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Future farming. How migrants can help Italian cuisine adjust to climate disruptions

Artist and cultural anthropologist Leone Contini has been collecting seeds for over 10 years. Preferably seeds that were given to him by members of the foreign communities who have migrated to Italy in recents years, bringing with them seeds to grow familiar fruits and vegetables on unfamiliar land.

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Leone Contini, Foreign Farmers, 2018

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Leone Contini, Foreign Farmers, 2018. Photo by Can Aksan

For the Manifesta biennial in Palermo back in 2018, Contini collaborated with migrant communities to plant the cucuzza (a type of pale, ultra long gourd sometimes nicknamed Serpent of Sicily) as well as similar types of squash that had traveled as seeds in the pockets of migrants from African and Asian countries. They grew together on a pergola in Palermo’s Botanical Garden. The work would be little more than an edible metaphor for harmonious coexistence if it didn’t allow for discussions about local food resilience in the face of the climate crisis.

One of the most interesting things that emerge from Contini’s work is that freshly arrived farmers have to revise their know-how and adapt it to the local climate and soil. They become pioneers of “displaced” and confused agriculture. Their resourcefulness and the knowledge they accumulate with each experiment might even turn useful to Italian farmers. As Contini notes, traditional local farming is challenged by an environment in constant mutation: unseasonable weather, soil erosion and other disruptions have turned local farmers into migrants onto their own land.

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Leone Contini, Hǎocài, Carmignano, 2015

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Leone Contini, 2009-2019

The artist’s interest in food and agricultural practices is rooted in long-term fieldwork across Italy. His inquest started when he moved to Prato, a city in Tuscany which hosts the second largest Chinese immigrant population in Italy. The majority of Chinese people in Prato work in the textile and fashion industry. During the financial crisis, a number of them started growing their own food, planting seeds from China and enriching the “biodiversity” of culinary ingredients available in the area. Having spent time with the Chinese farmers in Tuscany, the artist met other communities who use their spare time to grow food: the Senegalese gardeners in Veneto, the Bengali farmers living at the outskirts of Palermo, etc.

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Leone Contini, Foreign Farmers – Cucuzze a mare, 2018

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Leone Contini, Foreign Farmers – Translations, 2018

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Leone Contini, Foreign Farmers – Krela, 2018

Contini’s work makes it clear that seeds, plants, culture, animal and people that migrate towards new lands are not threats to local ecosystems, they can also offer solutions to the challenges that await our planet, a planet that looks increasingly alien to its own inhabitants.

I interviewed the artist and anthropologist over email:

Hi Leone! You studied Philosophy and Cultural Anthropology at Università degli Studi di Siena. How much of your background as an anthropologist do you bring into your projects?   

Of course my artistic practice is shaped by my background but I try to avoid the “discourse about the other”, the original sin of anthropology. Nevertheless this is also a concern of many anthropologists since cultural studies have finally deconstructed the colonial pillars of the discipline. Maybe I can rephrase my answer by saying that my practice takes place on the crossroad between art and anthropology, but faraway from both the academic shelter and the art market.

Moreover, the post (?) covid immobility revealed to me that I feel more (and more) comfortable here, in my neighbourhood, instead of working abroad, “in residency”, like I often did in the last 10 years. Maybe it’s because here I cannot escape the responsibility of representation, I cannot run away with the stories of the people in my pocket, as (we) artists-in-residency tend to do when, the day after the final exhibition-presentation, we jump on the first airplane toward the next site. This hectic appropriation is a consistent mode of production of contemporary art nowadays, a behaviour that seems rooted in the ethnographic practice – although ethnographers usually appropriate with less rush. We are all trapped in the same big game (unless we produce artefacts buried in a studio to be sold in galleries, then maybe we are part of another game), but how to inhabit this pattern is our challenge as cultural producers.

But as I said, for now I’m happy to work in my region-neighbourhood… “locals” and “migrants”, “us” and “them”… all these terms tend to lose their meaning, since here we are all part of the same, variegated community. No “informants” anymore, just neighbours.

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Folclore Tosco-Cinese / TuscanChinese Folklore, 2013

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Folclore Tosco-Cinese / TuscanChinese Folklore, 2013

You’ve spent several years interacting with the Chinese community in Prato. Your work explores how much these families of migrants have transformed local agriculture. Could you give us a few examples of these transformations?  

Local agriculture was transformed in terms of a huge injection of new varieties, and this is important and desirable, at least in my perception, after a century marked by a constant erosion of biodiversity. Even though I don’t live in a cosmopolitan city I can access a wide range of vegetables from different origins, at a convenient price. My food choices at least doubled in the last 10 years, thanks to the Chinese farms.

In the long term this biodiversity will also transform the Italian cuisine, but so far the Italians are reluctant to try new vegetables, and if they approach them, it is only occasionally, out of a curiosity for the “exotic.”

While we, Italians, struggle around the topic of cultural mutations, these agricultural activities have already transformed the distribution chain, making it very short and directly connected with the territory: an “Italian” tomato on a supermarket’s shelf travelled hundreds of km after having probably been collected by an exploited worker in Apulia, while a dōng guā or any other “Chinese” vegetable was grown locally, in a family-based farm.

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Leone Contini, Foreign Farmers – Germinability, 2018

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Leone Contini, Foreign Farmers – Harvest, 2018

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Leone Contini, TuscanChina, 2015

You write in the description of your work Km0: “Within the context of the Chinese Diaspora these gardening practices are crucial in terms of cultural identity, belonging and self-representation, the regional wenzhounese vegetable varieties being a sort of umbilical cord with the motherland.” I was very moved by that sentence because I grew up in Liège (Belgium) where there is a big community of families whose roots are in Italy. When their grand-parents arrived, they brought herbs, veggies, cheese, all sorts of knowledge about wild mushrooms and good coffee that must have looked very suspicious to Belgians back in the 1950s. Indeed there were tensions and unpleasant moments at the time but that seems to be so long ago now. Belgium recently had a Prime Minister (Elio di Rupo) whose father was from Abruzzo. So I see parallels between them and the communities that your projects talk about but am I a bit naive here? Are there limits to making these optimistic comparisons?    

You are not naïve, on the contrary! My mother’s family is originally from Sicily, and in the 80s we used to grow Sicilian vegetables in the outskirt of Florence. Especially the “cucuzza”, a snake-shaped bottle gourd, unknown in Tuscany. By coincidence the owner of the first Chinese restaurant in town (the Chinese migration was still a small phenomenon) had a little garden near our cucuzzas: he cultivated Chinese cabbages and spring onions. All over around us the black Tuscan cabbage was ruling the fields.

When in the 2000s the first Chinese farms appeared on the plain between Florence and Prato… I think I “recognized” this bio-diversity as an archetype of my childhood. And I vividly remember when, for the first time after 20 years, I saw again a cucuzza, that I still regarded as strictly Sicilian: it was on the shelf of a Chinese shop, named pú guā, in Wenzhounese dialect, and as delicious as in my memories.

Thanks to Chinese farmers a dormant family tradition was therefore reactivated, and the trap of “otherness” defused. Like for the urban gardens of Villeurbanne (France), Solothurn (Switzerland) and Folkestone (UK), where I recently developed my projects, here the Sicilian snake cohabits with bottle gourds from Indochina (I was surprised by the use of this term), bitter melons from Nepal or Turkey, okra from Senegal… I feel comfortable in such places, where different origins interweave and prosper.

For a performance at Centro Pecci in Prato, you involved directly the Chinese community, transforming Chinese farmers into advisors for Italian people. Could you tell us how you got them on board and what happened during the performance?  
 
The exhibition was financially supported by the Chinese Buddhist temple of Prato.

My project consisted in a display of Chinese vegetables, a sort of baroque natura morta, the mise en scène of an unknown local treasure of biodiversity. Among the audience many people were from the Temple, I was familiar with some of them. The Museum, as an institutional location, was answering their expectation to be recognised as part of the social fabric, and the beautiful vegetables were something to be proud of. These factors, I think (but we should ask them!), created a bond between them and my installation, aesthetically and emotionally, until the very
moment when they appropriated it. It was unplanned! And what happened exceeded my most optimistic expectations: they started distributing the vegetables to the audience, explaining how to process and cook them, but also what their healthy properties were.

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Leone Contini, Foreign Farmers, Workshop, 2018

Your practice is also looking at the circulation and exchange of seeds between countries from all over the world. Is there any official regulation around the importation of seeds from abroad? Can people plant whatever they want wherever they want?  

Italy is a strange country, we accept the role played by organised crime in the food production and the exploitation of migrant labour, but if a Chinese family creates a little farm to fulfil the local demand… then all the rules are back, to be respected.

The repression of Chinese agricultural enterprises is a recurrent phenomenon in Tuscany, often resulting if the confiscation of the farms.

The irony of such policies is that, in an abandoned field, the plants can often manage to accomplish their reproductive circle, while usually they would be collected in an earlier stage, to be eaten. A confiscated farm is therefore able to spread in the environment millions of seeds, paradoxically self-fulfilling the xenophobe prophecy of the foreign invasion declined in botanic terms. Beside this, such varieties are perfectly legal in Italy.

My impression is that these campaigns are driven by demagogic tactics, to achieve political consensus. The message is “we keep the decency of our territory”, to quote a local magazine. It is a racist message, within a racist set of mind. The outcome of this attitude is an attempt to froze the vital forces of human societies, and more specifically the becoming both of agriculture and food, which is also a way to deny Italian history. A little anecdote to make this more clear: the bean “Fagiolo Fico di Gallicano” is now a pillar of the food industry in the area of Lucca. But this beans variety was informally introduced in Italy by a migrant, returning back home from the Americas: he crossed the borders with few seeds hidden in his
hat.

I love how, during your talk at HKW in Berlin two years ago, you talked about the fact that climate change had made us foreigners in our own house and how we might need to rely more on knowledge coming from the other side of the world than we’d like to admit. Could you develop on that? What can these “foreign farmers” you met in Prato, Palermo, Piedmont and elsewhere teach us?  

Climate mutations have turned all of us into sort of foreigners, whether we stayed home or fled. What I learned from the farmers is that we need new types knowledge to be created with the scattered fragment of others’ experience. In Palermo, my garden suffered an unusual humid and cold springtime and a tropical storm at the end of the Summer, also unseen. For the pergola to survive, including the eradication of diseases without using chemicals, I had to combine information from different backgrounds, as if every traditional set of knowledge taken separately was not able to “solve” this type of vegetal entanglement. Each plant embodied a different degree of adaptation to a new environment, which was meanwhile undergoing a process of mutation: some seeds that I planted in the botanic garden of Palermo had arrived in Tuscany in 2005 from the rural areas near Wenzhou; a Senegalese hibiscus had been growing near Venice for 5 years, while bottle gourds from Bangladesh had already made Sicily their home, interweaving their vines with the local cucuzza, landed from Africa a long time ago.

There were no landlords in my shelter, and there was no room nor logic to deploy a useless dominant knowledge.

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Leone Contini, Confiscated Chinese farm in Tuscany, Springtime 2020

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Leone Contini, Confiscated Chinese farm in Tuscany, Springtime 2020

I’d like to come back to the Chinese communities in Prato for a moment because I suspect they’ve been terribly hit by the coronavirus crisis. From what i could read in local news, they quarantined very early and counted very very few cases of COVID19 but I suspect that many people in Prato might have resented their presence and held them responsible for the pandemic. Do you know something about how things are going for the community over there? Are they resorting to farming like they did during the financial crisis of 2008?
 
At the beginning of the epidemic populist propaganda blamed the Chinese community in Prato, spreading the fear of a potential COVID outbreak in the city. Very soon, however, it appeared that the infection in Prato was lower than the average numbers in Tuscany, and this narration was defused. A surreal if not ridiculous event was reported by local news a few days before the lockdown: the local police was preventing the quarantine of Chinese people who had returned home from China, blaming that this behaviour was “not regular”.

To answer your second question, the way COVID has transformed this local system of production would deserve a proper survey. I can only answer about a specific farm, near my house, which was confiscated in January and totally abandoned during the lockdown. I was there a few days ago: what was a flourishing family-based enterprise and a site of food production is now a neglected space. I walked across overgrown vegetation and destroyed greenhouses like in a post human scenario, until I met an old Chinese man, collecting the native plants, unknown to me, which had taken the place of the Chinese vegetables. Then I saw another man, bent under the weight of bag full of herbs. In the COVID aftermath the farmers turned into foragers, out of necessity, in order to eat. The general impoverishment has hit the community violently, especially the elders, especially in this rural context. I was admiring their strength and capability to put in place strategies and unexpected knowledge about the native flora, but I was also sad.

What have you been working on recently? And where can we learn more about what you’re up to?  

I was always interested in our relation, as humans, with the wild flora. But during the lockdown this topic became central, since I started sourcing my daily food in the nearby forest (and just a few days ago I realised that, during these harsh months, my Chinese neighbours were doing the same). I would never have suspected the presence of such an amount of food in the radius of 500 meters around my home; moreover the herbs that I was able to recognise are just a fraction of the edible ones, since apparently the Chinese are collecting varieties not used in the local tradition. Unlike the seeds of a domesticated variety, which can cross the borders out of the human agency, the wild flora often travel despite the humans, or at least despite their intentions, proving that migration is an primal pattern of life.

Last summer I developed a project in a village near Matera, in the region of Basilicata (southern Italy). The village was founded centuries ago by refugees that fled the West Balkans: their descendants preserved their culture and language through many generations, until today. My project focused on the local wild flora, entirely named in an ancient Albanian dialect. Also here, like for the Chinese in Tuscany, the native-migrant-plants reconnect a scattered community with their home, by revealing that home is everywhere.

Thanks Leone!

Related stories: The Seed Journey to preserve plant genetic diversity. An interview with Amy Franceschini, Vegetation as a Political Agent, The ‘farmification’ of a joystick factory, The Manifesto for Rural Futurism, Super Meal, etc.

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Licensing Contributor Jelle Canipel talks landscape photography and exhibiting his work alongside Michiel Pieters and Joris Put

Licensing Contributor Jelle Canipel is a Belgian scenery and adventure photographer who connected with two other 500 px Photographers–Michiel Pieters and Joris Put–to create an exhibition that compounded elements of their heritage and photography, culminating in an interactive know-how for their neighbourhood community.

Q: You have been on the stage for a number of years now, when did you first begin uploading your images and what inspired you to submit your first persona to Licensing?

A: In the beginning, as a starting photographer, you want as much feedback on your work as possible. You want people to see your work and give advice on what they like or don’t like. It is very useful to gather all this feedback for your next photo. A platform like 500 px presents immense the examinations and likewise allows you to see other handiwork that can engender you.

Submitting for Licensing is the real work–getting the opportunity to sell your work. I remember every photographer wants to get to the point where people like their work and want to buy it. If you are commercially focused, it is worth saving money for photo junkets and camera gear.

Q: You incorporate a lot of softer atmospheres in your sceneries. How do you develop your likeness to achieve this overall look?

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A: I’ve organized my own presets in Lightroom, which I chiefly used to support my photos.[ The presets that I use] depend on the type of photography–my wedding presets are different from the ones I have created for my outdoor or landscape photography.

I like the softer flavors and not the hard tones. Most of all, I desire positioning a attitude in my photos with light-colored. Light can make a photo feel bright, and darker sounds can change the climate. The define and feeling are important in a photo.

Q: Your portfolio is very consistent, tending toward drastic terrains and an adventurous aesthetic. What entices you to capture this type of content?

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A: Traveling and outdoor adventures are my main spirits. I’ve been traveling for many years with my bride, friends, and kids. I enjoy traveling in the mountains, to have that experience and capture it without bungling the moment is so special because captivate the photo does not interfere with traveling.

I like to seek little escapades like hiking via ferrata’s( protected clambering directions ), climbing a bit, or tenting and sleeping outside. Cozy instants in mountains shacks are great. I find my resentment through telling these legends in my photography, trying to capture moments and engender others.

I like a irascible place, so I find the areas they have that vibe. I likewise have my own little passage busines to help people travel.

Q: What is your favorite end you have traveled to? What are some things you would recommend learning there?

A: Oh, that is a hard-bitten question and difficult to answer. I’m in love with the Balkan countries like Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Slovenia. I cherish these sits for the natural terrains and activities you can do, as well as the people.

I likewise like to travel to Asian countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand because of their culture, and their countrysides.

For moody spheres, I adore like the Scandinavian countries. Norway, the Farmer Islands, Iceland, and Scotland are great for these darker-toned portraits.

If you are looking for epic elevations, Austria, Italy, Slovenia, Nepal, and the Andes in Peru are where you need to go.

And for bigger wildlife and jungle escapades, the Amazon and Peru are great places to travel to.

I think if other photographers “re looking for” similar adventures, these countries would be really great to visit, nonetheless, many other countries will be able to offer other stunning openings. I would love to visit Namibia or Botswana for the nature and wildlife you can find there.

Q: What are the top five items you bringing with you when exploring a new destination to photograph? Why do you adore them?

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A: It is dependent on kind of photography trip.

For an easy access locale, you don’t have to pack light:- Camera bag- Camera and all the lenses- Drone- Peak Design clip( for easy access to the camera)- Tripod

For a more challenging location I would recommend to try and pack light:- Trekking bag+ a delineate of states in the region- Camera with one 24 -7 0mm lens and 16 -3 5mm wide-angle- Raincoat for me and the camera- Small nutrient- Peak Design clip( for easy access to the camera)

Q: This spring, you and two other 500 px photographers, Michiel Pieters and Joris Put, created an exhibit and talk on countryside photography located along an age-old pit in Belgium. What provoked the three of you to come together and compose this testify?

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A: We have worked together several times and have done some small-scale trip-ups together. Joris and I climb often in the excavation build, which is beautifully redesigned as a climbing hall.

We came up with the idea of the exhibition because we wanted to organize something for a regional gathering from our hometown. Nowadays, most photos are merely shared via social media, so we thought it would be fun to exhibit ours and make it ” tangible .” In this action, a photo speaks much more.

Q: What are some of the key points you shall be included in your talk?

A: Most of the topics were about how we started with photography and what the hell is like the most about it. We discussed how we are cooperating and motivate each other. We too dealt some of our favorite fires and told the story behind them.

In the end, we caused some gratuities and quirks. It was not too technological, so the gathering was able to take something away from the talk, irrespective of its own experience level.

Q: Why did you choose to show your work in an old-fashioned excavation? Is there important behind this select, and how did it enhance the visual suffer when ending your imagery?

A: There were various reasons for this. First of all, the locale of the climbing hallway shapes perfectly with the outdoor incidents and the mountains that were featured in the reveal, so the category of photography would feel at home.

Joris and Michiel’s grandpas, plus many other houses, have also acted in the mines. It was good to see our photos hanging from among the persons superb machines and the history it holds in store for us as well as the location.

Another reason is the fact that we all come from the town of Beringen and wanted to exhibit somewhere regional.

Finally, you have the TRiS collective that is not simply expressed support for( The Road Is Smiling ), and Tri as in Three, but likewise for the TRiS dialect word, which conveys mine-hill and fits perfectly with the mine buildings. It was not a clean white background exhibition, but a little rougher and the public had to follow a itinerary through the old-time construct and system. There was an element of search, breakthrough, and escapade as well as symbolism in this location.

Q: What would you say was the highlight of this exhibit?

A: The spotlight for me was being able to share our legend with the amount of people who visited the presentation and the expo. There was a big audience, and everyone was really excited. So that was very pleasant to see and hear.

Q: As a photographer, having the flexibility to promote, sell, and exhibit your work through various channels is essential. The epitomes you featured in the exhibition are also available in your Licensing Collection, supporting an added opportunity for sales and showing. How would you spur other photographers to give Licensing a try?

A: I think it is a great way to get your work foreground and cure others who need your work. Likewise, it is a way to see which type of work is best to sell and it can improve your view on licensed work.

Learn more about Licensing your work here.

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