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Moors of Sicily (2018)


Moors of Sicily is a series developed specifically for ReSignifications: Black Portraitures, an exhibit curated by Awam Amkpa and produced by New York University and Tisch School of the Arts, invoking classical and popular representations of African bodies in European art, culture and history. The artists in this project speak against the background of the connected histories of Europe and Africa, and the African Diaspora. Its premise is from the ubiquitous models of decorative art known as the “Blackmoors” – furniture, sculptures, paintings, and tapestries that portray African bodies in service, as domestic workers, soldiers, porters, and custodians of palatial properties. The Blackamoors, initially made in the 17thcentury, have been continuously produced through the centuries. After having traveled to New York University Florence, Cooper Gallery at Harvard University, and Cuba, the art exhibition returned to Italy for Palermo Capital of Culture 2018.

Moors of Sicily – Statement
The curators commissioned me an artwork for the Palermo’s venue on the theme of Black Portraiture and the representations of African bodies in European art, culture and history.
The first challenge was how to represent as a local artist a connection between my background and the project theme. I also asked myself how I could represent the black body without falling into racial stereotypes and a Eurocentric perspective.
I found an answer in my Sicilian origins, in my culture, and, in particular, in my ancestors' history which emerges through its decorative art, in particular in the Moors' Head ceramic vases representing the Moors in an opposite way from its Northern counterparts — the so-called ‘Blackamoors’ portraying servants of African descent performing domestic duties.
Also, when Sicilians emigrated to the Unites States in the 19th and 20th centuries, they were called ‘Black Dagos’ and were subjected to forms of racism and violence.

Moors in the Black Mediterranean
"Historically, geographically and culturally, Sicily is located at the center of the Mediterranean, and the island was a magnet for conquerors across the centuries […]. Arriving from present-day Tunisia, the Arabs conquered Sicily in 827 and remained in power for some two hundred and fifty years. In fact, the new conquerors were not usually addressed as Arabs, but rather as ‘Moors’ […]. Today it is widely acknowledged that the “notoriously indeterminate” (Bartels) term “Moor” was adopted, more generally, by the Europeans to refer to both the Berbers and Arabs from North Africa, often extending the name to include peoples from other African countries, from what today we call the Middle East to places as far away as India. […] The term did not imply one single culturally, ethnically, or racially bounded identity. It referred to dark-skinned people as well as to white people. Although habitually used as a synonym for Muslim, “Moor” actually transcended religious boundaries, encompassing a number of histories, geographies, and ideologies, all with their own cultural markers. Most importantly, the expression was coined by the Europeans to refer to the “Other” who came from-and-through the Mediterranean basin, signifying the intersection of European and non-European cultures."
"In contrast to their Northern counterpart — namely, the so-called "blackamoor" statuettes from the Venetian and Florentine traditions portraying servants of African descent performing domestic duties — the ‘Sicilian Moors’ head ceramic vases refer to a pre-modern, specific moment of history: the Arab domination of Sicily, widely acknowledged as the zenith of splendor for the island. In particular, they reference a Sicilian folktale, which, according to legend, dates back to the year 1000 AD."
[Alessandra Di Maio, "‘Of Moors’ Heads and other Sicilian Decorations", in ReSignifications: European Blackamoors, Africana Readings (ed. by Awam Amkpa), Rome: Postcart, 2017]

A legend behind Sicilian Moorish heads

‘One day, in the 11th century, a beautiful and honorable young girl living in the Kalsa, the Arabic district of Palermo, was taking care of flowers in the terrace of her house as she usually did. A Moor merchant who used to pass by fell in love with the girl who returned his love. They had a happy love story until he unexpectedly told her he had to go back to his wife and children waiting for him in his native land. Crazy of jealousy, one night, while he was sleeping, she cut off his head and cleverly decided to use it as a vase to grow her beautiful basil plant. Neighbours started looking at her flourishing basil plant and became jealous of how it was blooming, so they began to forge colorful clay pots in the form of moor heads wishing to have the same magic green thumb’.


Moors of Sicily (2018)
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