Dior’s Cruise 2021 collection was unveiled with a spectacular performance of dance and music, but even more striking was the show’s bright and ethereal scenery. Multidisciplinary artist and activist Marinella Senatore collaborated with the house of Fratelli Parisi to design an empowering light installation as the show’s backdrop.
The design embellished the Baroque architecture of Lecce, Italy, and incorporated inspiring feminist manifesto phrases like ‘Be a builder of unguilt’ and ‘The time for equality is now.’ Today, we discuss the role of art in activism with Marinella, whose work spans over two decades, and the significance of creating an experience for the Maison Dior that was “not just fashion like people often think, but something more.”
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Your work possesses key political elements, with specifically feminist messaging. What inspires you to use art in such a political and somewhat radical manner? Have you always viewed art as a mechanism for political change?
Since 2006, I’ve worked in the field of visual arts, and from the beginning, I was very interested in feminist and contemporary systems. My practice focuses especially on participation and the involvement of entire communities, so I like to see art as a vehicle for potential transformation of social structures.
In the light installation for Dior’s Cruise 2021 collection, I included traditional structures like luminary lighting but also – as I do usually – sentences and quotes. Some of these are mine, another one is by Carla Lonzi, a very important Italian feminist theorist, and others come from the streets – from people, from riots, strikes or other street gatherings. I collect these short sentences because I think they enable people to join each other, join the community, believe in their capacity, and build an idea of a possible community for the future. So, the base of all these sentences that we are mentioning is the empowerment of people.
Are there any other political ideologies or human rights movements that you believe should be highlighted through artistic expression? Have you done any previous work to feature these movements, or are you planning any for the future?
I am an artist but also an activist. Since the very, very beginning of my work, I started collaborating with big organisations like Black Lives Matter. I worked with and interviewed former Black Panthers and other activist movements, especially in the United States, where I’m very prolific as an activist because my main focus is to fight white supremacy. But recently, I made a collaboration with Pussy Riot as well about censorship. So, in general, activism is part of my life, and it’s also my way of seeing the world, so the idea that especially minorities can be highlighted through artistic processes is very important, for sure.
In 2013, you founded The School of Narrative Dance, a nomadic and multidisciplinary school which emphasises non-hierarchal learning, and teaches both amateurs and professionals free of charge. What prompted you to create such a new and innovative method of teaching the arts? Can you elaborate on the school’s teaching methods?
I’m very influenced by Jacques Rancière’s theories from his book The Ignorant Schoolmaster regarding the emancipation of the student from the master, teacher or professor. And I strongly believe in a horizontal system of education, which is very difficult to put in practice, but in my opinion, is the future of didactic processes. So, whenever I have the chance to be a visiting professor at universities around the world, or by creating new models myself and experimenting with being in the comfort zone of art, I try to put this into practice.
The School of Narrative Dance was a big need, the need to create some sort of container, an umbrella under which people could meet and feel like they were a part of something. When Zygmunt Bauman says the word community feels good, and that a sense of belonging is very important in this liquid society, it is exactly what I feel and what I experience. Since 2006, I have worked with over six million people around the world, so I have a very wide landscape of humanity in front of my eyes, and I can tell you that loneliness and lack of belonging are possibly the biggest issues that participants always refer to me.
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That’s actually quite sad…
That’s why participatory and community-based workshops have been asked for and required in these past years, because through artistic practices you can give a response to this lack of belonging, or at least suggest a new vision for creating bonds amongst people. So, the School of Narrative Dance is firstly a didactic process where students and teachers can be the same person; no skill required, no academic background. Every time we go to a different location, the dance is the last step but also the most important part of the workshops since it is led by local people, people who society sometimes defines as losers – unemployed, illiterate, etc. –; all these people who are not set in an official circulation of information because they’re considered not enough and are not represented.
These types of people join the school incredibly often and tell their story, but they also foster processes of learning, dignity and empowerment within the more secure framework of an artistic process, where they don’t have the anxiety of failure, don’t feel criticised, or unapproved by society. So, art in this way can be a comfort zone for people to make things happen.
Your artistic installation for Dior’s Cruise 2021 collection featured around thirty thousand mesmerising coloured bulbs which lit up Lecce, Italy, and you collaborated with the house of Fratelli Parisi to create this installation. How did this collaboration allow you to truly capture elements of Italian culture within the design, whilst maintaining a contemporary air?
I worked with ‘luminarie,’ a specific tradition from the south of Italy, to create these big lighting structures. You can still find this in the area when there is a saint, holiday or other occasions (religious or not), celebrations or festivities, where these structures suddenly appear on the street. And it’s something far more intense than Christmas lights. It actually has a completely different meaning – a social meaning.
Luminarie are usually built for the celebration of religious festivities, but also for celebrations of community. They are like ethereal architectural structures that can build the idea of a plaza even when this plaza doesn’t exist. They can create environments for people to gather, exchange, meet, etc. This is the main concept that attracted me in 2017 when I started working with luminarie. I tried to find out where local families still hand made these structures based on drawings because we are going to lose all these skills, and the tradition is going to disappear and lose its incredible legacy because of competing industries or even lack of memory. So, it wasn’t just for Dior that I started working with Fratelli Parisi and luminarie.
“Maria Grazia was very in tune with the idea of involving local artisan crafts, especially in the traditional elements – music, textile but also the environment.”
So how did you adapt this popular practice for a fashion show?
Maria Grazia was very in tune with the idea of involving local artisan crafts, especially in the traditional elements – music, textile but also the environment. She invited me, first of all, because this idea of community and imagining a new structure of coexistence were already at the base of my practice. And then, we decided to work with Fratelli Parisi because they had made several museum exhibitions.
This is a family-run business, and you can still count on their legacy, skills, abilities, and luckily, they are very close to Lecce, where the show was filmed. So it was extremely current for us to invite them to join the project to highlight the luminarie itself and also to create a magic space for Dior, a space where the atmosphere was already a bit surreal, where the clothes could be displayed, of course, but also the specific dance and music of Puglia, a region that is dear to Maria Grazia for family reasons.
I like that you speak about magic and surrealism. Could you expand more on that?
I tried to create this magical place, and everything we decided to use was to empower the tradition but also to look at it as a way to activate a new aesthetic. Luminarie is very conventional and classic (it mainly uses light bulbs), whereas the sentences use a contemporary flex-tube, which didn’t exist in the past. So, aesthetically, they are very different.
The meaning is different as well because you have this traditional environment of festivity and then you have these feminist, empowering sentences. This created a flow of energy that was highly interesting for us. All the narratives – fashion, music and dance – overlap with Lecce’s Baroque architecture to create this magical atmosphere. I think that tradition has a great meaning if considered as something that can activate new processes.
The reveal of Dior’s Cruise 2021 collection show took place in the midst of the global Covid-19 pandemic, and as a result, there was no physical audience present (apart from interested onlookers on Lecce’s streets). How did you find this unique experience of working on a fashion show set in the midst of such an unprecedented and unfamiliar situation?
It was a very serious commitment that we took with local artists and craftsmen. We tried in every way possible not to cancel the show, not only because the idea was super beautiful and Dior was very happy with it but even more for the dignity of the people involved. During lockdown, which was such a tough moment for the entirety of humanity because suddenly this pandemic was everywhere, we decided to embrace all the difficulties and keep on. So, of course, with all the safety measures possible in place, all the people involved decided to go ahead, being flexible and changing the project a lot from its initial idea.
Dior held its commitment with so many artists, people who could have lost their job because of the economic crisis, which is especially huge in places like the south of Italy. Unexpectedly, it was even more beautiful than we thought it would be at the beginning. People understood why we couldn’t make this open to the public, but the citizens of Lecce showed big dignity and love for their city and were so proud to be hosts of Dior, of such beauty, and of this incredible international interest. All these things are empowering, which was exactly our goal. It was a celebration of people, which was the main concept behind the commitment that we took.
Your light installation features an array of different manifesto phrases that evoke feminist empowerment, such as ‘We rise by lifting others.’ Do any of these phrases hold personal meaning for you? How did you decide what phrases to feature in the design?
Since the beginning, the project should have been far bigger, involving lots of people and covering almost the entire city. So, there were many more sentences – the selection was very wide. But then, when we faced reality and the need to stay only in the cathedral square, we decided to make a very strong selection. We picked sentences that could speak to everybody – male, female, minorities… Different genders and cultures. So, of course, there are very honest feminist slogans like ‘The difference between woman and man is the absence throughout history,’ but there are also other phrases like ‘We rise by lifting others’ or ‘You are enough. Breathe’ that are more universal. We wanted to show strength and dignity but not only that of women because we wanted to represent other groups.
There is one phrase that is very dear to me: ‘Remember the first time you saw your name.’ This is my own sentence, and it’s based on my study of post-colonial and colonial times, where a lot of people (but mostly women) in Africa and South Africa were obliged to change their names in order to make them easier for white people to pronounce.
Our name is such an important thing for our identity, and this post-colonial time can teach us how big the repression is, especially for women, that occurs when there is a lack of equality. We start thinking about ourselves and our identity by looking at our name, and the first time we are able to read or write it is so powerful. So, this phrase is very poetic, but it’s also connected to women’s struggles and post-colonial issues. It’s very dear to me because I work a lot on this topic, and I am also very interested in poetry. Like a lot of feminists, I think poetry can be an incredible vehicle for communication, empowerment and the emancipation of women, so it can be a very useful tool for revolution and resistance.
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The Dior Cruise 2021 collection was predominantly influenced by the culture, traditions and architecture of the Italian region of Puglia, where the show took place. How did the region’s unique charm influence your design of the spellbinding light installation?
My background is actually pretty multifaceted because I studied art, classical music and cinema. So, as a director, photographer and camera operator at the time when I worked in film, I had a very clear mindset that light was extremely important for narration, for filling and creating atmospheres. As a student of art history, of ancient monuments and creative masterpieces, I’ve always loved Baroque architecture, but especially that which is not so overcharged. Puglia’s architecture is very minimal and clean. So, to me, architectural lines are extremely important, and for a long time, I observed how they and the volume were before designing my structure. I didn’t want them to overlap in an abusive way; I wanted to create a dialogue with the preexisting architecture.
Actually, the big, circular part of the luminarie reproduces the oval windows that you find in churches built during Baroque times. This element on a bigger scale was proposed as the main focus of the entire structure. The big circular element that is exactly in front of the entrance of the cathedral is the main focus where the models stop and get photographed. So we can see this background everywhere – on the media and in the film –, and this is a bigger scale reproduction of a façade of a typical Baroque church, following the tradition of the south of Italy.
It seems like you must find a balance between the preexisting buildings and the luminarie installation. How do you achieve that?
When you create luminarie, you can completely destroy the ‘real’ architecture because you cover everything; you no longer see it. On another hand, you can be very fragile compared to the real monument. In our case, we tried the middle way to create a dialogue with the structure and enhance certain details, which are not so big really – for instance, the circular elements. But we didn’t cover the entire architecture.
If you look at the height of the lighting elements, they aren’t extremely high to avoid covering the buildings around. This is very important because we instigate a dialogue between two different languages instead of an intrusion. When we talk about lighting installations, we talk about architecture in a new way, and then you have another layer, which is the architecture of the real Baroque, the real monument. We wanted to create a dialogue between these two ideas of architecture – the ethereal and the permanent.
You have a background in multiple disciplines, including fine art, music and film. Did you have any involvement in the ritual music and dance elements of the show? What was your interpretation of the meaning behind these elements when watching the display yourself?
As I said, the initial idea was far bigger and involved a lot of other streets. It was considered this big festivity for the people. In this case, the project was not to reduce it but to change it in order to make something significant even in a different size, due to all the restrictions.
In this case, I didn’t have any direct role in the music or dance. Usually, in my work, I do because I create bigger performances on the street with thousands of performers, mixing a lot of different languages. So, of course, I was aware of what was going on and what Maria Grazia wanted, so I tried to create the best environment for other narratives, like the choreography of Tarantella, which is a typical dance from the area of Puglia, and the music, which was created and composed for this show, which I appreciated as a musician myself.
I wanted to make a space for the musicians alone, which I did by creating this magic, smaller box in the very centre of the plaza, something that worked well for acoustics but also as very dreamy imagery. And then, I wanted to create a space and some elements for dancers to play with. So, I held very clearly in my mind that my set would be extremely important for other artists to create their own pieces.
“Like a lot of feminists, I think poetry can be an incredible vehicle for communication, empowerment and the emancipation of women, so it can be a very useful tool for revolution and resistance.”
Dior’s creative director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, has specifically been looking to highlight feminist artists in recent shows as well in podcasts, yourself being one such artist. Do you believe it is important to specifically showcase feminist creatives, and why?
Sadly, there is still inequality in this world. I am 43 years old, I have worked in over fifteen countries around the world, and I always face discrimination. Even in contemporary art, as a woman, you have to do more, always more. You are still asked if you are pregnant or intend to get pregnant. This kind of humiliation is not part of the male world, and whilst every single woman is being asked about this or discriminated against, it is urgent to showcase more female works. This is because there is no equality between male and female in general, or even for LGBTQ+ groups. There are a lot of misunderstandings and prejudices, and we have to fight for everybody and not only for us.
Sisterhood is something very important, and I appreciate a lot that Maria Grazia is in tune with this because she strongly believes that sisterhood presents a chance for us to be stronger. It is very sad that in 2020 we are still talking about these topics, still quoting great feminists from the ‘70s, and in certain countries, we are still talking about abortion as a right or maternity rights. We are still on the same page, which is very humiliating and absolutely dangerous for the next generation.
I think everybody has a role in society, artists included, and we have to speak in any way we can. If we pretend that this is not true or not happening, then we end up with the statistics that a male and a female painter are not paid the same. This is just artwork, so imagine what happens in multinational companies or in academic environments. I often was erased in academic environments, but this doesn’t happen to men, so something must change – and very soon. But this is tragic. And I think that everybody – fashion, visual arts, music, factories – with the voices that we have, which are sometimes small but others very powerful, especially if you can use media, we all have the responsibility to make something or at least to speak out.
Whilst we are discussing feminist creatives, are there any other notable feminist artists who inspire you or your work?
Suzanne Lacy, who is an artist but also a professor, and Carla Lonzi for sure. But there are so many! I am also very inspired by everyday life and by strong women who try to make it through life. Maybe they are single women who try to raise children and manage jobs without any help from their former husbands. Or the women I work with in a special centre, who were abused or were in a situation of domestic violence. These kinds of women empower me a lot and make me feel that there is so much to do. They are the best teachers for me.
I could tell you a lot of names, but at the end of the day, it’s the women you find on the street who really inspire me, and the communication with the people that maybe aren’t academic but they lead the struggles every day. They go to the street and they say no to certain things. This courage is what really inspires me.
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