From Iowa to Venice to Talk about Mothers in Prisons

49 Iowa State University design students, who are studying abroad this fall with the ISU College of Design Rome Program, explore mother-child bond in prison, through performance and installation at Venice Art Biennale

How to heal a wounded world? That is the question posed to 49 students from Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, who are studying abroad this fall with the ISU College of Design Rome Program and have been invited to participate in the Venice Biennale 2015, 56th International Art Exhibition.

From 22-24 October, the College of Design will present an educational “Biennale Session” in the Arsenale, the former Venetian shipyard, where artists from around the world exhibit their contemporary masterpieces.

“Participation in the Venice Biennale is an empowering opportunity for the next generation of artists and designers from Iowa State University,” said Luis Rico-Gutierrez, dean of the ISU College of Design, which since 1991 has sent more than 2,500 of its students to study in Italy.

“It allows them to explore innovative forms of expression side by side with some of the most important creators of our time,” he said.

During a two-day workshop and one-day colloquium, Iowa State students majoring in graphic design, interior design and integrated studio arts will address the theme of wounds and healing through exploration of legame (bond), said Pia Schneider, associate professor and resident director of the ISU College of Design Rome Program.

madre“In his opening address, Biennale President Paolo Barrata observed that ‘despite the great progress made in knowledge and technology… the world before us today exhibits deep divisions and wounds, pronounced inequalities and uncertainties as to the future,’” Schneider said. “In interpreting the Biennale’s overall theme of ‘All the World’s Futures,’ we chose to focus on the importance of the mother-child bond and raising emotionally healthy, resilient children who can create a better future for humankind.”

The workshop will draw specific attention to the mother-child relationship in prison and the practice of separating women offenders from their children, in particular from their newborn infants.

The Iowa State students have spent the first half of their fall semester researching and comparing the legal approaches to this issue in the United States and in Italy. While in most cases, U.S. newborns will be separated from their incarcerated mothers within 24 hours, Italy’s law allows infants to remain with their inmate mothers for three years, Schneider said.

In addition to the constraint provided by focusing on “bond,” students also are limited to working with only one material: garza (gauze). This semi-translucent fabric, traditionally used for medical dressing, “relates well to the theme of a wounded world and to the notion of bandaging, wrapping and healing,” said Schneider, who is coordinating the Biennale Session. “It also may reference the act of swaddling and bonding with children.”

In late September, students visited the Rebibbia prison nursery in Rome, interviewing staff, childcare workers and inmates. They later assisted and documented an art therapy session that engaged mothers and children through play and dance, including tying each other with gauze. In the women’s section of the Giudecca prison in Venice, inmates whose work detail is in tailoring are using the same gauze textile to produce 10 garments for display in a fashion show at the Biennale Session.

mascheramadre 2The design students themselves have responded to the complex topic by creating five oversized gauze sculptures representing pregnant women and mother-and-child figures, which will be suspended in the designated space in the Arsenale. Amid these sculptural installations, accompanied by videos and animations projected into the space, the students will perform as living statues—wrapped, bound tightly to one another and transformed by the white gauze fabric.

The third day of the event will feature a colloquium intended to provide an opportunity to reflect on the workshop performance and further investigate the idea of mother-infant attachment as a critical basis for securing a child’s future.

Invited speakers are Gabriella Straffi, director of the Giudecca prison; Julie Stevens, assistant professor of landscape architecture at Iowa State University and an emerging expert in environmental justice and therapeutic prison landscapes; Alessia Davi, graduated from the University Ca' Foscari of Venice, with a thesis on the health conditions of female prisoners in the US; and Jole Falco, artist and volunteer of "A Roma, Insieme- Leda Colombini", a non profit organization devoted to expanding social and health services in Rome, particularly working with women and children in prison.

Schneider is especially pleased with the collaboration between the Iowa State University College of Design Rome Program, the volunteer organization and the corrections communities, both staff and inmates.

“One of our goals as a study abroad program is to expose our students as much as possible to the current social and cultural environment. Every semester, we devise new strategies for cross-cultural integration,” she said. “We hire local experts, invite Italian designers for lectures and seminars, partner with other universities and design schools and visit professional offices. Our aim is to train our students to become culturally competent professionals with a great respect for other traditions and other values—another peaceful approach to saving the world’s futures.”


*Heather Sauer, ISU College of Design Communications


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