In September 2009, Simon Jung and Paul & Hanno Schweizer painted a songbird over 4 storeys of a building in Naples, known throughout Italy as a stronghold for drug dealing. In this text the three artists describe the situation in Naples’s “problem area”, how they gained access to the neighbourhood and made contact with its inhabitants and what prompted them to undertake their project “Goldfinch”.
Naples, capital of the province of Campania, is faced with the same problems as many other areas in Southern Italy: corruption and the prevalence of mafia-like structures characterise economics and politics while society is plagued by high unemployment. No improvement is in sight: government and EU subsidies trickle away or are wasted on absurd building projects.
It would be difficult to find another area where these complex problems are more manifest than in Scampia. The neighbourhood was built from the 1970s to 1990s on the northern outskirts of Naples. 62,000 people are registered as residents of Scampia’s 4 square kilometres; 50-75% of the working population are unemployed.
Ever since Roberto Saviano’s book “Gomorra” became a bestseller and was filmed by Matteo Garrone, this neighbourhood has become famous in Italy and beyond as a gigantic drug market and scene of untold violent crimes. The lack of legal employment forces adolescents and young men to earn their money as look-outs or drug couriers. Many of them end up imprisoned or shot dead before they come of age.
Over the years one particular building complex in the heart of Scampia became a symbol of malevita, violent crime and drug dealing in Southern Italy. Anyone who has the means to do so, moves away from these high-rise blocks, known as vele (sails) because of their triangular shape.
Prejudice against Scampia and its stigmatisation by the media render it almost impossible for the residents of this neighbourhood to gain meaningful education and employment or to have any kind of social contact with residents of other neighbourhoods. Those living in the vele suffer greatly from the feeling of exclusion and shame.
It was in May 2009 that Paul went to Naples to work for an organisation called “chi rom e chi no” which has been engaged in youth work in Scampia for many years. This is what he wrote about his experiences: “What fascinated me most about Scampia, right from the beginning, were the people, especially the children. I was shocked to hear what many of them had experienced. A nine-year old boy told me that his cousins were in prison, his father and brother had been shot dead: he described the blood running out of the many bullet wounds in their bodies and heads. He thought it was all because of drugs. Even though drugs were poisonous, people were prepared to kill each other because of them.
However, in spite of the difficult conditions in which they live and the horrifying things some of them have experienced, they are normal children: they want to have fun, romp around and play football. So I played football with them and accompanied them around the neighbourhood to learn more about their everyday life. When we got to know each other better, they invited me into their homes and introduced me to their relatives. This is how I came to know more about the people and areas of Scampia.
Angelo, a fourteen-year old boy, showed me the vele: all the apartments on the top floors had been abandoned. In many cases there were no staircases, which would have enabled people to enter the apartments. These had been removed by the municipal council to prevent new people from moving into the vele which were scheduled to be demolished in a few years. The apartments which were accessible tell a myriad of stories. There are heaps of rubbish, toys covered in dust, upturned furniture and used syringes all over the place. There are the occasional posters on walls which show idols or patron saints of the former residents. Clothes are still hanging in some of the wardrobes, while kilos of pasta and tinned tomatoes are still stored in the kitchens. The people who lived here seem to have left their homes in a great hurry. Bullet holes are visible in many doors and windows. Stairwells have been bricked in to prevent police intrusion. Water drips from leaking pipes down to the underground garage. The dripping sounds mingle with the shouts of mothers from both wings of the vele, summoning their children at mealtimes, creating eerie sound effects which emphasise the feeling of unease you have when you enter the vele.
No other place in Scampia fascinates me like the vele. It’s these buildings that tell the tragic story of the whole region. I started painting with the children in the vele.”
In August 2009 Paul returned to Naples with Hanno and Simon. “For two weeks we painted every day in the vele, in the stairwells, the empty apartments and on the balconies. When we appeared with our buckets of paints, brushes and spray cans, children came running to us, asking if we would paint something on their storey, in their stairwell or on their balconies. An idea was born: the wish to paint a picture for everyone to see, even those who did not live in the vele – something for the whole of Scampia.”
The cardillo (goldfinch) is a bird which plays an important role in Neapolitan culture, in music, literature and films. Normally the cardillo is seen in a small cage, seldom in flight. Because of its beautiful song, the goldfinch’s cage is often placed next to a child’s cot for the bird to sing the child to sleep. Although protected by law, the cardillo is a highly prized bird and is often hunted down in its natural environment and sold on the black market.
“We decided to paint a large-scale picture of this bird on the vela celeste (sky-blue sail), using weatherproof colours and spray cans. We chose the façade of this vela because it was visible from afar from Scampia’s large piazza and from the “Mammut”, a cultural centre where workshops, holiday activities and all sorts of advice were offered to the children and adolescents of the neighbourhood.”
“In contrast to the picture of the cardillo in a cage known throughout Naples, the picture of our cardillo shows a bird which is free and flying.
Many of our Italian friends who saw photos of our painting automatically thought that it was a collage. To them it seemed impossible that three Germans who didn’t even speak the Neapolitan dialect had painted a bird four storeys high in one of Italy’s most infamous areas.
But it was possible, and that in itself is a glimmer of light for the inhabitants of Scampia.
Without the support of a large part of the vele community, we would not have been able to complete our bird. They were delighted that we were applying colour to the very building which most of them, given the choice, would move out of immediately. The children in particular showed great interest in our project. We were often told that we had accomplished something that would have been inconceivable a few months earlier.
In order to improve the situation in Scampia, it is important to publicise the fact that there is more to Scampia than the neighbourhood portrayed in “Gomorra”. In actual fact, it is possible to realise ideas in Scampia which have the potential to change something. Our experiences showed us how gratefully the local community react to positive stimuli and how friendly their reactions are towards those who encounter them without prejudice. We would like to share these experiences with others in an attempt to improve living conditions for the people of Scampia. We believe that this can only happen through a symbolic revaluation of their neighbourhood.”
THANX FOR SHARING – Simon, Paul & Hanno
Translation: Carol A. Koller