Patrizia Posillipo, Africa del Nord: The artist as flâneuse

Patrizia Posillipo’s Africa del Nord  (2016) is a photographic project developed in Morocco. The artist travelled around the country starting from the imperial city of Fes, to the pink city of Marrakesh, to Essaouira.

Patrizia Posillipo’s Africa del Nord  (2016) is a photographic project developed in Morocco. The artist travelled around the country starting from the imperial city of Fes, to the pink city of Marrakesh, to Essaouira. The works reveal her interest to apprehend the diverse places and cultures at different scales and at different levels: communities, individuals, architectures, everyday places and objects, and also historical landmarks. Despite a detached and respectful distance, in each shot her fascination and admiration becomes evident for the viewer.

However, the reading, with which I came across several times, of Patrizia’s approach to Africa del Nord in terms of anthropologic research had never really convinced me. Then I remembered and realised why: The critique of this “artistic attitude” in Hal Foster’s brief but famous chapter “The Artist as Ethnographer” came back to my mind. In it, the author exposes an acute critique to a current trend in the artistic field to perceive the cultural-other—and in fact alterity is the object of study of anthropology—as the place for political transformation, and from there of artistic transformation. Nevertheless, in this “ethnographic-turn” the danger of ideological patronage is always present. What is even worse is the risk of  “the artist, critic, or historian [to project] his or her practice onto the field of the other, where it is read not only as authentically indigenous but as innovatively political!”. So the reason why the reading of the project as an anthropological approach to Moroccan culture never convinced me is because it is not such and thus it actually runs none of these risks, not from a phenomenological point of view, nor regarding the intentions of the artist.

Looking at the works this becomes evident:  For example, in Last Supper she depicts a numerous group of people, possibly a family, eating on a long table in the open air, in a humble and very crowded restaurant. The artist kept a distance, and most of the portrayed seem unaware of her presence, focused as they are on their different activities. Instead of a simple daily-life moment, in Al Mallah the depicted subject is of great historical and symbolic relevance. Al Mallah is Fes Jewish cemetery, located in the Medina, within its walls, in the old Jewish quarter. A part of the image seems almost abstract: In it, it is possible to see an extension of white tombs with vaulted roofs completely surrounded by the houses once inhabited by Jewish people, today by Moroccans. In this way the cemetery remains hidden and impossible to be seen from the outside. This place seems evocative and a witness of a peaceful coexistence of Jewish and Muslims that lasted for many years. Or, for example, in Game, shot at Jemma el-Fna (which means “assembly of the dead”), the square took its name from the public executions that took place there since around the year 1050. We can see men betting, and while they are focused on the numbers, the barker, with a penetrating look, gestures with his hand to expresses dissent. He is looking directly at the camera, as it is the kid on the right side of the composition, so close to it that he is slightly out of focus.

In fact, there is a better concept to understand Patrizia’s approach to Africa del Nord, and it’s Lauren Elkin’s definition of the flâneuse. Elkin created this neologism to be able to inflect the word flâneur in the female genre. The word flâneur was first mentioned in 1585, but it gains fame with Baudelaire’s conception of it as “the artist who seeks refugee in the crowd”.

It is important to underline that the rather elitist conception of the flâneur as a dandy who does nothing and just wanders around is not conveyed by the female definition. Elkin thinks of the flâneuse as a woman who makes cities and the places she walks around her own through the very activity of walking, looking around and getting lost to then re-discover her way.

Walking around a city alone for a woman has never been easy, or sometimes even possible, and this was reflected in the language, which in fact didn’t have a word for an eventual female version of the flâneur. So the female definition has almost a political valence, it is a statement.

Patrizia’s project is informed by the spirit of the flâneuse: her gaze through the photographic apparatus doesn’t reveal any sort of cultural patronage, as Foster warns, rather it depicts the places and the people in an incisive but joyful way and the fashion in which an artist make them her own.

by Gabriela Galati