Foto: Giovanni Melillo Kostner

Foto: Giovanni Melillo Kostner

39Null Ausgabe Nr.1 – Kommen, Bleiben, Gehen

If I am here, this is what I am

Curator and cultural activist Martha Jiménez Rosano is originally from Mexico. She’s been living here for eight years. Since she feels she can have more impact when working in a small rural place, in a foreign land, she doesn’t plan to go home anytime soon. Here are her reasons for staying.

I am a cultural promoter and a freelance contemporary art curator. I collaborate with various institutions, cultural organizations and international artists as an expert on cultural identity and social cohesion through the arts and culture. In 2002 I had the opportunity to do a year-long academic exchange at the Faculty of Design at the University of Applied Sciences in Bielefeld, Germany. While I was there I got to know a man who would later become my husband. And in general, it was a time when I truly started to think about what my future would look like, about what I wanted to do and how to succeed in doing that. In 2005, I moved to South Tyrol with my husband, to his hometown, the city of Bressanone/Brixen. We had decided that this would be an exceptional place to raise our daughter, as well as to start our careers. Finding a job was not easy. Let’s put it this way: being a graduate in a relatively unknown discipline, I wanted to work exclusively in the cultural sector and not being fluent in the local languages were all conditions that reduced one’s chances on the local job market. But I’ve never felt jeopardised by others because I’m a foreigner or because I don’t speak perfect Italian and German. There were moments of tension, but that’s completely normal when two cultural universes face each other. I prefer to think about this like the French philosopher Francois Jullien – and by that I mean, to regard that tension as a distance, a gap that could be a fertile zone where new interactions can take place and concepts can be created.

In 2011, after gaining a master’s degree in art and culture management from the Trentino School of Management in Italy, I created ”Open City Museum”, an intercultural art project for museums and their communities that aimed to actively engage all members of society in artistic and cultural activities. The project promoted living together, intercultural dialogue, social cohesion and the self-improvement of those involved through the arts. At the beginning, when I started working on this project in collaboration with the Civic Museum of Chiusa/Klausen, I was seeking to create an alternative for people who had not visited a museum yet. More specifically, I was trying to create an opportunity for those with an immigrant background to get involved in museum activities. It was supposed to be important not only for the local arts scene, but also, to some extent, an opportunity to  advocate the interest of the collective community. It reviewed the notion of “a museum”, its practices and its role as a social institution. The administration of the city of Chiusa/Klausen and the directors of the Civic Museum were immediately supportive. It was definitively an act of trust. I am also convinced that it was a visionary and courageous undertaking by all the partners since I believe it is true what Nietzsche said: A very popular error: having the courage of one’s convictions; rather it is a matter of having the courage for an attack on one’s convictions”.

The first project was a photo exhibition with works by my husband, Giovanni Melillo Kostner that I curated. We decided to develop something special and to put on display only photos that were taken especially for this occasion to “import” photographs from other works but to develop something special for this occasion. We had met people from many diverse places living in Chiusa/Klausen and asked them to tell us their story. They were photographed in the part of the city they liked the most or that was of great significance to them. Together with the people involved, we decided to produce a book with their stories in it and make it available for those eager to learn more. With the help of four women of different nationalities, we also decided to organize guided tours in their mother languages of the exhibition as well as of the museum’s permanent collection. The women came up with the content and route for the guided tours. The title of the exhibition was “Photographic documentation of the cultural diversity in the contemporary society of Chiusa/Klausen – South Tyrol”. In the words of Cecilia La Rosa Soler, “it was much more an offer and invitation for the population to co-construct a new and more accurate perception of what the village’s present-day community and cultural heritage is”.

Over the years, the Open City Museum became an intercultural and multidisciplinary institution; it became more than merely an art exhibition or a place for cultural activities. It has activated a network between several non-profit organizations, public administration offices, private institutions and artists, developing numerous and diverse initiatives for the citizens in this multicultural region with cities such as Chiusa/Klausen, Bressanone/Brixen and Bolzano/Bozen.

Anyone who knows me, knows that the line between my private and professional life is almost imperceptible. Being an immigrant and working in the culture and arts sectors, focusing on community engagement is not a coincidence. I worked hard to find a path that would lead me to a fulfilling occupation like this and, also, to one that would allow me to be valuable to the society that hosts me – and to which I feel I presently belong to.

My work is part of a process of personal reflection about who I am and what I became over the years. I arrived here full of the adrenalin that comes from living in a new European city. At the beginning I thought I would learn two more foreign languages, acquire more professional skills and accumulate some of the know-how of this place. Then, as soon as possible, I would return to my own country to consolidate a professional career there.

However, over the years I realized that I was getting much more from the experience of being outside of my own country and of being “different”. I noticed my urgent need to work on issues of cultural identity, for the sake of a sense of community and belonging. It was not just a personal matter: not just a young, well educated migrant woman, full of illusions, making a big effort to become part of the society that she’s migrated to.

I noticed that many people like me have difficulties in feeling they belong somewhere, and in practicing their citizenship. I am not only talking about immigrants, but also about local people. We all need more chances for real and effective public participation, something that’s guaranteed in a democratic society. We need occasions for aperture and transparency, in which people can be directly involved. It’s about creating new capacities for collective action as well as more solidarity among people who don’t know one another, in situations they don’t usually find themselves in.Contemporary societies have difficulties understanding and taking advantage of their plurality. This is not a problem of nationality, place of origin, language or religion – rather it’s an issue of education and knowledge. And arts and culture can do much to improve this situation.

I don’t pretend that I can discuss the role and relevance of the immigrant population for the social, economic and financial development of South Tyrol. I prefer to think about my work from a human perspective and to reflect on it at an individual and subjective level. My aim is to shed some light on how cultural strategies and cultural programs can contribute to promote social cohesion, to encourage participation and citizenship, belonging and identity construction in pluralistic cultural scenarios.

Currently, I am working with Giovanni on a community development project called ”Common portraits of diversity” (‘Ritratti comuni della diversità’), for the 3rd Festival of the Contemporary Resistance. The project involves citizens who have lived in the Oltrisarco-Aslago/Oberrau-Haslach area for the last 50 years and people who arrived to live or work there in more recent years and who came from other countries.

The underlying theory is that human beings always have something in common with each other, no matter their origin, language or religion. Common values and moral principles can be found in different societies and cultures and they should be promoted. We make people interact, introducing them to new individuals that they might otherwise not get to know.

The starting point of the project “common portraits of diversity” are a number pictures from the archive of the photographer of the quartier, Aligi Cainelli, taken in the 1960s and 1970s. We met some of the people Cainelli photographed and invited them to tell us how life in the quartier was back then. Then we contrasted their impressions with those of the new residents who told us how it is like to live their now the same with the new residents, but this time, we asked them what it is like to live there now. Giovanni shot their portraits, inspired by the Cainelli’s style of portraiture. The project will conclude with an open air photo exhibition with both Cainelli’s portraits and those by Giovanni on a road in the quartier. Furthermore, there will also be a public conversation with some of the residents involved in the heart of the city of Bolzano/Bozen. It is a process of mutual knowledge, self-discovery and the discovering of otherness.

Because I live and work in South Tyrol, I have learned that one does not necessarily have to act out the bigger scenarios, in larger cities or to enter into complex production systems to do something significant. It is important to consider the whole but it’s also appropriate to act in smaller areas within a system.

Sometimes it is better to work with smaller realities, using local and well-defined actions. On a smaller scale it’s easier to observe and evaluate one’s own actions in order to understand what is going on, what one is achieving and what should be still done. What’s more, civil society, cultural associations, educational committees and social organisations in these smaller areas are the human and social capital that the cultural and economic sectors need today.

In South Tyrol this human potential is present in an extraordinary magnitude. You just have to take a look around, particularly in the rural areas. This is one of the aspects of this region that I really like. In my opinion, this region allows cultural workers and practitioners to decentralize productions and enlarge their range of actions. Cultural actors should put more attention on non-urban areas, mainly because there are much more resources to work with and greater possibilities to influence social and cultural spheres.

In conclusion, I think it is going to be hard for me to leave South Tyrol. These days I cannot imagine going back to Mexico or going to another place. I feel I have to be here. Here my life makes sense.