Amidst a rise of ethno-nationalism, eight Italian artists of color fight against their erasure.

The term “Italian” doesn’t typically conjure an ethnic image of any kind. Many, including Italians themselves, tend to think of a tanned caucasian, which might be accurate to a certain extent, but there are a vast number of subgroups under the “Italian” umbrella today. From Asian Italians, to Arab Italians, to Australian Italians, to the often times most queried category of them all, African Italians.

Although a minute percentage of the general population, Afro-Italians do in fact exist, but the general population of Italy seems to have forgotten their history. According to Italian historian Mauro Valeria, during the period of 1850-1880, over 1500 African babies were brought to Italy by a religious group called ‘The Slave Masters of God,’ who believed it was their duty to buy slaves and bring them to Italy to educate them. In those days, black women went to the nunneries, and black men went to the army. However, when Italy invaded Ethiopia in the 1930s, led by Hitler-like Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, it notably became an issue to be black.

Afro-Italians have made important strides across sport and pop culture. The world’s first black pilot, Domenico Mondelli, and the European boxing champion, Leone Jacovacci, both saw their careers subtly overshadowed in some ways as a result of “a black man not being able to represent the country.” This type of racism was most times not aggressive. But nor was it ever properly acknowledged as being racism irregardless, and passive-aggressive traces of it remain within and outside the Italian community. The most recent appointment of Trump-like Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini has caused a subtle uprise of racism, xenophobia, and cultural segregation in the country, leaving immigrants, people of color, and Afro-Italians feeling in some ways robbed of their safe space.

Document spoke to Afro-Italian creatives about their experiences, struggles, and hopes for the future—not in an attempt to point fingers at the nation, but simply in service of acknowledging their existence.

Adama Sanneh, 35, Co-Founder Moleskine Foundation, Senegalese-Italian

Jordan Anderson—Were there any moments or experiences you had as an Afro-Italian that discouraged you about the Italian culture?

Adama Sanneh—For me there’s been many moments, from the day I was able to recollect any sense of self. Italy, along with many other countries in Europe, has been based off the idea that there is one color, one creed, one language. So of course when people like myself were born, we were a glitch in the system, per se. As a result of this, because we are seen by the system as glitches, it is not ready to fully accept us. Thankfully that glitch is slowly becoming the system itself but it will take some time.

Jordan—Many people, both Italians and non-Italians, still think Afro-Italians don’t exist. How did this influence you growing up?

Adama—When I was growing up, the concept of being Afro-Italian didn’t even exist. So every time it attempted to be brought up, it was always shut down. I remember going to the stadium when I was around 16 to watch British-Italian Carlton Myers play basketball, and one of the chants from the audience was “Non ci sono neri Italiani” (There are no black Italians). Thankfully, I had already gone through my identity crisis two years before, and color and culture were my main catalysts for resolving much of the self-tension. I was reading Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and other Afro-American autobiographies, because that was the only language that was able to remotely recall my experiences in an uplifting way.

Jordan—In the current political climate, and in the era of Matteo Salvini, how have attitudes towards people of color changed? In the creative industries and in general?

Adama—I think what’s currently happening is quite similar to what’s happening to many other nations across the world—the US, Brazil, etcetera. When populists like these gain power, what happens is that certain attitudes connected to racism and prejudice become legitimised. Although not much may have changed practically speaking, there is still a feeling of not being protected.

Jordan—How do you think non-people of color in and outside of your national community can do better in an effort to respect and understand the culture of others?

Adama—A part of me is acknowledging that if I answer this question I’ll fall into the Messiah role of black people. However, I have to say from a political standpoint, especially in Italy, institutions have to do better in enforcing their policies of non-discrimination. They have to stop being naive, and acknowledge that just because they don’t understand or see it, does not mean it does not exist. As Afro-Italians, it’s also important that we give our younger and older members of the community access to the knowledge available so they are allowed the tools to freedom of self and identity exploration.

Stella Jean, 39, Haitian-Italian, Fashion Designer

Jordan—Many people, both Italians and non-Italians, still think Afro-Italians don’t exist. How did this influence you growing up?

Stella Jean—Growing up in a multiracial family like mine, with a white father and a black mother, was something very rare in the 80s. I was attending an Italian school where I was the only black person in the school, and although I am black, I am also Italian. My peers were not very accepting of this. I had my identity questioned daily, and each time I responded saying I am Italian, I was always met with an accusation of lying. In the beginning this was a bit fun but after a while you begin to notice that the toll it takes on you is the result of doubting your own identity. During my teenhood I began saying I was Haitian to avoid explaining, but then I thought to myself, I am not from Haiti, I’ve visited a couple times and it’s where some of my roots lie, but I am not just Haitian.

Jordan—You’re from both sides of two very different cultures. In what ways has this influenced your art and the way you work?

Stella—My influences are immediately visible throughout collections. You can see evidence of my Haitian heritage, especially because in the beginning I wanted to show to the world that, contrary to popular belief, Haiti is so much more than earthquakes and voodoo. I use a lot of naïf art to tell these stories of the rich culture and heritage while using traditional Italian sartorial techniques. I see fashion as a sort of cogent instrument. Upon face value, without explanation, a look is open for interpretation and most times, one simply thinks whether they like it or not. There’s no discrimination against clothes and most times no preference on what part is Italian or Haitian.

Jordan—How does it feel to be the first black Italian designer and the only person of colour on the runways during Milan Fashion Week?

Stella—In the beginning it was a kind of motivation for me, because I was bringing a very unique story to the table. However, during 2019, it can and should not be that I am one of the only persons of color during one of the four international fashion weeks. It’s just a display of the complacency around the need for diversity. Especially because there are so many others who are just not being supported enough and not being given a platform.

Jordan—How can those in and outside of your national community better respect and understand the culture of others?

Stella—I think it has to begin with us. From experience I’ve noticed that oftentimes as people of color we carry a lot of anger and rage towards the ignorance of people who do not understand us. This rage met with the ignorance of these people results in nothing but destruction. We have to learn to disarm ourselves in some ways, to approach the situation from a different perspective, which begins constructive dialogue.

Rediet (Red) Longo, 21, Graffiti Artist, Ethiopian-Italian

Jordan—Were there any moments or experiences you had as an Afro-Italian that discouraged you about the Italian culture?

Red Longo—Yes of course, from what I can remember of when I was younger when I used to play football. The environment I played in was always a difficult one to be in.  Each time it was always a matter and question of my skin colour, I had to give it up as a hobby because it really came to a point where it was no longer fun for me.

Jordan—Many people still believe Afro-Italians don’t exist. How did this influence you growing up?

Red—For me it’s all connected. There was once a time in my life where I refused to accept either parts of myself. It was during an identity crisis as a teenager when I went through the entire process of self questioning, in an attempt to understand my story and why I was adopted. I accepted neither the Italian or the African sides of my heritage. This lead me to create a new name for myself, Red, which is what I use with my graffiti art. Creating a new name meant curating an identity for myself based on my standards. It’s a part of my Ethiopian name but also represents a color of the spectrum that was neither black or white, but red like the soil of Africa.

Jordan—You’re from both sides of two very different cultures. How has this influenced you in your art and the way you work?

Red—I have faint memories of Africa, which in high school was met with my fascination for the history of European art and my curiosity for the art of graffiti. All of this created has had an influence in my work which I can neither distinctly describe as completely Italian nor African, but simply a culmination of my primary experiences and influences.

Pamela & Paola Ameyibor, 19, Hairstylists, DJs, Ghanan-Italians   

Jordan—In the current political climate, and in the era of Matteo Salvini, how have attitudes towards people of color changed? In the creative industries and in general?

Paola Amayebor—When a man like that is appointed, and he says the things he does, I can’t help but feel isolated to an extent, where I feel less Italian and more African. This makes me feel as if we have to try harder to prove ourselves. He has cultivated a group of people who see immigrants and people of color as intruders of their space, but little do they know that us creatives are the ones who oftentimes help bring the money into the country. If, tomorrow, I was to become a famous actress or singer, I would be proclaimed as only Italian. However, prior to that, to many of these people I’m just African, and that to them that means I arrived on a boat and I’m living with crazy people and have no food. The world still has a backward vision on how they view Africans. Yes, there exists the part of Africa you see on the media, but we’re not all the same.

Jordan—You’re from both sides of two very different cultures. In what ways has that influenced you in your art and the way you work?

Paola—We always try to create a mixture of both cultures, from when we were younger, creating European styled bikinis with African fabrics. Even now, with DJing and hairstyling, oftentimes we mix European music with African beats, and most times when hairstyling, we do traditional braids on a lot of white women rather than black.

Jordan—You mentioned the matter of braids, and I have to ask, as many black people find it offensive for white women to wear braids. How do you feel about it?

Paola—Personally, for me, it’s not a problem. Coming from a background where I share a mass variety of different practices and traditions of different kinds, I like the fact that I’m able to share some of that with the world. What upsets me is when people mistake them for French or Spanish braids. It’s important for people to acknowledge and understand the background behind them. From that, your intentions for wearing them should be because you appreciate them, not because you want them to be yours.

Jordan—How can people in and outside of your national community do better to respect and understand the culture of others?

Pamela and Paola—Firstly, understand that you can never completely come to terms with what it’s like if you are not of color. It’s also very important that [people] travel and see what else the world has to offer.  It’s too often a case where people form opinions of others and culture based on what the media showcases instead of first hand experiences. There’s an abundance of wealth culturally and otherwise in Africa, but the media doesn’t show that, in the same way there exists poverty in Italy, but the media chooses to highlight others aspects. It’s imperative for us to understand and respect the cultures and situations of everyone, immigrants or native, and appreciate each other as apart of the general community, not an ‘other.’

Germay Y.G. Michael Cappellin, 21, Poet – Ethiopian-Italian

Jordan—What does it mean for you to be Afro-Italian?

Germay Y.G. Michael Cappellin—Afro-Italian, for me, means something way more than biological and cultural aspects, something rather more spiritual. Regardless of skin color, it’s something about the makeup of [my identity] which includes the spirit of my African ancestors and the wealth of my European knowledge, tied together to produce a unique fruit.

Jordan—Have your had any moments or experiences that discouraged you out the Italian culture?

Germay—Mostly in the beginning, when people would attempt to validate  my well-being as a child solely as a result of me having an Italian parent.

Jordan—How can non-people of color, in and outside of your national community, do better to respect and understand the culture of others?

Germay—I think it has to begin with ourselves. Us of African descent have to gain a complete understanding that what we have and who we are is something to be treasured and nurtured, and more importantly, fed constantly with knowledge. It’s also important for non-people of color to be curious, ask questions, and research. For example, many people are repulsed by the culture of African piercings, but instead of forming an opinion, why not research and find out the meaning and history behind the tradition, and although you might not develop a liking for it, you’ll gain some respect for it.

Jem Perucchini, 24, Painter,  Ethopian-Italian

Jordan—What does it mean for you to be Afro-Italian?

Jem Perucchini—For me, it means having the opportunity to mix two different cultures. Having spent almost my entire life here, I personally identify more as Italian, but I could and would never deny my African background, as I see it as a huge plus in being unique.

Jordan—You’re from both sides of two very different cultures. In what ways has that influenced your art and the way you work?

Jem—Oftentimes when I do my paintings and put them on display, people make an evident connection with my African heritage through my European-styled work. Through the colors I use, to the patterns, this is never intentional, but I like to think that it stems from my memories of Africa.

Jordan—How can non-people of color in and outside of your national community better understand and respect the culture of others?

Jem—Begin to be curious and interested in other cultures. Not only in aspects that you hand-pick and decide to like, but in general. For example, now in Italy, one of the biggest things is hip hop and trap music, and that same white person who you’ll find singing the lyrics to trap music is the same person who’ll say the N-word without knowing the meaning behind it. So it’s important for them to see the real culture, appreciate it, and accept that in some ways it might be indirectly a part of the general diaspora of Italian culture.

Vhelade Bale Mura, 33, Musician, Congolese-Italian

Jordan—Were there any experiences throughout your life as an Afro-Italian that left you feeling discouraged about the Italian culture?

Vhelade Bale Mura—In a country where the difference is still a problem, rather than an advantage, being Afro-Italian, singing in different languages, and creating pure music without compromise, has not been easy. Oftentimes the level of ignorance has discouraged me, but the music and art have always helped me to see things from a different perspective.

Jordan—In the current political climate, and in the era of Matteo Salvini, how have the attitudes towards people of color changed? In the creative industries and in general.

Vhelade—A few years ago when I discovered the existence of Matthew Salvini and his beliefs, I thought it was an absurd  phenomenon destined to end shortly. For me it was sort of sad political nostalgia, because it reminded me too much of past events that stemmed from a type of people who I thought were now extinct. Unfortunately, this political propaganda is mainly based on fear and ignorance, hatred and xenophobia, and has lead to a prejudiced mass hysteria of some sort. It feels as if everything is slowly regressing, it’s almost as if I didn’t know many of the people I thought I did. Increasingly, people around have been placing me into several stereotypes and treating me differently.

Jordan—Are there any advantages to being a person of color in a society and local industry that is predominantly caucasian?

Vhelade—The benefits are likely if you’re a black artist rapper or an athlete. Simply because those are the parts of the culture which they appreciate and which benefit them. Other than safety, I see not many benefits for those who flee from war in hopes to meet a better future.