Naima Morelli

2020: the year in review

A steamy cup of black tea and a blank piece of paper. That’s all I need for my favourite end-of-the-year tradition. This December felt called to reflect back at 2020 already in the first half of the month – maybe because I was once again in my family home because of a new lockdown. I started by sorting the pictures for my other blog Gioco di Donne. The photos are testimonies to all the beauty experienced in this year, as of course the ugly parts are seldom captured on camera. Though this is also how my mind works – remembering first and foremost the good – for this year in review I want to look at all the lessons, to get a clearer path for next year.

Ça va sans dire that this year was quite particular. We are all aware of the toll that the pandemic took from all of us – in Italy the situation was particularly severe, especially in the beginning. Like many others, I have spent a good part of this year indoor. The first three months quarantine which started in March, and the second “red zone” from mid-October to December, I moved back to my family home in Sorrento. It wasn’t uncomfortable as I imagined. The disappointment lasted only in the few days before making the final decision to leave my house (and life) in Rome. Back to my hometown, I quickly adapted to the new situation, and the opportunities that it brought forth. There are some things I dropped altogether, some other things I dived into.

Of course, it’s a completely different state of existence, that I couldn’t have fathomed when planning and scheming a “Sorrento survival plan” in Rome – and that’s perhaps the first good lesson for next year: you can’t really plan how you will move into stillness while you are running. There are two separate states. Only when you are in that specific state, you can sense what’s the next best move. Of course, that doesn’t mean you will have a general sense of direction. The “where”. The “how”, and perhaps even the what, is what you’ll know when you are there. It’s about trusting that in whatever situation you’ll find a way. Your way.

Arts writing: pick a point on the horizon and sail in that direction

Writing and drawing are the two forms of expressions that accompanied me since I was a child, and I have always re-elaborated my experience in the intermingling of these two mediums. Luckily they have also become also my job. This year the top three highlights in terms of my arts writing and journalism, have been finishing my third contemporary art book, travelling to Malaysia and Singapore for research and having an article from last year published on the Italian magazine Internazionale. Journalism-wise, I kept nurturing some fruitful collaborations, gave up some others that didn’t feel aligned anymore, and started some new ones.

However, this year I also published less articles that probably any other year since I started freelancing. This is because the end of 2019 I was commissioned to write a book about the work of a young Malaysian artist by a very important gallery in Southeast Asia. My previous books, Arte Contemporanea in Indonesia and The Singapore Series, were not written on commission. So research them I followed a different process and – especially with the Singapore Series – I kept on freelancing in the meantime. This is where I learned that not giving a book my complete focus would make the process so much more long and gruesome. That’s why for the Malaysian artist monograph book I decided to stop writing articles almost completely. I wanted to give this book my full attention and my best creative juices.

At the beginning of the year I travelled to Malaysia to visit the artist’s studio, saw his work in person and learned more about his environment. The artist was lovely. He kindly and patiently guided me through his world, and his work was even more powerful in person. I also made a detour to Singapore to see the SEA Focus Art Fair, which proved quite interesting. I need to mention that my health was a bit unstable, so I asked my then-boyfriend to come with me to give support. It didn’t all go smooth – quite the contrary I must say. In addition to the diabetes management I was highly stressed out and got a flu. We didn’t know yet about Covid at the beginning of January, otherwise we would have been really worried. As often happens in my work trips, the good comes with some difficulties. But difficulties always come with lessons. In Singapore it got much better, and was able to meet again some of my dear friends like Brian and Emma, which brought me instant happiness.

Back in Rome, I happily split up from my boyfriend, sat in my favourite table in my café with a warm cappuccino, and started to work on the book with my entire spirit, feeling free, unstuck, in control of destiny again. The first draft proved a wonderful experience, as I was finally able to write in complete freedom about an artist whose artistic sensitivity is so close to mine. When the pen is directly connected with the heart, the writing has much more substance. With the help of two friend curators, I also started to organise a show of an Indonesian artist in Venice on the side, but because of the pandemic it was postponed indefinitely.

At the outbreak of the lockdown I was again in Sorrento. When I finished to edit the book and I sent in the first draft, I decided took a long pause from writing in general. We were in the worse phase of the first lockdown, and working to my articles in the house was not great for concentration. I probably also felt the need to isolate from the tragic news, so my focus naturally shifted more towards my inner world, aka my graphic novels.

I started resuming journalism again in September, and I have kept pitching stories and writing article until this November. Then I paused again, to reflect on the next move. Not being able to plan a trip for January/February as always, I’m finding myself in a bit of an usual scenario, with its own challenges and opportunities. I was used to do two trips to Asia a year, and now it looks like that for me and the entire art community this won’t be an option for a while. So what I have decided to do next year is to navigate by sight, and let my intuition guide me every step of the way; just like I mentioned at the beginning of this post. What I have learned though in my summer sailing experience this year, is that though you can predict exactly every wind blow or wave, you still need to pick a point on the horizon, and sail in that direction.

For a start, I’ll keep on solidifying my existing relationships in the art and journalism world, both in Southeast Asia, and with the Middle Eastern magazines. An important reflection that keeps coming out in discussions with friends, it’s the need of connecting with a community of Italian people – or even European for that matter – around my area on interest – which is not limited the art world, but also Southeast Asia. I started doing this with the launch of the Indonesia book, but then I kind of detached myself from it in recent years. The important thing is that these connections are not forceful or utilitarian. Rather I want them to be genuine and integrated with life. As always, I’ll do small, proactive steps, and I’ll just put that wish there to the universe. In a way, that materialised for my little yoga and sailing community in Sorrento already, and back in the day that’s how I kick-started my entire research in Southeast Asia.

As a second direction, I know that my curiosity and sense of excitement will be appeased also by exploring other new uncharted artistic territories. So the next country I’m thinking to explore artistically is Taiwan. I have already started doing some skype interviews, and it seems there is a lot to explore. Of course, I still don’t know when I’ll be able to travel there. Plus, it’s a different scene from Southeast Asia, so I can hardly leverage my existing contacts. However, that makes it even more exciting. Maybe we will be all able to resume travelling by the spring, or maybe by autumn, or even later. It doesn’t matter. My first research trip to Singapore took one year preparation, so I feel researching the Taiwanese contemporary art scene would be a great way to spend my time.

Speaking of writing style, I’d also like to get accustomed again to my original way of writing, pre-Australia, pre-English writing, and transform it into English. I will probably re-read some texts of my favourite journalistic inspirations from my beginnings, when I was around 17, such as Lester Bangs and Oriana Fallaci and intermingle them with new inspirations, considering that I have become a less critical and more compassionate adult in the meantime. So I’ll work on my own writing, in a process of going back to the origins with a renewed awareness, the same process I have been undertaking in my comics and in martial arts.

Finally, today it came to mind what my uncle Bruno told me one day: “It doesn’t matter what pursuit a person choose, the important thing is to be reaching excellence in that field.” This idea of pursuit of excellence – not as an end-goal, but rather reached through loving and honing one’s process, is a fascinating idea I’m delving into again as the year comes to a close. I’m reading (or re-reading) books like “The Art of Learning” by Josh Waitzkin, “The Practice” by Seth Godin. The idea is to keep engaged and building on the things you love – which is a beautiful, exciting, full way of living life for my little, curious, adventurous self.  

Graphic Novels: learning, improving, building

Ah, the art of learning! It’s inevitable that the enthusiasm of learning in one field leaks into another. This year, I have upped my graphic novel game big time. This is something I have been constantly nourishing in the past years, and it’s something that in return is deeply nourishing to me.

A side note on embarking on learning journeys; I really realized in 2020 how some experiences – just like people and relationships – are not meant to be embarked on all the way down. Rather, for the time you are together, they are showing you where to go next. You need to be sensitive to understand when that has taught you what you need to learn, and move onto the new, different path that thing has laid forth for you.

Case in point. At the beginning of the first lockdown, encourage by my friend and comics companion Laslo, I started Masterclass, following the lessons of Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates. I had bought a year subscription, so I could have virtually take many other courses. But with the few exercises I did, I was already inspired to start my latest graphic novel “Virgin of the Rocks, Virgin of the Sand”.

Another example that became clear to me only in 2020. Two years ago, my brief experience at the School of Comics in Rome didn’t prove a right fit. However, it gave me very important data to understand where to go next in terms of style. I showed me that I needed to put aside for a bit my experimental watercolour technique, and move back to the traditional drawing + watercolour + ink. By the way “Desire for Victory” was appreciated by the school professors, I could see how I could built on that.

However, what I felt drawn to shortly after opting out of the comics school, was to study and set up a business container for my comics. That might sound counter intuitive, or even foolish. Why investing in learning how to build a business when you are still working on the product? I’d say, I did that to have that sense of direction. I wanted to be educated on how to approach the market, while working on the craft itself, until these two aligned. It’s similar to what I did with my art writing in English. I start pitching AND learn to improve my English writing at the same time AND researching my subject matter AND creating ties with other people in the industry. And it proved quite successful. Start before you are ready.

But the strongest reason for my decision, was to create an alley for my graphic novels. So that I felt that my graphic novel could have a destination. And I’d work with a sense of purpose, not “drawing in a void” anymore, for my own pleasure only. My intuition told me this is what I needed, so I enrolled into Marie Forelo’s B-School. It was a big investment for me, but again it brought a surge of energy, empowerment, excitement. A sense of direction. A dō.

Indeed I harvested the results of my efforts this 2020. A the begging of the year I hired graphic designers and editors, and published the first volume of my series Desire for Victory and Fronn ‘e Limon in both Italian and English, and my graphic novel Tufo in Italian. At the same time I finished Virgin of the Rocks, my best graphic novel to date, and published it as well. I worked a bit on the press side as well, and good reception also from public. It brought me so much joy to see my books in a paper and in the hands of my readers. I also kept up sending a newsletter with short comic book stories for the entire year.

While all of this happened, I felt compelled to focus on the craft again, thus the aforementioned Masterclass, and now subscribing some watercolour courses on Domestika. For next year one of my big goals is reaching some form of excellence in watercolours. A great “natural” school is just visiting my uncle Jo on Sundays, and look together at watercolour masters of the past. But I think I’ll also take some classes.

And then the biggest project for next year. Already in September/October, while launching “Virgin of the Rocks, Virgin of the Sand”, I started drawing the first pages of “The Mighty Hour”, centred around the Orvieto Academy of Female Physical Education during fascist times. My grandmother Claudia was one of the students, that’s how I feel personally connected to the story of this institution. It’s incredibly fascinating to look at the relationship between sport and women’s empowerment in the ‘900, while building up on “Desire for Victory”, the wider series (to which both “The Mighty Hour” and “Virgin of the Rocks” belong to). Just like it happened with my previous comic book, I feel every page is a chance to improve my style. I can already see how the work I have done so far (some 30 pages, the book will be 70-80 pages probably) is already quite an improvement.   

Scattered around the year, I have started watching movies and series again. Unlike most people who are addicted to Netflix, I have to make a conscious effort to watch TV. I used to watch many movies in the past, especially in cinema, but in the past five years not so many anymore. This is good, because it makes it a conscious activity. Meaning that I’ll watch them with pleasure, yes, but also with the intention of absorbing stories, the ambience, the framing and other technical devices to use in my comic books.

Movement: slow, conscious, feeling goood!

Movement is honestly what kept me not only sane, but thriving during this quarantine time. I’m at a point that exercising is more difficult that not exercising. Indeed, I don’t consider it exercise but a dō. A path. Or a Sādhanā, to use the yogic term.

For yoga, this year I have been deeply into Meghan Currie’s style, which I approached on the app Alo Moves. In the beginning I was a bit resistant; her style it’s less about classical yogic posture, and more about feeling each part of the body, each movement, what the body needs. The style is strong, but also slow, conscious, and it became the most beautiful way to start the day. In the first lockdown I have been following her 2 hour long zoom classes, and she is now launching her own platform, and I can’t wait to dive deeper.

In September I have attended her online workshop on slow movement. The experience was incredibly nourishing  – and so much more than a mere physical practice. It was perfectly in synch with my quarantine experience of slowing down, and some previous mindfulness exercised in nature I have been practicing in the previous years. At the end of 2020 I started transferring some of it to my martial arts practice, approaching each kamae – the basic postures – with more awareness, transitioning from one to the other, from a roll to a strike, in a fluid way, and consciously activating the right muscles.

 “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast”. This is the motto of another inspiring teacher that I really resonated with, and was the huge discovery: Michelle C. Smith. Her style of staff, which she calls freestyle, is a relatively new adventure that I really started approaching a little more than a month ago.

The thing is that since practicing Japanese martial arts, I was always drawn by the bo staff. In my solo practice I have spent hours and hours training with it, but I felt I wasn’t learning anything new, repeating the same moves again and again, not making any progression. A couple of years ago, I was feeling a deep crisis with ninjutsu in general and general trust in my sensei. Keep in mind that that martial arts have been an animating force for me for a long time. So post-Japan study trip, I felt stuck and uninspired in that realm.  

This was a common feeling for many of my friends. Some just pretended Japan never happened, and kept training. Some stayed for the community they found there, though that also disaggregated. Others, like my dear friend Mino who is an incredible learner, was able to leverage the teachings of Japan and review his entire approach to the art. For me, I kept wandering, and I distinctively remember one day on a circumvesuviana train researching what I was sure that I wanted to learn to master: the bo staff and stick fighting. I believe that’s when I found out about kali escrima, I started following Chloe Bruce on instagram, and also Michelle C. Smith. But they were stuntwomen, and the information was so wide, so it felt confusing. Wasn’t there a easy way to learn stick fighting a that’s it?

I started again looking into stick fighting again at the end of the first quarantine, but the weather was too beautiful in Sorrento, and as soon as the beach reopened I couldn’t care about youtube videos and practicing on my terrace. I craved the sea.

Everything shifted with the second lockdown in Campania, namely this November. I had a shorter, one meter stick that my grandfather fabricated for me. And I had already noticed Michelle C Smith had been sharing daily livestreams from the first lockdown, but I thought they were too advanced for me. So I started by taking her free beginner course, and found out that – given I practiced a bit – I wasn’t that clueless after all. I started following the recorded livestreams on her youtube – one per day, and I can’t even begin to tell what they have been doing for me lately.

First, a huge sense of empowerment! I was actually able to do those moves that looked so difficult… and so badass! But also got me on a deeper level. For years I have been spinning the staff and striking with it, asking myself if that was about it. And now my mind was expanded… there was a galaxy of new ways to use the staff. A new portal of depth, excitement, beauty, opened in front of my eyes. All of that conveyed by an inspiring teacher, whose spirit – like Meghan Currie for yoga – resonated so strongly with me.

I have been started practicing two hours a day, completely in love with this new art. I couldn’t wrap my head around the generosity of this teacher, who for some 200 days and counting has been sharing these precious lessons daily, for free. She has laid a path that makes me feel secure that there is always a next video to learn from in the next day, plus I was deeply connected to the humane aspect of sharing her own experience with the pandemic. Honestly, right now I couldn’t hope for anything better than this, and better circumstances to practice. I’m sincerely enthusiastic. And once I’ll be finished with the livestreams, I’ll definitely jump on her academy and maybe one day attend some workshops. The dō is unfolding in front of me.

In that, I need to mention that I didn’t give up on my Japanese martial arts path. In the short months I was able to train there this year, I could experience the deep joy to train together, to have that community of friends, almost like a second family, whether you hold the same values, or you are shifting in a different directions.

Together with Mino – with whom I share a passion for ‘80s hair metal and Cobra Kai – last month we bought books and started looking into old videos to build some study material on our own. Mino also introduced me to Russian Martial Art Systema at the beginning of the year, and I have been following a few Zoom lessons with the head of the Toronto School, Vladimir Vasilev.  Systema is incredibly fascinating, and so in line – in terms of philosophy, with yoga – It focused on breathing, eliminating tensions, and making the body adaptive. It’s a system that can be applied to every movement. I have to be honest; the zoom lessons were interesting, but personally not so appealing in terms of the pace and type of exercises to me. However, I see the potential of this art, and I can’t wait to explore it more, and properly in partner training.

Time and community: gentleness, trust

Since I finished the art academy and started living by myself, I had to devise new routines and habit to keep my work, my health and my life in check. That great freedom to create my own destiny was intoxicating, I finally had no obligations. However, that much freedom also created an underlying anxiety to organize myself all the time. Here comes the Virgo in me, I suppose: managing my time in the most productive yet harmonious way has became my constant and only preoccupation. I created routines, then doubted them, recreated them. I had no given habits given to me by a village or a family situation. Sunday could be a day off, or a working day. Should I devote myself to drawing, or it better working on some articles to send to my editors early? Analysis paralysis was the name of the game.

Sharing the house with my family again, all this disappeared. We eat all together at the same time, Sunday we visited the grandparents in the countryside, we had routines moulded around family values and the need to share spaces. In short, I had no choice to tag along, if I wanted to be harmonised with the rhythms of the household. Having a reduced possibility of choosing on how to manage time and routines during the day, allowed me to organize within those time frame, and find which one of my projects was more fitting with that lifestyle.

As the café where I used to go to write closed, I started working to work from home, but after a while this gave more and more way to days immersed in my graphic novel work. It makes sense: that’s the environment where those stories started to be created since I was a small child. It has been said that creativity thrives in constricted environments. So, while I was cut off – like the rest of us – from social and outdoor life, I could finally stop worrying about organizing my life in a good balance between work and training, screen and not screen, indoor and outdoor, friends and solo time. I could finally focus on what matters. The rest will take care of itself.

How do I want to keep this anxiety-free time schedule moving forwards? For starting, I suspect that for the winter months all the limitations in Rome will encourage me to stay in Sorrento a little longer. So I can take advantage of the family “original quietness and no-brainer-ness” a little longer.

Few routines have allowed me to find some tidiness in my life in Rome over the years, and with the Covid restrictions most of these won’t be viable. Some of these are making the decision to go to the cafè to write every single morning. Going to the dojo to train martial arts three times a week. Making an habit to go seeing art exhibitions with friends, or simply having evening tea, a dinner or an introspective chat on some specific day to touch base on the regularly.

But most of all, one of the best things for me was moving to Pigneto, where you can really feel the “village vibe” – you can start building “weak ties” with shop owners, market vendors, say hi to people you daily see in the street. These things accumulated over the years and made me really feel as part of a community. It was really beautiful coming back to my go-to cafè in Rome, and having so many people asking me where had I been. That’s happening in Sorrento as well, where the sailing club, the bookshop and the cafè have become points of reference.

The general lesson that I want to keep implementing this year is to set a time and space for work and a time for play. At the same time, being gentle with myself. If something tells you not to, jump onto the next important thing of your master plan, instead of feeling guilty you are not working. Follow your intuition in that, be gentle with yourself, don’t force yourself, flow with what the situation is calling for. Trust that it will all make sense in the end.

Be kind to others as well, be open. Cultivate your strong and weak ties, by showing up in communal spaces or shared activities. If some of this brings you far away from THE PLAN (sometimes an impromptu post-pandemic trip to Capri happens), just embrace it. Be quick to readjust. Eliminate tension and don’t hold to a mental scheme. Motive and improvisation must go side to side.

Spirit: remove to welcome

What I know for sure for next year, is that I will take small steps towards removing some files from my computer-spirit, to make room for the nourishing. In fact, this whole super-long review of the year is to get some experiences off my chest, filter though them, give them an order. Among my new “remove to make space” policy, there are many things that I successful implemented this year and I want to keep in my life.

For starters less phone – I already started a successful habit of digital detox Sundays which proved a real massage for the soul. No sweets after the meals, which was good for my diabetes, and when I live alone means going for more tasty food (but always healthy). Less podcast and music and more silence: this was a big one for removing the constant chatter in my head, and the mindless need to fill silence all the time, something many of us are addicted to. Less plastic, namely using products with a paper wrapping, bamboos toothbrushes, solid soap, buying fruit and vegetables at the market instead of taking the wrapped ones at the supermarket.

And there is a couple of other ones, which maybe manifests in my life in subtler way than a plastic bag, and are part of my personality. One is doubt. I started second-guessing myself a lot after being thrown out into the world in a big way by new geographical horizons, relationships which with the best intentions influenced me to the point I started becoming disconnected from my way of doing things. This has started to dissipate as I have started to re-appropriate of doing my comics and my writing in my own way. As I’m practicing more martial arts and yoga I’m fuelling a grounding connection with the body. This is something I want to keep strengthening next year. Overall, it’s just about following own inclinations and intuition, and try to limit the influence of friends who are doubt-ridden themselves, while on the other hand hanging more with those who allow you to be who you are.

The other unnecessary feat that I’d like to reduce in my life is drama. Sometimes I realize I make too big of a deal of things that can be easily solved, and I’m easily swept away by my emotions. Often times, I unleash my ego, which can become pretty aggressive. As I have been experiencing friends who are even more dramatic then myself, I could see myself with external eyes, and see I had enough of it. This doesn’t mean suppress emotions, but rather reduce the occasion of friction, as well as practicing the daily tools that keep me sane, to switch to a more positive approach as soon as the first inkling of drama appears.

One beautiful tool to shift my perception of events, is the Work by Byron Katie. Though you don’t always feel like feeling the worksheet and going through the inquiry process she recommends, this is always the first step to put your head and emotion in the right space. It’s not instant, but with time it becomes an embedded mechanism. It’s great, very Systema-like, it allows to get rid of tension as soon as they appear.

And then there is The Course of Miracle. I started the workbook for the second time 73 days ago, and it helps in a similar way. The whole premise is that a miracle is a shift in perception from fear to love. On a second re-read the lessons are perhaps less piercing compared to a first read. However, I picked it up again because since the summer I felt I needed to get back on track with a spiritual direction. I sensed I was kind of falling prey of disgruntlement, stories I would tell myself, bad feelings and even being too tough with others. I felt I needed a moral and spiritual compass again because, as a matter of fact, my life and relationships work better when I have one.

Luckily, many shifts towards love are happening naturally. Good habits are making for a more disciplined mind and a kinder heart. Meditating is now a habit which again is more difficult to give up than to follow. I already said that of exercising and avoiding tv, which are many people’s goal. Hopefully next year I’ll be able to say that also of phone usage. Mindfulness – aided by the habit of Sunday digital detox which I have been doing in the quarantines, is indeed a thing I keep going back to. I daily devote my breakfast to watch the clouds from the terrace – sometimes even in winter, and reading morning books that explore different spiritual traditions.

I have delved into Zen this summer and related Japanese arts, introduced by books such as “Zen and the Art of Archery”, “101 Zen Stories” and “The Gateless Gate”. Although, of course, as any good koan will eloquently show, words are only pointers. I have also re-read “The Power of Now” this winter, and keep listening to Marianne Williamson.

To wrap up, I’d also like to mention that merging myself into the world of my graphic novel is a form of spiritual practice in itself. My stories let a submerged part of myself come to fruition, and if my character enact my “defects of character”, they free me from them, or they allow me to reflect on some feelings that were somehow buried under the surface. I believe it works like this for many writers. All the material of the spirit comes into the work to give it life. It definitely was like this also for the book of the young Malaysian artist I have been writing at the beginning of the year, as it was written with lively emotion.

I’ll close with a quote by Alison Armstrong, saying that you will live a completely different life if you’re looking for how the things you want are already happening in your life, instead of checking of a yes or a no. Instead of asking “Does he love me?”, ask “How does he love me?” Instead of asking “Does he support me?” ask “How does he supports me?” That’s perhaps one of the most important thing I’d like to keep in my waterproof bag, as I “pick one point on the horizon”, while sailing into the sea of our human experience.

For my 2020 in pictures, jump on Gioco di Donne