What do you think of when you think of Italian-American culture? Perhaps you think of Francis Ford Coppola’s famed Mafia movie The Godfather with its murders and extortions. Or maybe you think of the renowned TV show The Sopranos, also about violence, extramarital affairs and the struggles that come with mob culture. This false narrative of Italian-Americans being violent and money-driven is being rewritten by artist and author Joanne Mattera, with her virtual exhibition Italianità. A collection of the work of 54 artists, this show bridges the gender, age, and sexuality of those who share an Italian-American background. Their art and stories offer an amazing look at the diversity that truly exists within the Italian-American community as well as the bonds that unite them.
Joanne has long had the idea to do a project that connected artists of Italian-American background like herself. She finally had the time to pursue this project when the pandemic hit. “I sent out a letter to about forty artists whom either I knew personally or whose work I knew. And I said I’m gonna do this project, I’m gonna call it Italianità, Italianess,” said Joanne. The most important thing to Joanne wasn’t the art though, it was the stories that came with them. Joanne asked each artist that participated to write a story about their connection or experiences with Italian-American culture. What she received amazed her. Fifty-four stories with shared experiences but each also completely unique in its own right. Joanne said, “our stories share a warp. It’s the warp of the dual culture. But each person has a weft that is embellished with different experiences, different stories. And they are, to me, just amazing.”
The show is divided into three sections: Immigration and Traditions from the Old Country, Inside and Outside the Sphere of Ethnicity, and Two Worlds, an essay written by Joanne about the exhibit. The first section is composed of art that visibly resonates with all things that culturally derive from Italy. “People like Nancy Azara, who’s carving wood into large scale sculptures that reference altars and family (mother, daughter, granddaughter). Those were kind of easy to organize into traditions that came directly from the Old Country,” said Joanne. The second section, Inside and Outside the Sphere of Ethnicity, contains work that is more broadly inspired. Some reveal a fascination with Italy but don’t represent it visually in an obvious way. The artist Thomas Micchelli, for example, was inspired by Old Masters after a trip to Italy and decided to sketch elements from their works. The third section, the essay “Two Worlds”, seamlessly connects each artist to the overarching narrative that is Italian-American culture and the art that exists within it.
You might be thinking, why is it so important to learn about Italian-American culture? Well, there seems to be a misguided public conception of it through film and TV. What Joanne Mattera is trying to demonstrate with this show is that the Italian-American community is more complex than you might think. She said, “the germ of this project happened in 2018 when our previous president would continually say these horrid things about immigrants. I take this very personally because my immigrant culture shaped me, it’s who I am.” As you learn from looking at the art in the show and reading the companion stories, this is also true of the other fifty-three artists involved. The immigrant culture of Italy shares a love of storytelling, traditionally through song or story. Joanne wanted to use visual storytelling to show how Italian-Americans are part of “the great soup of America” but also retain their own traditions. She managed to do this very well. The exhibition is cohesive, easy to use, and moving.
When I asked Joanne if there would be an in-person show anytime soon, she said “Yes, I am sure there will be exhibitions. I just don’t know where or when.” Logistically it is difficult, as the fifty-four artists come from different parts of New York, New England, and a few from out West. With so many artists, it is also difficult to figure out what work will be shown and how much of it. What she does know is that it will happen eventually and when it does it will be a wonderful reunion of artists with shared experiences. Joanne’s favorite part of the project? “Finding out that so many of us were enthusiastic crankers of the pasta machine.”
To view the virtual exhibition, Italianità, visit: https://www.italianita-art.com/.