Naima Morelli

2021: the year in review

For months, perhaps already in October, I felt an incredible urge to look back and take stock of the entire year, to put the word end to an unfolding of events, full of beauty of pain in equal measure, and start again. But as the buds of a new life in Rome were slowly appearing, I hesitated. There was always something else to do.

One night around mid-December I felt I could wait no longer to be back in my hometown Sorrento for the holidays to put pen to paper. I had to do it right then, that Sunday night in Rome. I had just opened up my computer, when two friends called for an evening tea. To hell with it! I choose to go, choose the present life who was asking me to join in.

And now that I’m in Sorrento for the holidays, in the intersection of days where time seems to stand still, I felt some reticence to look back. I felt that since that evening tea, I have been on the other side, and looking past my shoulder at a momentous time was something blocking the appreciation of what’s right in front of me. But as I started writing, and preparing my parallel post with pictures on Gioco di Donne, I feel have digested and released the old stories, and be appreciative of where they have led me.

I’d say that during the entire year I became less a woman of reflection, and more a woman of action. Less navel-gazing, more trying things – in fact, I wrote just one post on my block of this kind. Not stopping then has opened up me to an entirely new way of tackling reality. More present, fewer doubts. And that felt pretty damn good.

So, it began with a super productive pandemic start of the year, where I learned the art of the freestyle staff, I finished my graphic novel “The Mighty Hour” and published it, and kept working on my journalism. It continued with two months in Rome, which hinted me of new horizons, which were lost in the summer, but found again in the blessed last four months of a season of renewal in Rome. But more on that later. Let’s go in the usual order.

Contemporary art and journalism

I have always been a journalist. In primary school I was going around at Carnival, interviewing my friends dressed as Princesses, Fairs, Disney characters, Zorro, Arlequins. I would report their words in my handmade two-sheets paper called “Fior di Mela” (Apple Flower), handwritten and with lavish illustrations realized by yours truly. Concurring magazines made by my friends would come in later – Fior di Latte (Milk Flower) among them – but no one could rival the original. Later on, the magazine started taking an environmentalist direction and I called it WWF News. My father created the computer graphic for it, and I could print copies at home and distribute them to my friends. In the headline, a picture of my 8 years old self would lean against the title.

So this is definitely not 2021 – more 1998 – but I’d like to open with this little self-serving story, to acknowledge (to myself first and foremost) something that has become particularly clear to me in these last few months of the year: that being a journalist, a writer, is something that has always been deeply entrenched in my personality. This is what I do, what I have always been doing. It’s what I do best. And there is so much room for improvement.

This year has not been shorts of typed words. While I slowed down on the pieces in the summer to work on the publishing side of my graphic novel, I still had 31 published pieces out in the press, which include 40+ interviews. I had the chance to write about some of my very favourite people in the art world, such as Indonesian collector and gallerist Andonowati, Balinese artist Citra Sasmita, Libyan artist Shefa Salem and more.

I have been writing a lot on the Arab world, especially for magazines I have been collaborated with for a long time. New freelancing gigs about the MENA region came to fruition for me, and I had the chance to look deeply at Libyan culture, which never fails to interest and surprise me. Dubai and the UAE have also popped up frequently as a city and country that is never short of juicy art news. I might head there in the near future for research… maybe doing a comparison with Singapore in terms of art hubs? Why not?

Of course, my expertise and biggest love is still Southeast Asia, and becoming a regular writer for Plural Art Mag from Singapore allowed me to keep writing about the region, even though for the usual pandemic reasons I wasn’t able to travel there and conduct new research as I do every year. However new connections between Italy and SEA have been cooking up for 2022… so stay tuned!

Another big accomplishment was the publication of Yeoh Choo Kuan’s monograph called “This is how it is” by the gallery Richard Koh Fine Art, with my texts and my analysis of the artist’s work – I wrote it in 2020, but it’s great to finally see it coming to fruition. This is my third contemporary art book, after “Arte Contemporanea in Indonesia”, which came out in 2014 in Italy, and “The Singapore Series”, which is available for everyone to read online here.

I have also written a text for another monograph, the first-ever collection of the work of an incredible Italian artist, Anna Salmoni, whose oeuvre is just starting to be valorised and shared for the new generation. I felt personally connected with the paintings, so it was a honour to contribute my text.

I have also seen some great art exhibitions during the year, especially when I was in Rome, making the weekends all about art, and introducing also my non-art friends to it. The best one in terms of curatorial narrative has been Inferno at Scuderie del Quirinale, a dive into the meaning of hell in Dante all the way to modern day.

I went to see also great photo exhibitions: the ever-so-striking World Press Photo at Mattatoio Testaccio, sure, but also Koudelka photographing ancient roman ruins at Ara Pacis, and a really wonderful one of Salgado at MAXXI. I went to see all of them with my friend photographer Matteo, which provided an extra layer of engagement – he even managed to get personal advice from Mr. Sebastiao himself! I was just so stoked for him!

One note about the MAXXI; it’s just such a great museum, the best for contemporary art in Rome, if you ask me! The programming is just so good, and even subjects like architecture are made really interesting. Each visit provides just so much food for thought! The last show I visited was Cao Fei, and again, a hell of a show! Her Wong Kar Wai aesthetics were blended with cutting-edge technology, such as augmented reality. On this note, this was the first year I tried this technology – and saw it applied to the art on two different occasions. I shared the experience with my coder friend Fabiana, and we were swept up by the experience. A bit of Brothers Lumieres effect? Might be, but for the time being, it was so exciting!

Another good show I really enjoyed was part celebration, part music, part comic book, and was the “Chelsea Hotel” at Palazzo Fruscione in Salerno. This is the rock mythology I grew up with, so how not to love it? And in Rome again, I saw a number of the smaller shows, which allowed me to re-enter the art world after the pandemic unrest.

What I’m planning to do next year is not only to keep this very good habit of the art weekends but also try to write about them for magazines. Most of these shows were so damn good, I had so many thoughts about it, that is a shame that I had to keep them for myself. I will then look to new magazines which are interested in art exhibition reviews.

What’s new with this year is also that I’m growing a community of friends who are not necessarily art insiders, but are all in creative fields, and interested in culture. I’d love to discuss with them about the shows more, to let what we see really touch us and stimulate reflection. For years I have lived the art scene in Rome in a bit of a “colder” way, but it’s high time to enhance what Bruce Lee calls “the emotional content”.

In terms of community and work, I have been working in the mornings from my local cafè for years now. It’s already quite incredible to see how in the same cafè, for the first time a group of friends has been gathering on the “tavolo sociale” to work side to side. While we should tone down the chatting side (super-interesting conversations I have to say, but hey! Mornings are for work!), we are also keeping each other accountable, checking on our daily targets, and motivating each other. It’s what I have always wanted, and to have this happening feels like a gift – and again, a lot of it is thanks to my friend Matteo, who is a human social network, with a unique ability to bring people together.

Graphic novels

On the graphic novel side, this has been a good year. I kept on bringing to fruition my inner world, which at the moment translates with my series set in the 1900s called “Desire for Victory”. Since September/October 2020, I started working on a new chapter, which is a bit of a spin-off as well, called “The Mighty Hour”. This was inspired by the story of my grandmother Claudia, who was a physical education teacher who studied at a prestigious woman-only academy during the fascist time in Italy. Of course, it ended up tying to the biggest narrative of Desire for Victory, and I blended her story with the one of a famous character from that time, like Ondina Valla – who won gold at the Berlin Olympics on 1936, and personal reflection on community, success, acceptance, glory and its inevitable fading.

I finished drawing the last page of that story in May, as I had just moved back to Rome after the pandemic “red zone” time, that I have spent in Sorrento. I worked on the pages daily, most mornings and afternoons, so I definitely slowed down a bit with the journalism. But I experimented with so many new solutions, both narrative and graphic. So I’d say, all in all, this is my best graphic novel to date.

Of course, once that part was done, I’d sit in my favourite cafè in Rome, and get down to the cleaning of the pages, the lettering, the English translation. I then worked the rest of the summer with my graphic designer (and good friend) Mino to create the actual book. We managed to have the Italian edition coming out in July, and the English edition in August.

I’m happy and satisfied to hold this book in my hands, to be part of my series of books published under the Red Naima imprint, which I started right before the pandemic, and had seven volumes that came out in 2020. However, if I have one regret with The Mighty Hour, is to not have marketed it enough when it just came out. I was somewhere else with my mind, and that took over completely.

Anyways, already in mid August I started working on an even more ambitious project from the Desire for Victory series. It’s the storyboard of “Two Suns”, a story I had in mind for over ten years. I have realised 18 pages so far, starting in September, when I set foot in Rome again. This time I choose a big format for the pages, and because of the length of the story – which counts already 100 pages – these will be more full. (Whereas with The Mighty Hour I experimented more with splash pages and graphic solutions using the weapons the characters were wielding as page dividers.)

Because I’m planning to go all-in with journalism this year, I won’t be able to work on the comic book full time, so I think Two Suns will take much longer. I’m looking to finish it at the end of 2022 (the drawings), and publish it at the beginning of 2023, if it will be published under the Red Naima imprint. But I will also look at the traditional publishing route, as it can also be read apart from the series. Will see what happens!

Spiritual and martial path

This year has kicked off with me learning the art of the freestyle staff, something I had already started to look at at the end of last year when we were in the Italian red zone. Thanks to the no-distraction time of the lockdown, I allowed myself to train two hours each day on the beautiful terrace of my house in Sorrento, come rain or come shine. Aside from the obvious skills of coordination, dexterity, timing, memory training that come with throwing and rolling with your staff, I have built incredible resilience and patience.

The way I learned was by watching and practicing the skills and combos explained in all 300 plus live streams by stuntwoman Michelle C. Smith, the Canadian mother of this art, an incredibly generous individual who shared hours of content and quite frankly kept good company during training by telling her community of her life as a stunt performer. I subscribed to her Freestyle Staff Academy once in Rome, but because of increased social life and lack of a distraction-free place to practice, I wasn’t able to progress as fast.

While in Rome I resumed Bujinkan (aka ninjutsu) training, I keep giving a go to freestyle staff at a very beautiful but children-filled park. So quite nice, but not good for concentration. However, between the spring and the summer, I managed to follow some of the lessons from the Freestyle Staff Academy. In the summer I went to an ancient nympheum near the sea in Sorrento to practice and practice. There were of course distractions there too – namely the good people from the sailing association that was there – but overall I think that’s a time where repeating the same sequences in a freer way, and not putting new info in my head and body, helped to get more fluid at them.

In the past few days, I filmed myself doing a couple of new combos by Michelle, and I have to say, my 2021 goal to gain more fluidity by the end of the year has been accomplished. Of course, I’ll keep practicing any time I’d find a branch on the beach, as I have been doing during this entire year, to my friend’s dismay. And I also know now that this is what I can practice when I have some time away from the dojo, and I want to train on something incredibly engulfing and fun. The concentration it requires really takes my mind off my “life situation problem” and this is not something I take for granted. It gives me a lot of strength, plus I DO feel like a badass with a staff in my hands!

As for the martial arts, as I mentioned I kept training ninjutsu at the end of the year when I was back in Rome for these four months. I’m still having a lot of fun training with my friends at the dojo, keep learning weapons, and occasionally bullying a hot-headed white belt, but of course, I needed something new to give me an energy boost and feel like I was progressing. That’s why, with my friend coder Fabiana, who is also a ninjetta, we decided to start learning Brazilian Ju-Jitsu.

So why BJJ? The official story goes that, since Fabiana and I felt the excitement of ninjutsu has not been there anymore for a long time, we decided to shake things up. Chance was that a new course of BJJ had already started at our dojo, so we decided to give it a go. We didn’t leave ninjutsu (not YET) – so we have been training five times a week for these past 4 months (this felt good!)

The unofficial reason why we started BJJ is tied to an “expansion path”, or “self-improvement path” Fabiana and I had embarked on. She had been one year into a breakup from a very long relationship that sort of caged her, so she felt extremely open to find herself all over again. I was also running away from the whole Sorrento situation – or rather to my summer-2021-in-sorrento-kinda-self – that I was resolute to leave behind and don’t meet again. Thank you very much!

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I felt I needed renewal – and in a way I was also inspired by another, who had experienced great growth by diving deep into a number of new activities, but used this openness in a careless, hurtful way – or just in a confused way I’d rather say. The expansion part was inspiring though. So I thought: I will do that too once in Rome, but I will have expansion married with kindness, to a greater good – and again to counterbalance the detrimental patterns I had fallen into in Sorrento. It’s not always easy to keep yourself anchored to the spiritual path when you are shaking your world from the ground up, but it’s necessary.

So from sports (including bouldering, which is definitely on my wish list from this year), to concerts (Patti Smith and Muro del Canto have been two highlights of the year for sure), to shows, to augmented reality, to surreal dinners with surreal people, Fabiana and I tried it all! Generally speaking, these last four months of the year have felt drastically different from the beginning of the year, and from what I have experienced before, since moving to Rome in 2009. The degree of openness I was into is only comparable to what I experienced in my month-long trips in Asia.

With trusted companions experiencing their own parallel journeys – especially Fabiana and the aforementioned Matteo – which such open personality which inspired and keep inspiring me, I was able to experience an extremely exciting and fullfilling reality. I’ve to say, if the summer in Sorrento wouldn’t have kicked me in the ass so hard, I wouldn’t have probably gained such momentum to be open to shaking my consolidated routines, let go of some friendships, open up to new ones and rebuild my ground. So I’m deeply grateful for the struggles, as well as for the beauty on the other side.

Going back to the BJJ itself, this has brought a new level of challenge compared to ninjutsu, as there is increased physical contact (to say the least!). As a person who generally likes to keep distance contact at bay with friends and strangers alike, this was definitely something far out of my comfort zone. But it was also very fun, especially the sparring part, which reminds me of the friendly fights I had as a teenager. In both climbing and fighting there is something that I felt deeply entrenched in my personality, it wakes up my playful inner kid. It also feels great to train that much, and stretching the sore muscles with the yoga in the morning (which I keep doing daily with my 15 mins meditation, except on Sundays) becomes a beautiful necessity.

Another thing we have introduced, and again thanks to Matteo, in the language tandem on Monday, right after ninjutsu training. We are learning French which will be extremely helpful, and for me for the comic book will be a necessity to enter the French market for the comics.

So at the moment, with so much uncertainty still looming on the horizon, with the impossibility of making month-to-month-plans, but the necessity to live fully our time, I feel a deep serenity in my heart, I have trust in the process, in a destiny even (alright, these are the concepts of my comics rubbing up on me) that I can fulfill if I keep hearing my intuition.

Looking around, I see so many interesting people to interview, so many articles I’ll be blessed to write, so many stories in my heart to translate into drawings onto the page. The beauty of the growth, of a community of people with who I can share a path, super interesting conversations, exciting experiences, dinners, and laughter. When you live fully into things, when you are deeply engaged in your time, but also cultivate non-attachment, you start living things for their full beauty, and everything just feels so aligned. The Kalos Kagathos I have been looking for is here. And without even making such a fuss about it!

For my 2020 in pictures, jump on Gioco di Donne

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