Ethical Fabric

Interview with Jonida Xherri

*Featured photo: Intrecci particolare, copyright Jonida Xherri

Born in Albania, Jonida Xherri has lived in Sicily for many years. Her work combines art and craftsmanship in a recovery of transnational skills and traditions that belong to all peoples: weaving and storytelling. Through the encounter and comparison with the other, Xherri brings back to the center of artistic research the relationship with others as the nucleus and basis of every civil coexistence and traces in the oral and shared transmission the moment in which collective culture becomes common heritage, it is handed over from one generation to the next, it becomes memory, reflection, emotional, spiritual and social richness by addressing issues such as identity, collectivity, community.

You are Albanian and live in Italy. A double cultural heritage from which to draw for an artist, a wealth that I imagine flows into your works. How and to what extent did it influence your artistic research?

I was born and lived in Albania for  22 years; I grew up loving my land and at the same time dreaming of Italy, in fact the first drawing of the boat that in my dreams would have brought me to Italy dates back to the age of 5. When I arrived in Italy, I lived knowing and discovering the “beautiful city of my dreams” and at the same time in these 14 years here the love for my Albania and the desire to return more often has unconsciously grown. For a while, I experienced a void on the idea of ​​my home, a void which I then transformed through art into woven carpets as a symbol of welcome and hospitality. Currently I feel that my home is me and my art, and that home travels with me wherever I go; therefore I always say that I live between Modica and all the places that welcome my art. I consider my life a unique interlacing with my art therefore my feeling  as a foreigner in Italy but at the same time feeling at home everywhere, since I belong to the earth (therefore to any city in the world where I am for a short or long period) influences and enriches my life and my artistic research on a daily basis.

O Italia o grande stivale. Copyright Jonida Xherri

Migration, labor rights, disabilities, environment: at the center of your work there are always social issues and issues of great relevance. Is art, then, – for you – a civil and social commitment?

I would like to think of my art as a popular art, loved, understood and experienced by every person who lives in a city, an art from the square as a place for meeting, exchange and passage; for this reason my installations are often exhibited outside buildings in courses or squares, so that their “human” message can reach everyone. Equality is the central part of all my projects, therefore by exhibiting my installations in open spaces my art becomes legible and usable by everyone in the same way.

Many of your works also presuppose a possible participation for anyone. The choice of techniques accessible to every age group and every skill is functional to this idea of ​​inclusion. Can you tell me how your projects are born and how they develop and what messages do your works convey?

I think that the issues I face are issues that involve the whole of society and around the world, which is why the participation of other people is sacred to me, because in this way we are all together to share their messages. Many of my installations / works are made with the participation of people I invite through associations, schools or calls open to anyone. In this way people of all ages participate (from children to the elderly) and the technique is super simple so no one feels excluded even those with slower manual skills or those who have no manual skills.By observing the works you understand which are the tapestries made only by me and which are also woven by other people: the braids are different, because each of us has his own way of weaving and in any case there are no wrong braids, everything that is woven during the laboratories I insert it in the tapestries.

Copyright Jonida Xherri

Copyright Jonida Xherri

So braid and weaving are the most common techniques you rely on to create even great works. What are the reasons for this choice? What materials do you usually prefer?

Since I got the “Foglio di via dall’Italia” something inside of me has changed, I have often felt lost, as if I no longer belonged to any place. Then I started weaving and resumed embroidery (which I had abandoned for years), sometimes spending months working the thread for up to 16 hours a day, stopping only to eat and sleep.This slow and manual work helped me to regain all my energies, slowly it was like braiding and mending my soul and my identity and then I wanted to leave that room to share it with other people, satisfying a personal and collective need  to weave  and mend a society that belongs to all without any distinction.

With the tapestries and carpets made in this period, I carried out the “Miëserdhët” project (from the Albanian “Welcome”), a project linked to the theme of hospitality and exchange as real riches that people need to rediscover. “Welcome” was a physical space of artist hospitality that consisted of my 10-month self-residence, from April 2019 to January 31, 2020.

A  foreigner / non-EU citizen needs 10 years of continuous residence in Italy to be able to apply for citizenship, which after a few more years can be accepted or refused. After spending 10 years in Italy, I made a request and while waiting for an answer, I decided to return the welcome by giving 10 months of hospitality to all those who wanted to be welcomed. The project also intended to bring attention and reflection to the long waiting times to obtain this status. Over the course of 3 years I had made 10 carpets of btraided threads with my drawings as a child, then exhibiting them one a month there where every day I hosted people offering Albanian tea and candies, Turkish coffee, etc. Furthermore, during the months of self-residency the space was also a living laboratory, where I organized workshops with various associations in the area (the space was located at the Palazzo della Cultura in Modica, and made available by the Municipality).

The materials I use are varied; fabrics, synthetic threads, cotton, wool; I make a mainly economic choice and when I manage to recover recycled material I always use it.

How much autobiographical is there in your works?

My art is my autobiography: I am my art and my art is me, together with all the people I have intertwined in my path of life and art.

Copyright Jonida Xherri

Copyright Jonida Xherri

Words are the other fundamental component in your works, the other irreplaceable ‘material’. What is the word for artist Jonida Xherri?

Lately we have lost the importance of words, we use them without paying proper attention to their meaning and the emotional impact they have on others. This is why in many of my projects I start with a workshop dedicated to words, often they are the ones who are intertwined and embroidered in the tapestries.

So for example in the Pearls of reception project, a striped carpet made collectively, embroidered with sequins and beads. Welcome is a sacred term related to hospitality between human beings. To date, the strips of the carpet reach 250 meters in length.The carpet was unrolled on the steps of San Pietro in Modica, on the churchyard of the Pieve di San Piero a Sieve, on the floor of the Logge Comunali di Vicchio, in Lampedusa and in other places and will continue to run in other cities where other pieces will be added.

And again the project “Oh Italy, oh mighty  boot, do not kick me out again” which comes from the quotation of Emanuel Carnevali, Italian poet and migrant, returning to Italy in the early 1900s. The project wants to give voice to the personal history of every single person in Italy and in Europe, and wants to raise awareness on the issues of immigration, crisis and conflict.The sentence  is re-proposed today by Italians by birth and Italians of sentiment, Italians who want to emigrate and Italians who want to stay hoping for a better Italy; immigrants who find themselves in Italy by chance or by choice, who see it as a land of passage or as a landing place to build a life. In this tapestry measuring one meter by ten in length, each braid symbolizes the story of its author and the place where it takes shape, thus transforming a personal story and place into universal ones.This tapestry has been exhibited, among others, at the Auditorium of Modica, at the MUST Territory Museum in Vimercate, in Salemi, at the Library of Santa Croce sull’Arno, at Palazzo Spadaro in Scicli, in Borgo San Lorenzo, at the Museum of Dialogue and Trust of the Mediterranean in Lampedusa.

Twisted Tales” is instead a project that transforms a “geographical map” into an “emotional map” made up of words and stories. Three tapestries / carpets each with 12 words – as many as the hours and months – that encourage reflection on time (exhibited at the Museo del Crudo di San Sperate, in Salemi, Segesta and Gibellina).

Or “Weaving in motion” an installation created during an artist residency in Amatrice with a workshop attended by the inhabitants of the area. At the Casa delle Donne in Amatrice and Frazioni and with the group of Amatrice embroiderers we worked sharing time and story telling, finding the synthesis between past, present and future – symbolically represented in the three threads we used – in some more meaningful words that they went to compose six tapestries – one for each of the 5 years that have passed since the earthquake and one with a vision for the future.

Copyright Jonida Xherri

Copyright Jonida Xherri

There is a work you have been working on for years and which is linked to your application for citizenship. Can you tell me what it is?

In 2015, I accidentally learned that I was being sought by the Ragusa Police Headquarters and I received a Travel Sheet from Italy with a maximum time limit of 15 days. The reason was my low income, even though I actually lived between Modica and Florence and studied with a scholarship at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence.It was the first time I realized that legally I was only a foreigner / non-EU citizen in Italy and that someone could decide to break my dreams with a simple sheet of paper. I later found out that lots of “exit papers” were delivered every year and  I had my family to help me and the ability to pay a lawyer for me, but many other people might not be as lucky as me.

From that moment on, my artistic research has focused much more on social issues; I have decided, at least in my tiny artistic universe, to give voice to injustices, to the weakest. Among all the projects I have carried out since then, there is “Citizenship” currently in progress and which will end when I receive Italian citizenship. I started making braids from my hair during each presentation of my work or project and cutting them, keeping them and then remaking new braids and cutting them.It is a project linked to the patient expectation of citizenship, marked by the slow growth of hair, which focuses attention on the injustice that a simple sheet of paper makes the difference between people. In January 2022 I will know the outcome of my request and from that moment on I will work on my installation of the braids collected in all these years.

Copyright Jonida Xherri

Copyright Jonida Xherri

What project are you working on and what do you have in the pipeline for the near future?

I worked on “Roots out of bounds” a project that talks about migration starting from the movements of birds, animals, insects, nature as a whole – from plants to human beings.There is no beginning or end of migration as a phenomenon, because migrating is displacement and movement, and therefore impossible to stop because it would be like stopping life. The world is a place of encounters, but we have created borders that are valid only for the weakest. Plants have always gone beyond these boundaries, flourishing and bringing back the beauty of “root migration”. Each flower is a seed and a root, which was born in one country and has been transported and planted in many other countries. Starting from this reflection, I created this labyrinth of embroidered flowers that measures 10×10 meters,  you can walk inside it and discover the migratory history of each of the plants. The project was presented at the Science on Stage Festival in Faenza.

I am also working on “hŏmō – natūra – politikḗ” to focus attention on the relationship between man-nature-politics, an invitation to resume the relationship of respect and love with nature, with the land that welcomes us and at the same time an appeal to politicians all over the world to return to the original sense of politics that must protect the human being and the earth that welcomes us, instead of creating borders that are not natural since nature only recognizes the one between water and land. It is the physical and mental boundaries between people / race / citizenship that pits man against man, dividing people into series A and B. This project will be carried out in the Stand up for Africa residence curated by Pietro Gagliano in Pratovecchio.

Currently in Modica you can also see one of my installations: “The Gelsominaie of yesterday, today and tomorrow” a tribute to workers and above all to female workers from all over the world and a denunciation of the exploitation and denial of rights to workers who are still abused today and remain invisible: this is the profound meaning linked to the history of the Gelsominaie, displayed on the external facade of the Caritas listening center in Modica welcomed by Casa Don Puglisi.In the postwar period I and II, among the many agricultural productions of Sicily and Calabria there was that of jasmine flowers, in great demand by companies in Italy and Europe. Due to the inhuman exploitation of workers in Sicily, in August 1946 a revolt broke out among the Jasmine women of Milazzo who obtained a doubling of their pay.This tapestry, 150×800 cm raises the reflection on all the realities of work in which every right is denied, for example that middle ground of the invisible in the fields where people often have no “legal identity”. The struggle for labor rights cannot be considered over as long as even one person anywhere in the world continues to be exploited.

Barbara Pavan

English version Sono nata a Monza nel 1969 ma cresciuta in provincia di Biella, terra di filati e tessuti. Mi sono occupata lungamente di arte contemporanea, dopo aver trasformato una passione in una professione. Ho curato mostre, progetti espositivi, manifestazioni culturali, cataloghi e blog tematici, collaborando con associazioni, gallerie, istituzioni pubbliche e private. Da qualche anno la mia attenzione è rivolta prevalentemente verso l’arte tessile e la fiber art, linguaggi contemporanei che assecondano un antico e mai sopito interesse per i tappeti ed i tessuti antichi. Su ARTEMORBIDA voglio raccontare la fiber art italiana, con interviste alle artiste ed agli artisti e recensioni degli eventi e delle mostre legate all’arte tessile sul territorio nazionale.