Working the Black Mediterranean

This somewhat longer post involves a reflection on a number of meetings I’ve had over the last months with African refugees in the city of Bologna, while preparing research on migrant labour and urban marginality. Though these meetings took shape in the context of a travelling theatre project (called City ghettos of today), I am thinking of enlarging my questions into a broader comparative agenda on what some people have started to call, first hesitantly, but ever more publicly and consistently, the Black Mediterranean.

I would like to contribute to this discussion by adding a few, loosely related, ideas around material labour conditions (for more on this dimension see here) as well as emerging hybrid identities in the arena of migrant mobilisations on the Afro-European border (primarily in Italy but also in other places). All of this may result in a research paper later this year.

© Martina Leo

Recently the Black Mediterranean has started to surface as a term to indicate the cultural crossroads between Africa and Europe. Under the radar of often violent and discriminatory migration control regimes, which make the journey between both continents an uneven experience indeed, a hybrid, cross-cultural exchange is visibly taking place. At first timidly, and always characterized by a geography of racial subordination, the Black Mediterranean represents an emerging borderland, a zone of cross-border encounter between people, knowledge and ideas.

The term draws its inspiration from Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic and was coined for the first time by Alessandra di Maio. While talking at a conference called Black Italia at NYU’s Villa La Pietra lectures last year, she says:

“The term focuses on the proximity that exists, and has always existed, between Italy and Africa, separated (…) but also united by the Mediterranean (…) and documented in legends, myths, histories, even in culinary traditions, in visual arts, and religion.”

Pointing to recent critical texts, like for example Andrea Segre’s African trilogy (South of Lampedusa, 2006; Like A Man on Earth, 2008; Green Blood, 2011) and 18 Ius Soli, by Ghanaian-Italian film maker Fred Kuwornu, she points to the growing exchange between Africa and Italy as a result of booming migration, which is marking the contemporary cultural identity not just of Italy but also of other Mediterranean countries.

In a recent contribution for Social Identities, Esther Sánchez-Pardo writes, for example:

“Spain, the historically homogeneous out-migration country is transforming into a site of multicultural interaction as it becomes a destination for members of several Diasporas, many with their own legacies of colonialism and racism.”

Africans in Europe clearly start to develop and active Afro-European (or Afropean) consciousness that uncomfortably sits in the middle between unelaborated colonial memories and new post-colonial struggles.

Di Maio and Sanchez-Pardo indicate a booming postcolonial literature on the northern shores of the Mediterranean, which has been described more in detail for the Italian case by Anna Frabetti.


Interestingly, Frabetti notes, notes, there has been a net difference in Italy between the early 1990s literature –with titles like Io, venditore di elefanti by Pap Khouma, Immigrato by Saleh Methnani, and La promessa di Hamadi by Saidou Moussa Ba– which typically narrated Africans’ postcolonial experience to and through Italians, and the more conscious (auto-)biographies of the 21st century. Books like Regina di fiori e di perle by Gabriella Ghermandi, published in 2007 (which offers the writer’s reinterpretation of Ethiopia’s colonial struggle) and Timira (the biography of the daughter of an Italian fascist general and a Somali mother, written by her son Antar Mohammed Marincola) and Il commandante del fiume (written by Ubah Cristina Ali Farah) more actively try to cast the authors’ personal experiences in the midst of Italy’s problematic coexistence with its former colonies, while directly confronting Italian readers from their own, no doubt marginal, standpoint.

Unknown-1There is a very emotional passage in Ali Farah’s book, which in my opinion indicates this shift very well. It tells the story of Yabar, the son of a Somali military leader (warlord) and his emigrated mother in Rome. Before moving to London, Yabar meets Libaan (a metaphor for Shakespeare’s Caliban?), a young, second generation Somali in the Italian capital, who has somehow lost tracks of his mother (his father abandoned him a college):

“[Libaan] forgot everything he knew, even how he pronounced his name.”

Yabar then helps Libaan to call his mother. He picks up the horn, calls her number in Mogadishu, and pretends to be Libaan:

 “… and I see the words form a line in my head, I feel and I hear all of them, they kick and they take their form just like nuts, and I push with my forehead and my eyes to let them out. The words are hard, they pierce my head… so I again start to push energetically, I feel the words appear in my throat, I can touch their form with my tongue… and I repeat his words ‘hooyo, waa aniga’ and the words ‘mother’, ‘am’ and ‘I’ sound the same in this new language… and I am the mother and the son at the same time. [my translation]

Another surprising evolution has been the development of an African film industry on the Italian peninsula. Since Nigerian Nollywood directors directly started to gain ground across the Mediterranean, they have pioneered a few notable productions, Alessandro Jedlowski writes in this edited collection on postcolonial Italy.

Some of these, like Italian Runs, reduce themselves to simply mentioning the experiences of Nigerian migrants in Italy while being filmed in Nigeria.


Other movies, like Akpegi Boyz or Blinded Devil have been entirely shot in Italy.


With this geographical shift, the drama of these Italian Nollywood movies also slightly changes. Akpegi Boys is more a Nollywood-style gangster movie, with violent characters combating their criminal turf wars while making use of the classic references of the Nollywood genre like soapy love drama and ‘black’ magic. Blinded Devil in contrast has been citied as a form of “guerilla cinema” for its active social realist engagement. The mixed cast includes prominent Italian actors like Pif (maker of la mafia uccide solo d’estate and former journalist of the satirical programme Le Iene) and Vincent Omoigui, the co-founder of GVK productions.

More than a simple crime movie, Blinded Devil analyses the actual construction of illegality as a result of Italian immigration policies while dealing with the often defiant ways in which Nigerian criminals try to bend these discriminatory regulations. In this regard, Jedlowski writes, it is funny to note how Italy’s emerging Nollywood industry really gives a rather original twist to dominant perspectives on marginality and exotism, as Italy is rather placed on the margin of the Nollywood film industry.

Finally, Africa’s presence in Mediterranean Europe increasingly involves a musical journey as well. Reflecting on the recent death of Naples-born musician Pino Daniele, who described himself as nero’ a meta’ (half-black) for his major influence from Afro-American music (a me mi piace o’ blues is one famous song on this album), I went on a search for more examples. One could mention Enzo Avitabile, for example, who played with many African musicians like Africa Bambaata and Mori Kante. One of Pino’s permanent musical companions was James (giamicello) Senese, a son born from a young Italian girl and a black American soldier who came to liberate Naples in 1944. Like Pino, Senese grew up in Naples Sanita’ neighbourhood, balancing his chances in a practically stateless, multicultural micro-society strangled by abject poverty and urban marginality, as James explains in this wonderful interview (in Italian).

Because of this black American influence since World War II, Naples has traditionally been the centre of the Afropean musical and movie scene (with famous movies like Paisa’, featuring Robert Van Loon as Joe, the black American soldier). Fred Kuwornu is currently trying to re-propose a documentary on black presence in the Italian filmographic tradition called Blaxploitalian, which features many other, less known examples. Still in Naples, one cannot forget the enormous inspiration of Raiz, whose band, Almamegretta, not only introduced dub cross-over in the Italian musical scene (they were among few bands who played with Tricky’s Massive Attack) but has had a major influence on Italian rap bands.

Another strand constitutes the merger of traditional, South Italian music with (mainly West) African rhytms and instruments. Rocco De Rosa, for example, has produced several discs combining these different musical traditions (including a long-standing collaboration with Martin Kongo). He organizes a yearly festival in the Sardinian locality Castiadas where he invites West African musicians to share and unite their skills (last year for example it included the Senegalese-Sardinian band Chadal).

Thanks to these cross-over experiments South Italy’s cultural scene has rapidly transformed into a vibrant encounter between cultural traditions situated north and south of the Mediterranean.






2 thoughts on “Working the Black Mediterranean

  1. Pingback: Orientalism and the Black Body | Liminal Geographies

  2. Pingback: Igiaba Scego’s novel ‘Adua’ intertwines Afro-Italy’s historic phases | Africa is a Country

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