What happened leaves traces, some of which are quite concrete—buildings, dead bodies, censuses, monuments, diaries, political boundaries – that limit the range and significance of any historical narrative. This is one of many reasons why not any fiction can pass for history: the materiality of the sociohistorical process (…) sets the stage for future historical narratives (…). *1
“I replay, I replay, I replay the footage of Abebe Bikila,” a monotone verse repeated by the male narrator off-screen establishes a rhythm that seems to track the bare soles of a lonely runner on night-soaked streets. Through the course of montaged archival footage, layers of projected imagery and night shots in the streets of Rome, the rhythm guides us on an open-ended narrative that aims to carve through collective memory, both filmically and literally, into our historical consciousness.
Entering the exhibition space, the first screen of the multi-channel video installation “Freedom of Movement” sets a historical backdrop: the 1960 Olympics Games in Rome when Ethiopian Abebe Bikila became the first black African athlete to win an Olympic gold medal, achieving a new world record while running barefoot. We see his feet gently pat the ground, gliding past architecture and monuments loaded with the weight of colonial history.
In an exercise of re-enactment, the film’s protagonist traces the route of the 1960 marathon at night. The footage of Abebe Bikila’s triumphant victory is projected onto his tricot bearing Bikila’s bib number ‘11’ and the original route’s historic sites: the race starts on one of Rome’s seven hills at the Piazza di Campidoglio, follows along an angular loop to the Appian Way of ancient Rome, continues through the Piazza Venezia, passes along the Obelisk on Porta Capena square and finishes under the Arch of Constantine. The marathon starts in the late afternoon and finishes after dark, the course lit by torches to illuminate the route, lined by a cheering crowd.
Nina Fischer and Maroan el Sani blend images from past and present while tracing the interwoven stories built from stone and ingrained into the urban fabric. Following Bikila, the moving images pan across the Piazza Venezia. It is here, from the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia, that Mussolini announced the declaration of war against Ethiopia and its occupation in 1936. Black and white newsreel footage shows the 24-meter-tall granite stele of the fourth-century Obelisk of Axum before it was looted by Mussolini and shipped to Rome to stand at Porta Capena Square in front of the Ministry of Italian Africa, announcing the conquest of Ethiopia and an attempt to establish a "new Roman Empire". The archival projection transitions back to color film footage from a bird’s-eye view of the same setting as Bikila passes the Obelisk during daytime.
Bikila crosses the impartial stone monolith for a second time in the course after nightfall with exactly two kilometers left in the race and breaks into his final sprint towards the world record.
Bikila’s triumph embodied the new spirit of Africa that had enthralled the continent and reflected a cross-cultural confidence that grew with the development of African independence and Pan-African awareness. The visuals of Bikila’s momentary flight generate a strong sense of nostalgia for a period promising change, progress and freedom for the whole of Africa as it stood at the brink of a hopeful and glorious new future. A taste of nostalgia that turned stale for many vanished into thin air for others. Bikila returned home as a conquering hero a quarter-century after Ethiopia defeated the Italian invasion, but a further opaque image shimmers through: another victorious Ethiopian marathon runner, Feyisa Lilesa, reaches the finish line at the recent Rio Olympics. With wrists crossed above his head, he crosses a politically acceptable line of protest in his home country, and anticipating the consequences of media exposure, does not return after all.
Reaffirming Lenin, Mussolini said ‘the cinema is the most powerful weapon.’ The projected footage repurposes archival material from the Fascist regime documenting the construction of EUR - Esposizione Universale Roma, site of the 1942 World Fair and a symbolic celebration of twenty years of Fascism. The materials made available by the Instituto Luce, Cinecittà show the towering white travertine buildings and strict grid of streets of EUR, characteristic Fascist architecture in its urgency of representation and design intent to control the masses. EUR was not only an attempt to reinvent the Roman Empire but also the model city and master plan for a new Addis Ababa, the colonial capital of the Italian imperial expansion into East Africa. EUR brought together Italy’s past and future in a re-historicized space and was one of the most controversial venues of the Olympics.
The sequence of scenes elucidates and obscures meanings, variously shining light and casting shadows on regimes of power to warp historical narratives. The images and bodies in movement flash past the Foro Italico and the Colosseo Quadrato, rendering glimmers of a history that fade again into oblivion. In re-writing, re-sculpting, and re-defining history, the film above all invites the viewer to consider the malleability of meaning assigned to architectural sites and monuments. Footage of the Obelisk of Axum follows its globally intertwined trajectories in a history-traversing relay spanning the Italian invasion to the Obelisk’s restitution to Ethiopia in 2008. Its ornamented surface with two false doors at the base and blind windows on all sides are emulated in the artificial and superimposed loggias of the Colosseo Quadrato, considered one of the most representative examples of Fascist architecture. In presence and absence, the Obelisk leaves traces in both public space and collective memory.
The Colosseo Quadrato is the starting point for another journey presented at the far end of the gallery space where two adjacent screens engage in a visual dialogue. The right screen presents the Colosseo Quadrato, also known as Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, in its imposing dominance. A chorus of teenagers from diverse African countries approach, climb the stairs and start to improvise cheers. Reaching the rooftop, their recitations shift to reinterpret the inscription on all four sides of the building from a speech by Mussolini implicitly promoting colonial expansion on the African Continent:
Un popolo di poeti, di artisti, di eroi, di santi, di pensatori, di scienziati, di navigatori, di trasmigratori.
Altering the text to reflect their own status, they chant:
We come from nations of poets, of artists, of heroes, of saints, of scientists, navigators and migrants.
Their voices eclipse the inscribed ambitions of fascist Europe to redefine what migration means and challenge the distinction made between refugee/migrant versus citizen: a distinction based on a deceptive historical logic implicit in our language that continues to separate states from (former) colonies. They invoke in spirit the principle of ‘unity in diversity’, an ideal with burgeoning resonance contemporary to Bikila’s momentary flight, exhorting common goals for coming generations. Rejecting the limiting constructs of race, nationality and citizenship, the polyphony of their song, voices and languages celebrates the diversity of our societies and reminds us that only a deep acceptance of this threatened plurality will allow our communities to prosper.
With the chorus chanting, the camera pans down from the rooftop of the Colosseo Quadrato to street level, turning left and right. The perspective shifts to inhabit the first-person view of the marathon runner suddenly criss-crossing an endless virtual maze of an uninhabited, haunted imaginary of the fascist city grid composed of an endless repetition of the Colosseo Quadrato’s facade. The computerized and uncanny desolation of the cityscape turns Mussolini’s “La Terza Roma”, planned to span from the Rome’s hills to the seaside, into an artificial nightmare.
Rhythmic breathing soundtracks our experience of the game’s virtual reality and eventually syncs with the breath of the runner shown in the third screen. Here, the protagonist again wears Bikila’s “11” on his tricot as he starts his journey in the shallows at Ostia. From there, he traces a different route along Via Appia Antica, connecting EUR and Foro Italico to arrive at the district of Pietralata and the empty athletic fields of Liberi Nantes. The camera exposes specific historical junctures along his course. He passes the mosaics of athletes at the Foro Italico, which also appeared in the archival footage from the first screen, documenting the iconographic heritage of the Mussolini era in its making. Abebe Bikila crossed the finish line at the Arch of Constantine in front of an exultant crowd but the present barefoot runner arrives finally in the empty and quiet outskirts. Weary from traversing the urban landscapes, he reaches the dusty ground unnoticed. A football squad consisting of players from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Guinea, Iraq, Nigeria, Sudan, Togo, Democratic Republic of Congo drifts by. Like the members of the teen chorus, all have arrived in Italy seeking refuge, crossing the Mediterranean in search of somewhere to start afresh. The name of the club, “Liberi Nantes”, derives from a verse from Virgil’s Aeneid referencing the few exiled and shipwrecked Trojans that washed ashore and survived: a metaphor for an unwavering culture of resilience. With metallic gold and silver glister, a swish of space blankets carried like sports flags rush by the protagonist. His eyes seem to fix towards the distance, turn toward the camera and meet the viewers’ gaze.
I play, I replay, I relay those stories and histories encountered from a certain distance: from seats in the cinema, bleachers in the stadium, the stage, the street, the shore, from behind the camera and from revisiting the archive. Revisiting the past from a distance, re-enacting it and throwing it onto the present render visible our shared histories and sociologies. Those diverse perspectives layered and choreographed by the artists shed light onto the constant challenges of our ongoing, ordinary interrelatedness. Nina Fischer and Maroan el Sani take us on a filmic journey, that subtly poses fundamental questions: Observing the present from a distance, will we recall it for its omissions and failures; for our inability to transcend differences and prejudices; and for disappointments and disillusionments that follow in its trail? Or do we choose and encourage to pre-enact what is latent and opaque but there: a collective responsibility to lightly pencil in, with intention, patience and care, potentialities for more inclusive trajectories?
*1 Michel-Rolph Trouillot: Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, Beacon Press, 1995.
Abebe Bikila was the first African athlete to win an Olympic gold medal; he set a world record in Rome in 1960 after running the marathon, barefoot, in two hours and fifteen minutes. His historic achievement is the cornerstone of Freedom of Movement, 2017, a three-channel video installation by German artists Nina Fischer and Maroan el Sani. Weaving a tale with threads of history and current events, the work conjoins the win’s strong social impact with a profound sense of humanity.
The first video blends archival film clips of the Ethiopian marathoner’s race and his epic victory beneath the Arch of Constantine, footage from Italy’s colonialist past in Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia), and images of the construction of the EUR quarter and Stadio dei Marmi sports stadium in the Foro Italico in Rome, both created at the behest of Mussolini as a celebration of his regime and the new empire. The second video reflects on the influx of migrants who cross the Mediterranean and on the role that sports play in their integration. A young immigrant recaptures the Olympic marathon experience, but his shoeless run begins at the beach at Ostia, as if he had just arrived from the sea, and ends at a sports complex on the periphery of Rome where young African refugees run, joyfully claiming their right to freedom of movement. In the third video, a choir of African adolescents sings on the roof of the monumental Colosseo Quadrato, or Square Colosseum, in the EUR. Declaring the phrase sculpted into the building’s facade, which attests, in Fascist rhetoric, to the greatness of the Italian people, they change the initial words, reversing the meaning and assuming a historical and cultural dignity they have too long been denied: “We come from the people of poets, artists, heroes, saints, thinkers, scientists, seafarers, transmigrants.”
A spectacular aerial shot of the Colosseo Quadrato celebrates their touching attestation of identity. And it is precisely the notion of transmigration, opening up horizons of freedom and tearing down cultural and spiritual borders, that forces us to reflect on our identity and on the political, social, and psychological contradictions tied to the acceptance of the Other.