Interview with Lea Contestabile

Translation by Marina Dlacic

Lea Contestabile, ph. credit Fausto Cheng

Memory is the true material  the works of Lea Contestabile are made of. A material that, handled with care and skill, allows her to give shape to works in which voices, stories, ancient knowledge, traces of men, women, communities are intertwined.

Born in L’Aquila, after the Academy, thanks to a scholarship from the Academy of San Luca, she worked at the National Chalcography in Rome, directed by Carlo Bertelli. Professor of Artistic Anatomy at the Academy of Fine Arts in L’Aquila, in 1995 she founded the MuBAQ – Children’s Museum L’Aquila and after the earthquake she dedicated herself to the creation of the Children’s Art Village in Fossa (L’Aquila) . In 2011 she was invited to the Venice Biennale.

Her  artistic activity is  widely documented by exhibitions and participations in Italy and abroad; to mention only the most recent, the exhibitions at the MACRO – Museum of Contemporary Art Rome, at the House of Memory and History in Rome (2019) and at the Italian Cultural Institute in Zagreb (2020). Tireless experimenter, she also creates art books, videos and shows collaborating with writers and musicians. She organizes demonstrations and events aimed at building a world of sounds, words, images, colors and movements. Her works are found in national and international museums.

Your ‘tapestries’ are actually real installations in which different elements are connected through the wire. What role does fiber play in these works, is it a simple technical means or does it also have a further meaning?

In a work of art the technique and medium used are never an end in themselves; it is precisely the form that is most often the vehicle for the  meaning. When in 1995, the urge to connect my artistic work closely to my experience arose in me, I inevitably had to look for tools and practices suitable for the new way of approaching my research.

The need for AUTHENTICITY and NARRATION obviously required the use of new expressive methods.

The thread, by its nature, is a metaphor for life itself. The thread of destiny is what unites the different moments of existence.

The thread creates bonds, knots, nets, textures. For this reason it is the most appropriate tool for “weaving” or “reweaving” relationships, affections, emotions, different psychological levels (unconscious, conscious, subconscious). Spinning, weaving, embroidering, sewing represent a creative act that brings together the different moments of life and for this reason among the various technical possibilities chosen (collage, photos, ceramics …) I have included sewing.

With the threads and knots I created, among other things, several installations and performances entitled “The quipus of memory”. The quipus are a set of knotted cords, used in the Inca and Peruvian cultures for mathematical calculations but also to summarily remember and describe historical and economic events, important for the community.

The latest initiative in chronological order, an interdisciplinary event of art, music, dance, filmography “I Quipus della Memoria – ContaminAZIONI”, took place in 2019 in L’Aquila at the 99 spouts and the MuNdA – National Museum of Abruzzo in the area of ​​Cantieri dell’maginario by the Teatro Stabile.

“KIPUSNERO”, wool, ceramics, wood, threads, variable size, 2006, ph. Contestabile credit archive

The first textile ‘material’ you used in your works was gauze, a choice – if I understand well- more related to care – in a broad sense – than to pain. Is that right?

Your question forced me to go back to ask myself when the use of textile material in my work began.

In reality it has always been there. As soon as 1974, at the National Chalcography, in my engravings I was experimenting, together with the excellent printer Sannino, with prints made by covering the plates with tarlatan (gauze used to clean the plates). Subsequently, many of my abstract paintings from 1976 entitled “Cancellature” are also veiled by gauze that allow to be seen in transparencies. A work from that time has a tear stitched up by a red thread.

The first major sewing project, in which I use the gauze related to the care is “Rammendo-Rammento”(Mending / Remembrance) of 1995.

It is a sort of large cross made with the bandages that I had recovered in the hospital after a bad accident in which I thought I would lose everything, especially my family and my loved ones. The silhouettes of people dear to me are embroidered on the gauze.

“RAMMENDO-RAMMENTO”(MENDING/REMEMBRANCE), gauze, cotton, cm. 300x 280, year 2005, ph. Contestabile credit archive

“RAMMENDO-RAMMENTO”(MENDING/REMEMBRANCE) detail, gauze, cotton, cm. 300x 280, year 2005, ph. Contestabile credit archive

The fundamental theme of your research is undoubtedly memory. But what exactly does ‘memory’ mean for you and why is it so important to preserve it, retain it and  pass it on also through art?

Yes, all my work can be conceived as a continuous “memory exercise”, a title that I also gave to a personal exhibition   presented by Teresa Macri.

With hindsight, as often happens to us artists, I realized that memory has always been at the center of my work. Even when I started painting, I worked in layers; I superimposed color on color and then ‘erased’ with white or black, leaving only glimpses, small portions of the world that I had slowly built. A choice of fragments that were worth making visible.

1995 is a crucial year for me.

The loss of my father and health problems changed my view of reality and inevitably of my work.

Then came the desire to anchor my research to life, to experience, to sink more and more  into the earth, in the traditions of my peasant culture. I felt the need to tell my story and that of the villagers, especially the women who were part of my training. As a girl, I couldn’t wait to free myself from that world. The country with its traditions, its rituals was tight on me. Today my desire is to bring back to life, in some way, what I hated and  I am afraid of losing.

There is in my research the desire to secure a world that is being forgotten.

For me keeping the memory alive means  to take care of my memories that are not only mine but of a whole country and a whole community.

“THE OVERTURNED HOUSE”, ph. Contestabile credit archive

The concept of ‘memory’ is closely related to that of ‘time’, also present in the current exhibition – with Carola Masini – at the One Gallery in L’Aquila. So what is time for you?

In the nineties I created a cycle of works entitled: “All this I do in the great palace of my memory …” taking up a passage from the Confessions of Saint Augustine that refers not to a chronological or diachronic time but to a psychological time. The time of memory is a time of the present, a time in which the present of the past, the present of the present, the present of the future coexist and overlap.

We could also talk about a liquid time or a liquid memory that makes us remember who we are, who we were but also who we would like to be. Memory can be a document, a story but also a lie and tell us our nightmares, our hopes, our dreams. “The sentiment of time”, the title of another exhibition of mine, like art, can be a lie and for this reason it can reveal to ourselves what we sometimes do not have the courage to confess.

“KIPUS DELLA MEMORIA”, wool, ceramics, wood, threads, various materials, 2006, photo Boys

Sewing small fragments of a daily life, sometimes indefinite, sometimes insignificant, giving them back a new narrative that through art you deliver to posterity, to the future, rescuing them from oblivion, is it not, after all, a way to redeem history -history  with the lower h – of each of us from the tyranny of time and great history?

With my artistic work I travel to reopen “the door of the house”, plumb that tortuous labyrinth that is the memory to snatch its secrets and magic.

It is not nostalgia that leads me to this NOSTOS (homecoming) but the need to bring to light a reality to be investigated and understood.

Often it is the photographs taken by my father that inspire me and guide me in this homecoming. My peasant father  had learned the techniques of photography in the African war and  left an extraordinary heritage of photos, becoming through his images a witness to the memory of the country: weddings, religious holidays, family portraits … very important bonds that I am looking for to revive together with that simple countryside world, made up of little things that I have only appreciated with time. I like to tell my personal story which coincides with the story of my villagers and above all of the women whose dedication to family, home and work moves me.

I reprinted the negatives of the portraits left by my father and created the installation “The country of crossed destinies”(in a small town they are all relatives, family, friends) and from the negatives of weddings in the forties I created the work “My father fixed an emotion I would like to give you back a smile” dedicated to the brides who did not display  smiles in the photos but only bewildered and in some cases frightened looks.

In the installation I reconstruct a sort of “country”, where the brides are represented embellished and adorned with embroidery and ornaments. It’s my simple homage.

In some works I used hemp sheets, grown and woven by my mother or by other women of the village as in the installation “The place, the map, the families” in which I reconstruct the network of ties between families by embroidering the most significant last names of the place.

With my creativity, I dream of keeping a “small emotional world” alive by doing justice to a simple community that is rich in human values.

Con la mia creatività sogno di mantenere in vita un “piccolo mondo affettivo” rendendo giustizia ad una comunità semplice ma ricca di valori umani.

“THE GARDEN OF MY HEART”, net, fabric, paper, threads, tarlatan, cm 210×300, year 2018, ph. Contestabile credit archive

Among the recurring elements in your works there are silhouettes, figures clearly outlined only in the outlines that leave room for any identification and interpretation: shadows, ghosts or what else?

The silhouettes I use are also taken from photos of my family. They are made of paper, ceramic, copper, lead, iron, cloth … I have built a sort of emotional vocabulary in which each figurine can be conceived as a word, a unit, a character that I insert from time to time in always the same and different story that I want to represent.

Shadows, ghosts …? I can’t tell. They are dreams, apparitions that come back. They are memories of my childhood and, as you say, precisely because they have no details, they can also become memories for the beholder.

“THE POETIC ELIO’S GARDEN”, net, fabric, paper, thread, tarlatan, 110×115 cm, year 2017, ph. Contestabile credit archive

What is the genesis of your works, from the abstract idea to the concrete work?

Talking about your work for an artist is never easy because on the one hand you need to distance yourself to reflect objectively on your research and on the other hand you try to get naked to give authentic and profound expression to what you have created.

Often you work driven by an inner urgency that does not make you pause to ask yourself what are the reasons that drive you to look for forms, materials, solutions; it is the work itself that opens the way to paths that you had not thought of but only intuitions moved by the need to do, to tell, to be there.

It is only later, reflecting on what has been achieved, that the deeper motivations that prompted you to operate in a certain way are understood.

A successful work, however, goes beyond the artist’s intentions and takes on a plurality of meaning, becoming an open work, as Umberto Eco would say. A work lives and continually transforms itself in the gaze of the beholder who charges it with its experience and culture. I am interested in thrilling the viewer and communicating something about my world to him,and  then… I hope that the viewer will make ‘his” what I have built.

I collect objects, fabrics, wools, threads, photos and dried flowers and different materials, dolls, junk of various kinds and everything that stimulates my imagination, that creates a suggestion in me or that reminds me of a moment, a thought. My studio is a sort of “messed up” attic. The material can remain for months and even years in drawers or baskets and then suddenly I feel the urge to manipulate, join, assemble papers, threads, nets, gauze with the not precise idea of ​​what will happen. Appearance. There is a long waiting time …

Then the idea of ​​how to put the pieces together starts to become clearer and the assembly work begins, I sew and unpick my puzzle to make it resurface by re-narrating legends, emotions and passages of my story linked to collective history; I recover fragments of time to regain their meaning and build the future time.

“The garden” is a recurring theme in my work.

It is a garden of memory, a hortus conclusus (enclosed garden) in which I can travel deep into my interiority and reflect to build an intimate space “all for me”, where I can find my thoughts, my dreams, my affections, my fantasies and, why not, even my nightmares to be exorcised and translated into positive. My garden can be made of paper, ceramic, cloth and embroidery, coarse and precious sewing; objects of all kinds coexist in an apparent disorder, pets, fantastic figures and figures from my personal history taken from photos of my family, most often taken by my father and reprinted and reworked by me.It is a sort of “symbolic alphabet”, a personal writing where signs and images are repeated, drawing and organizing ever-changing stories that open holes towards home, towards that peasant civilization of legends told in front of the fireplace during the long winter evenings. It is a “garden of delights”, locus amoenus, a place of experimentation and play, where you can test yourself to reconnect forgotten parts of yourself, where you can seek harmony through the joy of “doing” and manipulating different materials.It is the space of introspective listening in which to grasp the inner resonances and get lost through the enchantment and, in a sort of prodigy, find oneself. Like Alice, I like to imagine a surreal and magical world, fantastic and real at the same time where past, present and future can coexist. In the garden of my heart, I stitch together moments from my childhood, the games, the places, the memories of the people who loved me and who helped me grow and become who I am. Tile after tile, like a sort of mosaic, I try to put together the pieces of my memories quilted and re-knotted with flowers, birds, butterflies, hearts and a few ‘mazzamurello’, a frightening character who made our days  mysterious and magical when we were children.

Well-defined spaces alternate with empty spaces, rendering my works places to move, stop, travel far and wide to find something forgotten or something new that makes you think, giving you the opportunity to tell a little about yourself. It is precisely the need for narration that leads me to build many small stories to be mended in a personal universe. Fabrics, paper, velvet, mesh, ribbons, threads alternate in the construction of my puzzle. The tarlatan painted in black, a material that I have used so much in chalcography, helps me to create the right screen to veil and hide the underlying figures only in appearance. It is memory that makes you see and not see and that, at times, brings to mind events that never really happened, but dreamed of and / or hoped for.[1]

[1] Text by Lea Contestabile, FEMME ARTE POSSIBLY FEMALE, edited by Veronica Montanino and Anna Maria Panzera, Ed. Bordeaux, 2019

“I WANTED A DOLL”, old hemp sheet, thread, gauze, old lace of wedding dress, doll, brooches…, 100 x 230 cm, year 2019, ph. Contestabile credit archive

Embroidery, needlework, weaving: many techniques in the textile field have been the prerogative of women for centuries. Does this feminine dimension fit into the poetics of your works and in what way?

“The teaching of Artistic Anatomy at the Academy of Fine Arts led me to deal with contemporary art phenomena such as Body Art.  Artists like Gina Pane, Louise Bourgeois, Sophie Calle and others have placed me in front of themes and artistic modalities that required the challenge of getting involved with all one’s experience. Thus, over time, the feminine dimension has become more and more central and my gaze has focused on expressive and communicative practices, even of the artisanal ones (sewing, crochet, embroidery) traditionally made by women.

In recent years my research entitled “and I will take care of you… KINTSUGI or the crack enhancement technique” has focused on the body in its various meanings.

The research was born from the desire to somehow exorcise the fear of illness and to tell how the wound can become an instrument of rebirth and reconstruction. Conceived not only in a physical sense, the body, the fulcrum of the processes of building personal and collective female identity, has proved to be a privileged territory on which scars dig deep, creating the opportunity to experience suffering as a gift to get to know each other better; pain brings one’s self back to reality, becomes testimony of a real experience, and art acts as a means to tell and better define the image of this suffering.

The body, memory and personal guardian, is also a symbolic force and collective ritual par excellence, a vehicle of traditions, social relationships, conventions.

The emotional fragility of the works and the solidarity with the female world found a correspondence in the choice of materials used and in the techniques of realization: threads, sewing, transparent plastics, cloths woven by women of the country, gauze, plasters … The multi-material works, installations, sculptures and paintings, votive boxes appear as a sort of “sacred” inventions, creative objects with an apotropaic function. The installations are a kind of a single large ex-voto, a set of compositions in turn resulting from the union of different elements. The desire was to translate into a positive, through the metaphors of art, the painful experiences of life and share them with others, in particular with other women.”[2]

I strongly believe in the ability of women to create beauty, harmony and peace among men. Women have the intelligence and the strength to truly transform the world. Unfortunately, history has taught us that the female gender is frightening and therefore  must be kept under control.

In recent times I feel, with great apprehension, a sort of return to the battles and conquests obtained in the seventies. On the contrary, I find that the art system that has always obscured and ignored female artists today pays particular attention to the female world and looks at the work of female artists with great interest.

[2]Text by Lea Contestabile, FEMME ARTE POSSIBLY FEMALE, edited by Veronica Montanino and Anna Maria Panzera, Ed. Bordeaux, 2019

SACRED HEART”, gauze, paper, ceramic, wood, copper, various materials, variable size, 2008, photo Boys

SACRED HEART”(detail), gauze, paper, ceramic, wood, copper, various materials, variable size, 2008, photo Boys

SACRED HEART”(detail), gauze, paper, ceramic, wood, copper, various materials, variable size, 2008, photo Boys

You were born in a region, Abruzzo, rich in ancient craftsmanship but also in stories and traditions which, especially the innermost areas, keep – at least in some aspects – still alive and, indeed, increasingly rediscover its value. How much do you draw from this rich cultural and popular heritage and how much has it influenced your artistic work?

I was born in a small farming village in the Marsica area: Ortucchio, an islet in the middle of the Fucino lake drained by Torlonia in 1862. Mine was a peaceful childhood with three sisters with whom I was often in conflict. As I said, the country was tight on me. I couldn’t wait to go out and live in a big city.I experienced the University in Rome and the Academy in L’Aquila as opportunities for freedom and distance from the fields and from the fatigue that I felt every day and experienced when I too, like my sisters, was taken to the countryside to help with the farmworkers . I was a little impatient. I also rebelled when my mother tried to send me with my sisters and the other girls of the village to the nuns to learn how to embroider and prepare the trousseau. I have always refused.

Unlike my sisters, I don’t know how to embroider, but today I use the needle and thread to create signs with which to tell stories.

I preferred to draw but above all to play with my friends by making small shows. The courtyards and threshing floors were our favorite locations; the carts, the stairs, the straw bales our props. I was overbearing: I wanted to be a director, screenwriter, set designer, costume designer, lead actress …

I would arrive (still today some friends make fun of me calling me Mary Poppins) with a bag full of objects taken from my shop, costume jewelery, scarves, various objects. If I couldn’t do what I wanted, I would put everything back in the bag and say goodbye.

In the evening in front of the fireplace my mother, while knitting, told us various legends, stories of ghosts, witches, women / cats with strange powers.

All this, I think, is in my work.

“SMALL DECK”, 2005, photo Boys

What does it mean to work in L’Aquila, a city that is painstakingly mending its wounds and recomposing its social fabric?

L’Aquila suffered a terrible trauma but creativity, at all levels, proved to be an extraordinary therapy.

Great was the desire to tell to exorcise fear and pain; everyone did it with their own language. Many books, including photographic ones, have been published. Many artists, to remember and not forget, have dedicated works to the city and to the victims.

The theme of the country and the house has always fascinated me, becoming more and more an identity metaphor after the earthquake. Each house is a universe that passes on the memory of grandparents, fathers, children through the many objects: it is a place of affection, of memories, of games, of traditions but also of conflicts and important desires in the construction of the identity of each of us.

I made many works dedicated to the theme of the country and the house and to the victims of the earthquake. In 2011 for the Venice Biennale, curated by Vittorio Sgarbi who had decentralized the Biennale in the Regions, I created two installations dedicated to L’Aquila: “3 and 32” dedicated to the victims (309 white plaster and gauze pieces in plaster according to the age and gender of the victims) and “The dream of sleeping beauty” at the Cathedral of L’Aquila devastated by the earthquake. 999 houses embroidered by me, my students and the children I worked with, created a kind of city / blanket that covered the body of a woman who dreamed of reconstruction asleep on a church altar.

The work of which I am most proud is the realization in Fossa (AQ), thanks to the solidarity of many, of the Children’s Art Village, a park that is gradually enriching itself with large site-specific sculptures in which we have built the seat of the MuBAq – the L’Aquila Children’s Museum, born as a non-profit association in 1995 and which today has been enriched with an extraordinary international art collection.

Last year, through the Restart call, we were able to set up the “GARDEN OF MEMORY – The corner of the little stars” dedicated to children who died in the earthquake. The Garden is embellished with large sculptures by 12 extraordinary artists. My work is a large iron staircase almost 6 meters high, softened by the silhouettes of children who, playing, approach a red house and rise towards the immensity of the sky.

THE DREAM OF THE SLEEPING BEAUTY”, nets, fabrics, papers, threads, variable size, year 2011, ph. Contestabile  credit archive

THE DREAM OF THE SLEEPING BEAUTY”(detail), nets, fabrics, papers, threads, variable size, year 2011, ph. Contestabile  credit archive

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.