Naima Morelli

You have to surround yourself with Extraordinary Men

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Do you remember MSN? That fairly basic chat you used to spend hours on, chatting with your faraway summer friends during winter? Ten years ago MSN was one the first ways to keep all your “contacts” together.
Back then, my friend Enrico was very big on “contacts”. He was – and still is – a very friendly person who is comfortable with pretty much everyone. When he was thirteen the idea of having all his friends in one single place was to him the most exciting thing ever – right after Harry Potter I suppose. As for me, I used to considered other people being an annoyance most of the times – fictional people like Harry Potter included – so the fact that he was bragging about the number of his MSN’s contacts sounded funny to me. Fast forward to the Facebook era, my friend’s account is bursting at the seams, and so he periodically purges it – only to repent short time after and re-add his unfriended ones.

Today as a grown up girl I finally understand the importance of other people. I gave up my antisocial punk attitude and I started to appreciate talking and exchanging ideas with people big time. If I have to spot a precise time I decided cut on my misanthropy, I would say when I first encountered the Roman art world. At nineteen I was going to plenty of vernissages, often with my two best mates – “compagni d’arte” – and we were wondering about why all those caryatids, err, older people, didn’t want to talk with us. If you are not familiar with art openings in Italy, you should know that you seldom see younger people there. This was far from bothering me. I figured I just had to be more stylish, so I started wearing a little black dress, red lipstick and the right amount of boldness.

One day at RAM, an important Roman gallery, I decided to socialize with a sympathetic-looking old man with a Socratic beard. I decided to start the conversation with: “Sorry, who the hell are you?”
He gently replied: “I’m Bruno Corà!”
Although the name was somehow familiar, I couldn’t associate it with anything. I said, good, I’m Naima Morelli. I’m an arts writer. He asked me what I specifically wrote about. I said well, reviews. We had a short conversation about the exhibition in the other room, and then I headed back home. I turned my computer and I looked up Bruno Corà on the internet. Apparently he was a museum director and one of the most important Italian art critics. Then I remembered that a couple of days earlier I was researching about artist Eliseo Mattiacci, and I read an entire exegesis written by Corà himself. Damn!

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Red lipstick and red shoes aside, I would describe the way I entered the art world as low-key and random. I was simply going to all the exhibitions I managed to see, and I would review them for whoever won’t censor my style – which at the times clearly steered away from the critiquese standard Italian magazines are used to. Yet, as unconventional as my style could have been, it still was mono-directional. As in: see something, give your opinion about it. Full stop. The idea of interviewing artists occurred to me much later. When I started I found it to be addictive. Realizing an interview it’s so much fun! It basically gives me the excuse to go around asking questions. What’s better than that for a curious person? Interviewing people enlarge my perspective on the world while creating a connection with another human being.

If Corà would have asked me now what I’m specifically writing about, I could have gave him a much clearer answer. With my research in Indonesia and Australia, I now have a more precise scope. I would define it cross-cultural issues in contemporary art.
I guess to Australians and Indonesians I represent the Italian art world – I’m sure Corà would have been perplexed about that – whereas to Italians I represent a bridge with the Australian and Indonesian art world. That puts me in a particular position which I enjoy a lot. It’s great to live in-between words. I remember fashion blogger Chiara Ferragni ( I bet you’ll never find Bruno Corà and The Blonde Salad’s founder in the same article again) based between Milan and LA, saying that Italians just love when she shoots in American locations. On the other hand an Instagram pic of plate of pasta would drive Americans crazy.
The “faraway” definitely has its charm. Mind you, this charm has not to be confused with exoticism, which is based on stereotypes indeed. The charm of the faraway is positive when the aim is get rid of stereotypes and promote a cultural exchange.

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Everybody knows we became the people we hang out with. That goes for your friend and that goes also for your work. If you are looking up you now, you better lower your stare, you are looking the wrong direction. There is an old saying “It’s more important who you know rather than what you know”. That seems to imply a mentality for which you need a strong friendship or fidelity bond with a big name, someone way above you, in order to access to opportunities and professional support.

That in Italy translates often with the idea of the “Portaborse”. Portaborse is a nickname for people working for authoritative or influential politicians in order to obtain favours or benefits in return. Their overly obsequious and servile attitude is identified with the gesture of carrying the politician’s bag. I think that idea goes back to ancient Rome. Back then influential families used to have “clients”. The relationship between patronus and client was hierarchical, but obligations were mutual. The patronus was the protector, sponsor, and benefactor of the client.

Now, for the majority of artists throughout the years that relationship has been in most cases not servile at all. All artists need a Maecenas. The widespread idea though is that you should have a privileged relationship with just one single person or a couple of people, and if you’re faithful enough to them, he or she is going to bring you far.
This odious idea has been very common for a very long time. It still holds true, especially in conservative societies, but we are starting to see its decline. The “strong ties” – as Harvard’s scholar Mark Granovetter put it – are becoming less and less important. In traditional countries like Italy, where the family is the base unit, it’s certainly harder to get rid of the idea of exclusive relationship. In other countries like America or Australia “weak ties” are definitely prevalent and effective.

So what’s with these weak ties? Well, weak ties are infrequent, casual and non-reciprocal interactions that often allows us to access to social contexts far from ours, where there is a circulation of information and opportunities different from the one we are used to.
It’s pretty clear that social media have amplified this phenomena. Through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or whatever social media will be cool next week, you can easily keep track of what that person that you met one time at that vernissage is doing. Maybe one day lazily scrolling your feed not feeling like working, you’ll find she’s doing something very close to your research. You can then drop her a mail and connect. As much as I’m not a social media enthusiast, I have to admit they are much better than the old business cards you are going to lost in the depth of your bag, and definitely better than MSN for that matter.
Mr. Granovetter would agree, in fact according to his research of what really makes a career progress is a vast number of weak relationships. It’s this diverse bunch that allows us to interact at the level we want and help us find ideas, information, inspiration and support. Moreover, it’s mostly formed by our peers. Cya patronus, welcome network!

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In this concept of an horizontal network I have personally found great differences between Italy and Australia. You can see that from the art school already. Places like VCA, the Victorian College of Arts in Melbourne, are the fertile ground for a number of connections among peers. Sure, you do make friend with your professor, but most of all you count on your schoolmates. They are the ones going to your show, just as much you are going to see their show.

What I have seen in Rome’s art academy are professor’s boy (or girls) completely giving up on their own identity to metaphorically carry the professor’s bag – more often than not ignoring what their course mates are doing (generally smoking pot in the courtyard but whatever! you get my point).
These professor boys are obviously criticized, but as I see it they are just implementing a survival strategy. In an art world made and composed by old people only, you are pushed into thinking you need to someone’s protégée in order to have access. Well, here’s the news. These old people are going to age and rotten, while a new generation is going to take them over. The times are a-changing my friend. So it’s ok to bound with the previous generation, but it’s definitely more important to create ties with your peers.
That doesn’t mean you have to be best pal, hanging over arm in arm every night. It’s ok to leave these relationship as “weak ties”.
An invaluable benefit in leaving them in that way, is that the interest aroused in people is not based on your brilliancy – fuck that – but more on what you are actually doing and how your work can benefit a project or other people.

As you imagine, a professional life all about weak ties would be utterly boring – especially in cases where professional life and normal life are kinda the same thing, like when you own your own business or a freelancer. Everyone should have their inner circle.
In this respect, I have to quote a piece of advice my painting professor at the art academy gave me: “You have to surround yourself with extraordinary men”. Although I don’t think that he knew who Alan Moore is – he was right. You should work to create your own league of extraordinary gentlemen. Of course, nowadays it’s unlikely Simone De Beauvoir, Sartre, Camus and Genet would find themselves sipping latte at the Cafè Flore by chance, or that Joyce, Hemingway and Fitzgerald so happen to sit together at that Parisian pub, or that Colette and Martha Gellhorn would share the same lover.
Today the world is bigger and full on small cultural centres, rather than having one single shining Paris. At the same time, even those people from the past we look at thinking “that’s a freaking Marvel crossover” were not entirely playing on chance. The desire to expose themselves to their peers, people good in their same field or other fields, was definitely intentional.
To be good at something doesn’t mean to be famous of course. I have friends I value a lot, who just don’t care about having their name out there. At the same time, they may be profoundly sensitive and having an amazing taste in music. Every time we chat I come home with a new perspective, a valuable suggestion or, in the case of the specific friend I’m referring to, an awesome line he came up with that I would include in my next comic book.

To wrap up, I would say: number one forget clientelism. It’s good to have a mentor or maecenas, but you don’t have to carry anybody bag. Number two: be sure to create a network of weak ties. You do that by going around, being curious about other people, asking questions, not underestimating the power of a one-time chat and also use social media productively. In the process of course, don’t let down your homies. Friends are friends. Then, if they insist of wanting to go to clubs with crappy electronic music when you have to wake up the next morning to work on your dream, then to hell with them! But you get my point.
Number three, actively search for your extraordinary men, these people that will be able to challenge you on regular basis, expand your way of thinking, giving you new perspectives, support, ideas and the good kind of peer pressure. In short, create your league of extraordinary gentlemen and feed each other’s superpowers.

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All pics from Gioco di Donne