Norma Rossetti’s photos of Scampia, the infamous town of nightmarish highrises north of Naples, takes the viewer to a fantasy land of monumental corruption, insidious criminality and baroque visions of gilded, store-bought beauty. Rossetti photographs her subjects in their most comfortable surroundings, be it in a dining room filled with plastic souvenirs or a candy store that sells penny candies next to a box of syringes, or in the garbage lined streets. People show their tatoos, their gaudy bedroom furniture and their flabby bellies with a naturalness that is disarming, tragic and somehow hopeful. They are people without pretensions, and with a survival instinct that will not be easily conquered.
At the opening, Norma Rossetti spoke about her modus operandi in making this series of portraits. She spent nearly one year making contacts and visiting her new acquaintances in Sampia. She shared drinks and dinners and experiences with these people in order to bring them to the level of ease apparent in her images. In this work, she said that she was greatly helped by her knowledge of Naples and her sex, in that women are respected in a special way in Southern Italy, and this attitude made much of her work possible.
Scampia is a new town, a sort of “ville-champignon” as the French call them, because they seem to spring up overnight. It was built to accommodate people who were displaced by the 1980 earthquake that hit Naples, and was intended to move a part of the population out of the dense urban center. However, the town never found the correct rhythm of development or the right spirit of community, and it quickly began to fall apart.
Today it is considered a tremendous failure. On the other hand, Rosanna Rummo, the director of the IIC, added that although Scampia has become a symbol of urban decay in recent years with the publication of Roberto Saviano’s book, Gomorrah, and Matteo Garrone’s film adaptation of it, people
in the town have begun to find ways of improving their quality of life, with self-help organizations and theater and artistic groups which have been organized in recent years. The situation is bleak, but not at all hopeless, something that seems to come through in the photography.
Norma Rossetti began working in black and white traditional photography, but soon found that this medium was not allowing the images to express the reality she was seeing. She switched to digital photography, and that is what is she is showing. It is clear why she has chosen digital: the vibrant colors of people’s private lives, contrasting with the dull, dirty darkness of public life in Scampia is striking. Also the enormous detail of the baroque lives seem to dance in layers in the perspectives of these scenes.
The exhibition is at the Italian Cultural Institute of Paris, Istituto Italiano di Cultura, and remains on view until July 10th. The exbibition room is open from 10h-13h and 15h-18h on weekdays, daytime entrance on rue de Varenne. It is second in a series of five photo exhibits, part of the 2009 focus on Naples at the Institute, called L’Or de Naples. The subtitle of this year long program is “Baroque underground,” and Norma Rossetti’s photography gives a fascinating interpretation of that odd phrase. All five exhibits will have a beautiful book version available from Silvana Editoriale, so if you are unable to get to the exhibit you can always consider buying the very reasonably priced book.
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