Yesterday, AN reported on the “racist figurines” exhibited as part of the Campo Base exhibition at Milan Design Week. Public Relations agency Hello Human, artist Stephen Burks, and Anava Projects’ called out the component of the exhibition Il Collezionista (The Collector) from Italian architect Massimo Adario.
In statements provided to AN, both the Campo Base curator Frederica Sala and Massimo Adario responded to the backlash against the inclusion of the figurines in the show. In the statement Adario further clarified the origin of the figurines: The seven glass figures were manufactured between 1927 and 1929 in Murano, Venice, by Industrie Vetraie Artistiche Murano (IVAM), a glassworks that produced “purely artistic glassworks” until its closure in 1931 amid the global financial crisis. Adario stated that the objects were likely made by Giovita Vitali or Flavio Poli, or collaboratively, though this is not certain.
Adario owns the seven pieces in question, but said that there may have been as many as 12 produced in the series. He described the objects as follows: “The artistic language is the same for all the figurines, including the one that would appear to indicate the Caucasian ethnicity, since this figurine is made in transparent / whitish glass. Also for this reason, it’s my opinion that there was no intent to caricature only one, or some, particular ethnic group(s), but probably all groups.” Adario further situated these objects within the context of Venetian mask culture around Carnival, which he said can be “offensive, even repulsive.”
Adario worked with an artist to design the vitrine in which these objects were displayed within Campo Base. The artist dubbed the piece Il Collezionista after Bruce Chatwin’s 1988 novel Utz, which portrays a “hypothetical collector of porcelains in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War.” Adario felt that the figurines “volumetrically and chromatically” paired with other sculptures that had been selected for the exhibition.
Sala and Adario’s statements appear in full below.
These last few days we spoke intensely internally about the subject to have an open and constructive conversation about it and to learn from what happened in order to avoid such situations in the future.
We regret what happened and we apologies for the discomfort this have caused. It was by no mean intentional to offend anyone and we don’t want to minimize this.
These pieces are from 1920-27 and are from the personal archive of Massimo Adario’s that had an Italian historical contest in mind. We didn’t perceive these pieces on a global scale and that is our mistake. We absolutely stand against racism and other forms of prejudice. It is our intent to listen and learn from this experience as our objective was not to create division or conflict. For us Campo Base was created to build community and with a positive spirit.
We hope to open a path that leads to discussion clarification, and a better understanding of cultural, historical, and social relevance.
First of all, I would like to apologize to all those who have been hurt and offended by my project. It was absolutely not my intention to inflict harm nor offense. I invite anyone who has suffered to engage with me to help me understand the different worlds and cultures from which each of us comes in the belief that only knowledge and empathy are the true antidote to racism.
I think dialogue should always be the basis for problem solving. Raising ideological barricades, in my opinion, may help a single individual feel like he / she / they is / are taking a stand and contributing to solving a problem; when in reality it does not help arrive at a collective, shared understanding of an issue. And racism is a big problem, which – in my case – also needs to be framed culturally.
I was born and educated in Italy, and I feel intimately part of a culture where, constitutionally, everyone is protected regardless of sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity. These are the values I believe in and bring to my work.
From my perspective as an Italian, racism is not fought by destroying works of art. Our artistic heritage has such historical depth and breadth, which fortunately helps us to give context, and not to judge only with the eyes of the present moment.
The problems of our society – including the scourge of racism – are not solved by censoring or obliterating works of art that have since become questionable, or even offensive; but rather by continuing to believe in and guaranteeing the right to engage in vigorous debate about what originated them, the historical context to which they belong, and how today’s fuller knowledge, understanding and appreciation can and should re-elaborate their meanings and significance.
This is the cultural context in which I would like my work to be framed. Because cultural differences exist. They matter. They must be celebrated and protected. Maintaining and nurturing diversity of cultures is crucial to the wellbeing of humankind.
Regarding the glass sculptures that formed part of my recent installation in Milan, here are some facts:
- the glasses were made in Murano (Venice) in the late 1920s, sometime between 1927-1929.
- the glassworks factory where the works were produced was called I.V.A.M. (Industrie Vetraie Artistiche Murano) and as its very name suggests, it was an extremely experimental, albeit very short-lived, exercise in creating a purely artistic glassworks, which made “objects” that did not have a specific function. It ceased its activity in 1931, due to the recession / depression that overwhelmed much of the western world at the time.
- the most likely artists to which these sculptures can be attributed are Giovita Vitali or Flavio Poli, or perhaps a joint work of theirs. The documents do not make the attribution 100% clear.
- these are works of art that are now historicized.
- there are 7 figures (but the cycle may have contained as many as 12) in hand-blown glass, some also with wooden ornaments, most of which are now lost. The ones I own are representative of 7 ethnic groups identified by the color of the glass and the exaggerated somatic features. The artistic language is the same for all the figures, including the one that would appear to indicate the Caucasian ethnicity, since this figure is made in transparent / whitish glass. Also for this reason, it’s my opinion that there was no intent to caricature only one, or some, particular ethnic group(s), but probably all groups;
- these artists are known to also have produced masks, and so it’s no surprise that these sculptures have mask-like qualities to them, with exaggerated features and colors. As is well known to us Italians, Venice is the capital of the carnival. Masks (which have a profound, rich meaning to almost all cultures) not infrequently have grotesque features, sometimes making them offensive, even repulsive.
- for my installation project, I designed a display case for my own home, working closely with an Italian contemporary artist in sculpting the “feet” / bases of the vetrine. The artist decided to name this vetrine – a work done together – as “The Collector”, based on an 1988 book by Bruce Chatwin, titled Utz, a hypothetical collector of porcelains in Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. I chose to display these newly acquired sculptures because both volumetrically and chromatically they related to the selection of other sculptures made by the artist, which we chose for this installation.
I hope that this text will help provide a more articulated framing of this work of mine. Above all, I hope that it will make clear that there was no racist intent in it.
I am not racist. I hate racism. This affair and the false accusations made against me are especially troublesome and difficult for me because they convey an image of me that is totally, diametrically opposite to who I am.
Again, I am deeply sorry that this project has hurt the sensitivities of communities from other countries and other cultures, surely including some also here in Italy. That was absolutely not my intention.
I would only add a personal request that this matter concern only me and my work; and it not involve my colleagues, namely the other studios of architects and designers who participated in the initiative of “Campo Base”; nor, for that matter, should this matter touch or tarnish the work of the curator.
For the record, despite having written an email, providing my cell phone number, and soliciting an open discussion with the person who first labelled me a racist, to date he has avoided this exchange. (I’ve had no reply to my email).
I take full and total responsibility for my work and for my words. Everyone else should not be involved or tarnished by my actions.
I embrace the opportunity to learn from my mistake, together with anyone of those in the wider design community who share an ideal of open, transformative dialogue, so that racism and its roots be confronted and rejected wholeheartedly.
While Adario’s statement says the Italian Constitution protects everyone regardless of sexual orientation, the rights of same-sex couples have been legally compromised under the current government led by Giorgia Meloni.