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Manifesta Biennial – Palermo, Sicily

As a member of the Director’s Circle at Modern Art Oxford, I am frequently given the opportunity to experience the sheer eclectic diversity of contemporary art, from exhibitions and events in Oxford and regional galleries, to international exhibitions.

A recent supporters trip took us to the host city of 2018’s Manifesta12 European Nomadic Biennial, Palermo, Sicily’s magnificent capital and one of the most culturally rich regions of the world.

Manifesta purposely strives to keep its distance from what are often dominant centres of artistic production, instead seeking fresh and fertile terrain for the mapping of a new cultural topography. Each Manifesta Biennial aims to investigate and reflect upon emerging developments in contemporary art, within a European context.

The region of Sicily was an appropriate choice to play host to 2018’s Manifesta. Its size and strategic location at the crossroads of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, have led to a multi-layered and deeply condensed history, with the present day being no exception as it sits at the centre of the ongoing refugee crisis. This city’s differentiating culture and history provided representation of two important themes that have come to identify contemporary Europe: migration and climate change and the impact of these on our cities.

The Manifesta is significant as it allows access for the public to buildings that would else remain empty or abandoned. This presents an opportunity to enjoy architecture that would have otherwise remained unseen.

“Manifesta12 in Palermo is a great challenge to rethink how far cultural interventions can play a role in helping re-shape one of the most iconic Mediterranean crossroads in our history…”.

“The city’s migration problems are symbolic of the far wider crisis situation, which the whole of Europe is facing right now” – Hedwig Fijen, Manifesta Director.

Among the numerous highlights during my four days in Palermo, I think one in particular best represented the challenges that Manifesta12 aimed to highlight. This was Patricia Kaersenhout’s ‘The Soul of Salt’.

An interactive installation, a 7500-kilo mountain of salt harvested from the sea was placed in the Palazzo Forcella De Seta a palace of glittering Arab-Norman inspired mosaics. Based on the legend of the ‘Flying African’, slaves were said to avoid eating salt so as to become light enough to fly back to Africa. “It expresses the ability of people to flee in their imagination, which comes from the desire for freedom” - via Manifesta.org.

This installation links those taken across the ocean in the past with the current refugee crisis and Sicily’s own complicated history.

I look forward to attending the next event in two years time. Manifesta13 wil be held in Marseille, November 2020.

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