2017 Dio è sopra la mia testa. (God is above my head./神様が頭の上にいる。)

Project in Chiaromonte, Italy 14 – 23 September 2017

The exhibition was held at former Chiaromonte elementary school.
The exhibition was held at former Chiaromonte elementary school.

From September 14th to 23rd, 2017, I took part in a residency project entitled ‘Community—Residency for artists and anthropologists’ in Chiaromonte, a small town in Southern Italy. The residency was a highly unique art initiative with few precedents, whereby successful applicants for the residency—artists and anthropologists—came together in Chiaromonte to carry out fieldwork and then present their results within the town itself. I was one of the participating artists, and also one of the two-strong planning committee. The other committee member was Francesco Marano, a cultural anthropologist and associate professor at the Università degli Studi della Basilicata who initially conceived the residency. Professor Marano explained that his idea originated out of the fieldwork of American anthropologist Edward C. Banfieldin Chiaromonte in the 1950s, which subsequently led to the publication of a key anthropological work entitled The Moral Basis of a Backward Society(Free Press 1958).

My artistic practice revolves around the idea of collaboration, and I am also increasingly interested in anthropological fieldwork and other nonstandard research methods within the field of art, incorporating these into most of my artistic projects. I had given a presentation at a 2003 symposium entitled ‘Art and Anthropology: Contemporary Ethnographic Practice’ held at London’s Tate Modern gallery about the effectiveness of fieldwork within the creative process for art projects. It was in fact the publication of a report of this symposium, Between Art and Anthropology: Contemporary Ethnographic Practice(Arnd Schneider and Christopher Wright (eds.), Berg Publishers, 2010), that led to my meeting with Professor Marano. Given this history, I was hugely excited about being involved in a project that united these two fields of interest.

Collaborating with Francesco Marano

As mentioned above, I took part in the residency not only as an artist, but also as co-coordinator together with Professor Marano. The decision to proceed with the project was not finalized until March 2017, which left us with very little time for planning. Professor Marano and I discussed various issues over Skype and social media platforms, honing and refining our plans. When applications for the residency opened, we divided the selection work between us.

In September, once the participants’ fieldwork had begun, my role was to offer support to the participants in small ways such as managing the daily schedule, providing the odd bit of advice about materials, producing notices and posters and so on. (The participants were also of great help to me too, particularly in interpreting Italian.) I’ll let the accounts of the individual projects speak for themselves, but suffice to say that the fieldwork was undertaken by the residents, either as part of solo or collaborative projects, produced very unique and interesting results.

My Project: Dio è sopra la mia testa. (God is above my head.)

In the gaps between by my work as a coordinator, I went about pursuing my own artistic project—which was a solo, rather than a collaborative one. The task that I took upon myself was that of conceiving a set of new Chiaromontese ‘proverbs’.

When we started our fieldwork in Chiaromonte, all the participants were given the opportunity to go on an excursion around the town, guided by locals. On that occasion, I noticed that there were over ten buildings in noticeable locations in the town whose walls bore ceramic plates emblazoned with proverbs that were related in some way to the surroundings. The proverbs were all related to events that had happened in the region or people’s experiences, and yet, perhaps owing to cultural differences, there were several occasions when I couldn’t understand the locals’ explanations of them well, and they failed to click for me.

The proverbs were as follows:

  • Chi non fabbrica e non marita non sa niente della vita.

A person who does not work and does not marry does not know anything about life.

  • Chi non fa I’asino in gioventù lo fa in vecchiaia.

A person who does not act stupid in their youth will do it when they are older.

  • Chiacchiere avanti al forno perdimento di pane.

Gossip in front of the bakery, loses the bread.

  • Figlia in fasce dote nel baule, figlia vestita dote finita.

Baby daughter’s dresses in the trunk, daughter will be dressed when she is grown up, when the dowry is finished.

  • Lega I’asino dove vuole il padrone, anche se si affoga.

Tie the ass where the master wants, even if it drowns.

  • Al cattivo pagatore porta via tutto quel che puoi.

To the bad payer take away everything that you can.

  • Alla donna che non vuol lavorare, dopo aver mangiato, viene il freddo.

A woman who does not want to work after they’ve eaten, feels cold.

  • Caldaie con caldaie non si tingono

Boilers with boilers are not dyed.

  • Quando sei incudine resisti, quando sei martello batti

When you are an anvil you resist, when you are a hammer you beat.

  • E’ fesso chi piange colui che muore per i funghi.

Who cries for someone who died from mushrooms is foolish.

  • A letto stretto coricati in mezzo

When the bed is narrow, lie down in the middle.

Inspired by these proverbs, which seemed indicative of a rather old-fashioned and conservative way of thinking, I decided to create some new, contemporary proverbs based on my experiences in the town of Chiaromonte. Mimicking the originals, I deliberately created them in a way that resisted easy comprehension.


Here is my list of new proverbs:

  • Un ragazzo calcia la palla tra due alberi perché immaginando che siano I pali di una porta da calcio.

A boy kicks a ball between two trees imagining they are goal posts in his mind.

  • Il nome Tatsuo somiglia a una parolaccia in italiano.

The name Tatsuo resembles an obscene word in Italian.

  • Le donne si avvicinano ai gatti ma questi generalmente scappano.

Women always approach cats but the cats usually run away.

  • Una bambina ha ricevuto un biglietto da visita in giapponese e ha gridato il nome della persona.

A girl received a business card in Japanese and shouted out the name.

  • C’è un biliardino al Black & White e dev’essere divertente.

There is a football game machine in Black & White and it must be fun.

  • Uno di fronte all’altro, lanciate da una a cinque dita gridando il numero. La persona che indovina la somma vince.

Facing each other, they throw five fingers to each other and yell out a number

from one to ten whoever guesses the total wins.

  • Dio è sopra la mia testa.

God is above my head.

  • La scopa che ho visto era chiaramente fatta in Giappone. Mi ha sorpreso in quanto giapponese.

Bamboo broom that I saw on the construction site was definitely made in Japan. I was surprised as a Japanese.

These proverbs serve as a record of my personal experience, and also of those experiences that I shared with the people of Chiaromonte. They are deliberately somewhat obfuscatory, presented in a way that they can only be understood to those who experienced the events first hand.

On the final day of the residency, we presented the fruits of our efforts in the form of an exhibition held in the now-defunct local primary school. I created posters of these proverbs, and put them up alongside teaching materials and other artifacts that remained in the school, so as to generate the effect of the proverbs existing within the school landscape (environment). For those who had shared these experiences which prompted the proverbs it was a very memorable exhibition, and for those who hadn’t, a rather bizarre kind of presentation I think.

Radio Gymnastics

The week prior to the Chiaromonte project, I had taken a group of students to the International Field School in Chang Mai, in Thailand. After I presented a video of Japanese students giving a radio gymnastics workshop in a Thai nursery school on the first day of the community residency, one of the participants—choreographer Vanja Ristić—expressed interest, and decided to incorporate radio gymnastics into her choreography in Chiaromonte. You could say that this was another result of collaboration!


Despite the residency lasting only ten days, the interaction between the artists and anthropologists that took place during that time led to shared experiences of a kind people hadn’t experienced before. Presenting the outcomes of the project locally, as opposed to simply taking them home as per the typical anthropological approach, was also a very unique touch, in that it meant the research conducted in that area could benefit the area itself.

From a personal perspective, as with other artistic projects I’ve conducted away from home, I found that the residency helped make my way of thinking broader and more universal, and it also allowed me to share experiences with the Chiaromonte people. I feel sure that initiatives of this kind, with shifts of focus, will continue into the future and also involve other locations. For instance, with this particular project, I felt that there wasn’t quite enough time, and I would have liked to explore the particular region in more depth, and to confront issues currently faced by the region, such the refugee crisis and so on. For those reasons, I’d like to return to Chiaromonte in the future and carry out more fieldwork there.