Feature

Mimi Mollica Interview: Sicily’s Seamless Elasticity

By Brad Feuerhelm on May 29, 2017

“Religions in general, are indeed a great example how power is (ab)used over people for the elite to keep the desired order on society. It’s not a case that Mafia has a strong association with religious narratives and its very ritual of association includes religious references throughout”

I’ve known Mimi for about 5 or 6 years now. I guess I ran into him when soldiering on through the morass of the London photography scene somewhere over pints in East London. Always filled with an incredible energy and possibly the most real dude you can meet in photography, Mimi’s love of the medium and his countless stories and good-natured way of being always struck a chord with me, though I had never seen his work. I had missed out on “En Route to Dakar” somewhere along the line and had actually come to know Mimi before having any clue about his work. “Terra Nostra” was sent to me during the blitz of Mimi’s post-publishing campaign-a campaign I watched with hopeful eyes. The book, published and distributed is where I really began to delve in. Mimi had given me a helpful hand on one of my trip to his native Sicily by getting me access to photograph the Palermo Catacombs. It is an experience I will never forget and his native Palermo is still one of my favorite holiday destinations. I sent some questions along to Mimi about the book and his insightful, humorous and well-grounded responses have outshined my expectations. There is no disinterest, there is no baneful short answer of boredom or repetition, but rather a thorough and in depth, thought-provoking response built solidly on the work, but also Mimi himself.

Brad Feuerhelm: Your book is beautiful. The images within are expertly composed, lit, shot etc. I find that Sean O’Hagan’s comment about modernist principles within the work should not be understated. It is not just due to the black and white, but the overall aesthetic. It almost arrests Sicily in a certain time, as do an amount of the subjects that you have chosen to shoot. Working in film and in monochrome, was this a conscious decision- to scrape back time a bit and look inward perhaps at the way you remember people and places? I don’t think it is nostalgic, but the images- they must have been part of you before you even started the project in 2009.

Mimi Mollica: Brad, I am glad you’re starting this conversation with a question that captures some of the artistic merits but also dips into a controversial aspect of my work, I like when we get hands onto the core without having to wait around.
The choice of shooting b/w wasn’t really a thoughtful decision taken after deep considerations on the subject and my approach to it. It was rather a purely aesthetic choice disconnected from any meaningful implication, but I truly and honestly did not consider this one bit. In my practice I use both monochrome and colour, digital and film. I love both and I base my choices on what I instinctively feel…without pondering too much on it. I do think the difference in medium choice is relevant, but in my case this influences what and how I shoot, rather than having a preconceived idea onto which applying the pertinent medium. Maybe I should be more knowledgeable or more engaged with the technical aspect of my work, but I still consider myself to be safely naive.

Now, with regards to the images and subjects that recall stillness, this is the chess game I often refer to, when prompted to articulate on the complexity of this project. So let me fill you in with where I come from…
Anyone who visits or has lived in Sicily for awhile, or was born and bred Sicilian, will agree that this region is somehow still under some sort of spell. Plenty of fine examples of local and not-so-local folklore make direct references to a Sicily that is victim of a doomed fate where things are destined to an existential monotony that would eventually lead to relentlessly perish or implode. Sicilian culture is indeed permeated by an omnipresent negativism. Our indigenous popular music laments and emphasises the inexorability of death and in the Sicilian language the future tense simply does not exist. Like the Sleeping Beauty, Sicily seems to have been sentenced to political, cultural and social conservativism by a few overbearing mafiosi who still manage to keep a strong hand on public affairs and have clear interest for things to stay the same. How else would you keep control of society? Religions in general, are indeed a great example how power is (ab)used over people for the elite to keep the desired order on society. It’s not a case that Mafia has a strong association with religious narratives and its very ritual of association includes religious references throughout. This is to say that I was indeed confronted by such intricate aspects of a stillness in Sicilian society. A pre-modern stillness is what I intended to portray. It is one that originates from the fear of change and one that preserves a social order convenient to the few. I came to several crossing points when I had to question, analyse and deal with the above. I was faced with a tricky double-edged sword: how to visually narrate stillness without lending too much ground to cliches? How could I use those cliches and offer at the same time a valid visual dialogue with a different pitch? My answer, as it’s still reaffirmed on the book edit and sequencing, was to create a balance between images like the one of Capo Market street scene with a tuna fish head pierce by a price tag, where tradition and nostalgia are more visible, and images that are clearly more contemporary and less romantic like the young guy showing off his overstated car sound system.

“this is a matter of priorities, what preoccupies you at that moment, the intentions of your actions, the purpose of your role in what context and in which stage of your life you’re at. You can decide at any moment to open your eyes and see below the surface, or you might as well turn the other way and enjoy your day”

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BF: There is much talk in interviews and the text in the back about the mafia. I would surmise that as a Sicilian, this is a hard component of your upbringing and culture to shed when presenting a book like Terra Nostra. You are obviously conscious of the implications that Sicily presents the rest of the world-the corruption, the lemons and the fishes as it were. When I look at the work though, I don’t see it. Again Sean makes a really good point about you being “master of the sideways glance”. The mafia thing for me is obviously something you have grown up with, but I sense this is something more about the people who are not mafia. The Sicilian people, at least the three times that I have visited have been wonderful. It is one of my favorite places in the world. I did not feel the underworld at any point, but perhaps I wouldn’t see it and perhaps by its very nature it must work on the notion of its ability to not be recognised by anyone who is not local. Did you intend for this aspect of the book, the mafia culture, to be as prevalent in its interpretation as it has become?

MM: Man, you’re beautifully intense! First of all you got it right. This book is NOT about the Mafia, but rather of the traces and signs of its presence in Sicily. In that I focused more on the general public, the people that could be, and most probably are more or less directly victims of a corrupt system. I intentionally avoided any journalistic investigation on the hot Mafia boss of the moment, and I consciously spared you folks of any cheap trick in making you perceive my book any differently, as I wanted to make the Mafia readable for an external eye and show a darker face of what is generally and mistakenly known as a Hollywood-like phenomenon of colourful gangsterism. I wanted to illustrate some sort of guide to decode a series of elements, some more obvious than others, that together could give a sense of what it means living with the mob in contemporary Sicily. Ambitious project, I understand, but I did spend seven years making this visual essay and this journey hasn’t been one nor simple, nor straightforward.

About you not seeing the mob, this is a simple matter of expectations. Maybe you were genuinely expecting to find some colourful character with a three-piece suit, smoking a cigar with one hand and holding a baseball bat with the other. No offence here, just saying that maybe the idea of the Sicilian mob you might have expected hasn’t materialised the way you thought. In fact mafiosi are often unsuspected politicians, businessmen, priests and cool kids with a generous smile, always ready to help and to show you around the beauty of our land. Entrepreneurs, dealers or functionaries. In short, we don’t have a flashy limo like Cosa Nostra counterpart across the Atlantic. To summarise the Mafiosi in Sicily…
Ghosts- that use the ambiguity of the shadows to move about and strike when less you’d expect. A public tender or a European fund to grow a specific crop or to invest in renewable energy, a road to be laid and bridges to be built…these are the kind of areas where Mafia operates today. You go to the market and buy those juicy and marvellous looking tomatoes without knowing that those very tomatoes are being produced in the south-east part of Sicily and have undergone a journey across Italy before reaching back Sicilian shores and eventually your shopping bag, overpriced by the supply chain imposed by the mob to profit on as many stages as possible. Production, harvest, labour, packaging, transport, storage…these are lucrative stages where Cosa Nostra rules undisturbed. As this wasn’t enough, you were probably paying racket of extortion too without possibly knowing it, because this violent and unlawful taxation is ultimately absorbed by the consumer, you.
However, I also have a great time when I go to Sicily and until I have moved to London aged 20 years old, I was living in awe in a place I loved in my guts and that I wanted to discover more and more. But this is a matter of priorities, what preoccupies you at that moment, the intentions of your actions, the purpose of your role in what context and in which stage of your life you’re at. You can decide at any moment to open your eyes and see below the surface, or you might as well turn the other way and enjoy your day. My fascination with Sicily lays exactly on this dual coexistence between paradise and hell.

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BF: I remember your exceptionally helpful handling of my desire to photograph the catacombs in Palermo. You had arranged for me to pay the man working the door a sum of money (not too little) for my freedom to take photographs alone, without other tourists without the loudspeaker barking at me the minute my camera became visible as it had in previous trips, which to my joy, you were able to provide. More than the mafia, I suspect Sicily and Palermo in particular, operate on objectives being met by knowing someone local such as you over that of the Cosa Nostra effect. Do you miss this sort of thing or do you loathe it?

MM: That sounds like a facilitated sort of bribery, which I hope is not the case. The guy over the phone told me there was a fee to pay and I assumed this was some official gateway to speed up a process that would otherwise be tedious and too long given the urgency of your schedule. Similarly when you pay the Home Office a premium if you want your passport to be ready in a week rather than 6+…

BF: Naw man, it was cash in hand and only available during the lunch break hour. Hahahaha, perhaps that is not a bribe, but simply how it works.

“I have always missed the elasticity you find in the Sicilians. In Sicily everything could be one thing and its opposite, the baroque style seamlessly over-spilled from architecture to human behavior”

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MM: I have always missed the elasticity you find in the Sicilians. In Sicily everything could be one thing and its opposite, the baroque style seamlessly overspilled from architecture to human behaviour. In Sicily abundance means better, using redundant words is a must if you want to show-off your level of expertise in a given field, curves bending the lines of an eighteenth century church translates into an impressive flexibility of the system. If an office is supposed to close at a certain time, it might still unofficially extend its opening hours if you really need to sort things quickly. Or when you feel you can jump the queue in a public building in Palermo…you might have plausible and genuine reasons to having to be dealt with more urgently than others but you might also be a knob who thinks is worth more than the flock of sheep waiting in-line. Where does flexibility starts and arrogance begins? Nothing is ever straightforward. Food and folklore are stuffed to a degree previous to explosion. Minimalism means poverty, squalor, lack of resources. Anyone who passes by the Island gets dragged into our typical all-Sicilian rhetoric and while spiraling inwards toward our version of the Heart of Darkness, we lose the coordinates, we loose the ability to clearly see what we have in front. Where does the “Sicilianity” stops and “Mafiositá” begins? When does a friendly blind eye become an accomplice to corruption? It’s hard to answer your question because in Sicily nothing is monochromatic, so I guess I grew up learning how to zig-zag in-between the opposites… I miss the informal attitude across the board, but I loathe the inability to recognise the collectivity as a resource to protect and champion rather than a simple opportunity to profit. I love the food and the climate, I love the smell of rain on a warm autumn afternoon, which blends with the small of the roasted chestnuts, and I love that you can always negotiate the right price for most of things. In short this scenario, this multi-coloured mosaic of harmonic and clashing elements, could be the paradise you always longed for, but it can also reveal a much darker path, one where human interactions are tied by mutual obligations, where the individual freedoms are compromised and dependency to a twisted system starts becoming more apparent.

Sicily knows no mid-ground, it’s all or nothing, blissful or dreadful. The story is always the same, you could turn the other way live the illusion of an earthy Paradise, or you could look at bull straight into the eyes and take sides, because the war has started a good while ago, and you can only avoid bullets if you know where they come from.

BF: Sicily, by its very nature never feels Italian to me. Knowing a bit about its history and the Reunification, Garibaldi and the Risorgimento, do you think of Sicily in Italian terms or as a native, do you and perhaps other Sicilians see it as something different-something “extra-Italian”?

MM: I perceive Sicily being Italy on steroids. That goes for the good and for the bad. I always replied “Sicily” when asked where I come from, and I know this is childish, maybe senseless and in contrast to what I truly believe in, but I can’t help thinking we belong to a different race altogether.

BF: Brexit. Palermo. I gotta say man, if push came to shove, I’d be living in Palermo already. Do you ever consider Sicily as a future destination again? I imagine you and the family spend a decent amount of time there, but given your outside perspective and having left some time ago to pursue London, could you see yourself embedding back into its life? Part two of that question is, would you be able to make images there again after this book-often times the familiar becomes the most difficult thing to photograph due to being taken for granted or having the “new” in the details being overlooked…What is your perspective on all of that?

MM: Fuck Brexit! This is truly a big disappointment and yes I did consider moving back to Sicily, but only as a sort of idealistic giving two fingers to the obtuse Brits who really believe Britain if better off outside the EU…but I have a wife who has a steady job here and a wonderful daughter who was born here and I don’t want to deprive her from where she is accustomed to for the time being.

Anyhow, I consider myself and my family very privileged in having the possibility to live the best of two worlds, as whenever we want/can we have a wonderful place where to go, for holidays or God knows for relocation…
I already have a few ideas I am developing and I look forward to go back to Sicily this summer to start photographing. Acquiring a distance from a place or subject is a necessary step to help your vision becoming more comprehensive and articulate. A photographer must always juggle proximity and separation in order to be close enough to a subject but not too much to loose a perspective. Being an outsider is often a state of mind, it means to never give for granted your surroundings and if you have an inquisitive mind, you are more likely to stay fresh, to never get too accustomed, comfortable. It’s that uneasy feeling that makes us productive. I feel I am always in search for something. I long towards something and the moment I trick myself in believing I have reached some targets, I immediately move onto some other quest. I like Terra Nostra, I am proud of it, but that’s already gone past and I am on the next mission…

BF: Sicily feels quite varied to me. Palermo is clearly the center of things, but places like Agrigento, Trapani, Ispica, Siracusa, Cefalu, and Catania all feel very different to me. Perhaps that is an outside point of view, but I feel like there is no “One Sicily” or there is, but Palermo isn’t part of it. I guess it is similar to what London is to England, Paris to France, etc. Do you feel that the whole of Sicily has a strong singular identity and do you feel this is easy or difficult to represent?

MM: As often it seems to be the case, that is a matter of perspective. The less you decide to see the more homogeneous Sicily, as any other reality, will appear across the board. On the contrary, if you start zooming in you begin noticing differences and peculiarities and your understanding of that place expands immensely. Then, if you add your own sensitivity and a good degree of curiosity, like you seem to have applied during your journey in Sicily, you come a step forward and you’ll feel you own a portion of a place, and you will become a part of it. One of my favourite Italian (well, Sicilian) writers was Luigi Pirandello who lived and wrote between the 19th and 20th century. Pirandello’s famous novel “One, No-one and Hundred thousands” eloquently described the intrinsic philosophical impossibility of defining one person simply as one, and that you are one to yourself, another for someone else and as many as you could be for the rest. His relativism in literature was only one of the aspects of a broader international movement of thought and scientific discoveries, to which I seem to be attracted to, and I don’t think you could put it in better terms of Pirandello.

BF: A final question, what have the Sicilian reactions been to your book? Have you had any negative responses? I ask about negative because I can’t see how it would be anything but positive, but I am curious what the Sicilian perspective has been.

MM: I am still to officially present my book in Italy (hopefully soon!) so I couldn’t really tell, but I am ready to take criticism and to let the debate begin. On the one hand, Terra Nostra could be taken positively as the account of a Sicilian living abroad and, on these premises being able to offer his perspective on a complex issue such as the legacy of the mafia on the island, but people might as well take it differently…who knows! I can only reaffirm that my perspective is only one little piece of a larger mosaic, so hopefully people will understand this and will be willing to enter a constructive dialogue with my work.

Mimi Mollica

Terra Nostra

Dewi Lewis Publishing

(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Mimi Mollica.)

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