L'ISOLA DELLE CORRENTI1: Sicily, Photography, and the Classroom

Article excerpt

On the furthest corner of southeastern Sicily is a place where two seas come together, their waves rolling toward the shore from separate directions, their paths finally meeting at a rocky beach called L'isola delle Conenti.Year after year, the land is worn away from two sides. Yet Sicily endures, and if we see the metaphor in this remote beach, so do the residents of Southern Italy and their American kin. Like the island itself, many Sicilians are caught between implacable forces-between the demands of past and future, old and new, South and North: ancient tradition on one side, shimmering modernity on the other. And yet, despite being the object of so many competing forces, il Mezzogiorno endUres in much of its richness and particularity.

Such cultural continuity-its beauty and fragility-is the focus of a young Sicilian photographer now working in the US, Delizia Flaccavento. From small towns in Southern Italy to aging immigrant communities in Brooklyn, Flaccavento casts a sensitive eye on the pubfic expressions of italianità-feste, weddings, parades-that are so vital to Southern Italians and their American relatives. Flaccavento's work suggests that, in spite of the swirling currents of history, a great deal remains between what was and what is.

One of the goals of documentary photography is to capture the unexpected truths of our times. "I want to show the dungs that had to be corrected," Lewis Hine said more than a century ago; "I wanted to show the dungs that had to be appreciated" (qtd. in Stott 21). Looking at Haccavento s recent photographs, I see a hidden story to be appreciated, one that runs counter to the prevailing narrative of globalization crushing everything that cannot be brought swiftly to market. Haccavento envisions a Sicily outside of the logic of globalization, or at least she highlights the portions of its culture that remain wedded to the old, the inefficient, the sublime (what is the sublime if not inefficient?). Although she traces this story into the streets of Brooklyn, where so many Italian immigrants have made their home, its beginnings are clearly in the cities and villages of Southern Italy.

Consider her images of feste in towns like Palazzolo Acreide, where she spots Sicilian teenagers in moments of pure religious rapture. Figure two shows an ecstatic boy in front of San Sebastiano, the protector of his town, while figure one beautifully captures the energy that even older Siciliani pour into the festival. Haccavento's images hint at the wonderful intensity of spirit that can fill Sicilian streets even today. Anyone who has seen Catania's massive Festa di Sant'Agata knows what Flaccavento is getting at: the atavistic power of these religious events has made few concessions to modernity. Every year, thousands of Catanese jam shoulder-to-shoulder into the dark streets of their city, hoping to glimpse the statue of Sant'Agata as she makes her way across town on the backs of i devoti. Draped in white smocks that hearken back to the rituals of Isis, these celebrants chant themselves hoarse, while hundreds of penitenti drag candles more than five feet tall, each one leaving a trail of scalding wax. For three days, the city is transformed, and the past seems to overshadow the present.

Without being unduly romantic or naïve about either her homeland or her adopted country, Flaccavento has an affirmative eye. Unlike Swiss photographer Robert Frank, she is not a peevish cultural critic out to deconstruct the American psyche.2 An earlier European immigrant to the US, Frank was fixated on soulless technologies that were perversely devoted to blond starlets, quiz shows, and other enemies of what he saw as authentic human culture in the United States. Flaccavento seems to ignore these corrosive forces of modernity, allowing them to remain as subtext, gendy implied. In figure three, for instance, a televised soccer match pulls Italian American men away from a baptismal reception-they are turning their backs (literally) on family for the sake of mass media (albeit Italian soccer on the television). …