome in 1923, it was used as a propaganda tool, even after the end of Fascism and the fall of the short-lived Empire (1936-41) occupying Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Libya and the Dodecanese Islands. After its closure in 1971, its collection has laid in storage for decades.

Due to Covid-19 emergency measures, the Italo-African Museum was announced in a (poorly advertised) virtual press conference that did not allow for audience interaction or a Q&A session. Beside a statement by the Italo-Somali writer Igiaba Scego, the absence of specialists in the fields of colonial history, postcolonial and decolonial studies, as well as experts from former colonies, was made all the more worrying by the proposed inclusion of – and punctual reference to—Ancient Roman history, a foundational element of colonial and Fascist propaganda. This concern increases when considering the museum’s placement within the EUR district, built to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the dictatorship.

Until now, information on the re-exhibition of the collection have only been available at informal, confidential levels, which has made it difficult to craft an appropriate response to the project. Even the conference provides little data: it outlines a series of wishes and ideas without putting forward clear plans or disclosing how activities will be funded and managed, despite the museum being set to open next year. Nor were the formation of a committee or ethical board including members of the communities still affected by the colonial trauma inherent in the collection formally announced. In addition, no explanation on the name Italo-African Museum was provided, even though its Eurocentric posture, alluding to ‘neutral’, reciprocal relations, warrants one. At this moment, it remains difficult to ascertain the reasons behind such rushed press conference, or to evaluate its vague propositions, nevertheless, the whole operation appears intrinsically flawed, reflecting a collective colour-blind attitude that has become particularly visible in light of recent events.

Taking place on May 25, 2020, the conference coincided with the brutal assassination of George Floyd, which propelled protests, actions and debates demanding justice for black lives and the end of systemic racism. In Italy, support to the Black Lives Matter movement was firstly directed to the US context, ignoring the struggles of Afroitalians, migrants and enslaved agricultural workers (mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa), until more recently, when the #saytheirnames campaign has begun shifting attention to the previously disregarded victims of racially motivated violence in the country. Simultaneously, in the wake of similar actions happening in the US and Europe, demands for the removal of a statue commemorating the journalist Indro Montanelli (who, throughout his life, publicly defended having taken a 12-year-old Eritrean concubine during the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935-36), are growing. Yet, so far, discussions on so-called ‘difficult heritage’ have mostly regarded Fascist monuments dissociating them from the regime’s ruthless racist politics.

Italian society has indeed long refused to acknowledge the implications of, and responsibilities towards, the colonial past and its legacies. In order to maintain the ‘colour of the nation’ unchallenged, blackness has been systematically erased from collective history, marginalised and demonised—portrayed as destitute and foreign. Such context has given rise to white solidarity practices decoupled from scrutiny of white privilege and accountability, which, similarly to discourses and operations related to colonial and Fascist heritage, have failed to recognize their rootedness in structural racist violence – ultimately reproducing the oppressive dynamics they pretend to oppose, disempowering the communities they proclaim to care for.


Alessandra Ferrini is an artist, filmmaker and educator. Her research focuses on Italian foreign and racial politics, questioning the legacies of colonialism and Fascism with a specific interest in the past and present relations between Italy and the African continent. She is an AHRC-funded PhD candidate at LCC, University of the Arts London, with a practice-based project titled „Gaddafi in Rome: Dissecting a Neocolonial Spectacle“.
17.06.2020 — Rosa Mercedes / 02

A word on „post-truth“ by postcolonial and photography scholar Zahid R. Chauhary (from his 2020 essay „The Politics of Exposure: Truth after Post-Facts“):So perhaps it is not simply that truth acts (such as whistleblowing) expose what we already know, but that the place of knowledge in an atmosphere of fetishistic disavowal lends such disavowal a libidinal frisson. In cynical reasoning, truth actually matters a great deal because acting in spite of it is what endows the action with its distinctive fetishistic pleasure.“


Lauren Berlant, the brilliant theorist of „cruel optimism“ and related issues, died of a rare form of cancer on June 28. The following, devastatingly optimistic quote is from a 2016 essay on the commons as „infrastructures for troubling times,“ part of a book that they worked on with the typically double-edged title On the Inconvenience of Other People: „What remains for our pedagogy of unlearning is to build affective infrastructures that admit the work of desire as the work of an aspirational ambivalence. What remains is the potential we have to common infrastructures that absorb the blows of our aggressive need for the world to accommodate us and our resistance to adaptation and that, at the same time, hold out the prospect of a world worth attaching to that’s something other than an old hope’s bitter echo. A failed episode is not evidence that the project was in error. By definition, the common forms of life are always going through a phase, as infrastructures will.“


Some basics from the Strike MoMA site: „Campaigns, actions, and letters chip away at the regime’s facade from the outside. Inside, every time workers organize, defy the boss, care for a coworker, disrespect secrecy, or enact other forms of subversion, cracks are created in the core. Cracking and chipping, chipping and cracking. As the walls that artificially separate the museum from the world collapse, we reorient away from the institution and come together to make plans. Let us strike in all the ways possible to exit from the terms of the museum so we can set our own.“


via Hyperallergic on the environmental impact of blockchain referring to recent NFT (non-fungible token) art sales: „This is not the first time the art world has come under scrutiny for being on the wrong side of the climate conversation. Artists and activists have protested everything from the carbon footprint of physical art fairs to the fossil fuel money funding major museums. But some say the energy consumption of cryptocurrencies is particularly egregious, and research shows it’s relatively easily quantifiable. A study by Cambridge University, for instance, estimates that bitcoin uses more electricity per year than the entire nation of Argentina. (Ethereum mining consumes a quarter to half of what Bitcoin mining does, but one transaction uses more power than an average US household in a day, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.)“


Nicholas Mirzoeff on “Artificial vision, white space and racial surveillance capitalism”: “Based as it is on ‘epidermalization’ (the assertion of absolute difference based on relative differences in skin color), AI’s racial surveillance deploys an all-too-familiar racialized way of seeing operating at plan-etary scale. It is the plantation future we are now living in. All such operations take place in and via the new imagined white space of technology known as the cloud. In reality, a very material arrangement of servers and cables, the cloud is both an engine of high-return low-employment capitalism and one of the prime drivers of carbon emissions.”


Sara Ahmed on the performativity of disgust (from The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2004): “To name something as disgusting is to transfer the stickiness of the word ‘disgust’ to an object, which henceforth becomes generated as the very thing that is spoken. The relationship between the stickiness of the sign and the stickiness of the object is crucial to the performativity of disgust as well as the apparent resistance of disgust reactions to ‘newness’ in terms of the generation of different kinds of objects. The object that is generated as a disgusting (bad) object through the speech act comes to stick. It becomes sticky and acquires a fetish quality, which then engenders its own effects.”

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