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Painting Their Old Life Helps Them Build A New Life In Italy

Benjamin Raphael of Nigeria (left) is a salesman who had never picked up a paint brush before he found asylum in Italy.
Benjamin Raphael of Nigeria (left) is a salesman who had never picked up a paint brush before he found asylum in Italy.

African asylum seekers in Italy are becoming artists — and it's not only helping them cope with the trauma they've been through but also introducing their stories to the local community.

In Europe's migration crisis, Italy is ground zero. More than 500,000 migrants have arrived, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, since 2014.

Despite a smaller flow this summer, anti-migrant sentiment is growing.

But in the Umbrian town of Trevi, population 8,372 as of January 1, a project called Make Art Not Walls is helping asylum seekers assimilate.

Municipal authorities have assigned all of the town's 55 African asylum seekers to a former hotel, where for the last several months, a storeroom in the back has been serving as an artists' studio, funded by the Italian charity ARCI.

The Make Art Not Walls project is the brainchild of a longtime Trevi resident, Australian artist Virginia Ryan. With the help of a few other volunteers, Ryan aims to bring out the human potential and restore dignity to people stranded in limbo.

Making art, she tells migrants, is a form of therapy.

"The same courage that you apply to coming through the Sahara, arriving in Libya, getting on the boats, getting here, that courage can be also employed when you take up a pencil and you have a white sheet of paper and manage to make a mark on that," she says.

Exuberant, brightly colored paintings line the walls of the studio. Large paper drawings have been rolled up around cardboard tubes — giving the impression of humorous totem poles.

Materials like paper, paints and colored pencils are donated by shops and businesses. Recycled materials are in evidence, including the wood panels on which some art is painted.

Most of the art depicts domestic scenes and portraits. But some budding artists have turned their personal dramas into visual stories.

Benjamin Raphael's nine-panel work illustrates his voyage from Nigeria to Italy.
/ Sylvia Poggioli/NPR
Benjamin Raphael's nine-panel work illustrates his voyage from Nigeria to Italy.

One of the most accomplished is a nine-panel series by Benjamin Raphael. Before leaving home on his long voyage out of Nigeria, the 26-year-old salesman had never picked up a paint brush.

Pointing to the first panel — in which a young man with a backpack waves goodbye to an older man, representing his uncle — Raphael says: "This is my voyage, this is the beginning, when I left my country."

The following panels show a few men crammed into bus, then on a motorcycle, and then piled into a truck, their faces covered with scarves for protection against the desert sand as they cross into Libya.

The fifth panel shows terrified, exhausted men held behind bars by criminal gangs.

"If you are not lucky, you might be caught, maybe by police or a group of bad people, the Libyan people that are bad put you in a cage to demand ransom for your release," Raphael says.

After relatives pay a ransom, Raphael explains, the men are packed like sardines into a car trunk and taken to the coast. On the beach, they're told to inflate a rubber dinghy, carry it into the sea, pile in and, in the last panel, sail northward to Europe.

Eight hours after setting to the sea on his own voyage, now committed to canvas, Raphael and his mates were rescued by the Italian Coast Guard. It took him eight months to paint these memories of his voyage.

"It was hard, very painful," he says of depicting the journey in art. But, he says "Virginia told me 'You have to create something for yourself, have to be effective, do something.' That is how it came about."

Zacob Camara of Guinea with his Chagall-like depiction of an "African hero."
/ Sylvia Poggioli/NPR
Zacob Camara of Guinea with his Chagall-like depiction of an "African hero."

In Guinea, Zacob Camara, 29, worked as a mason. His art in the studio depicts colonialism's effect on his homeland.

"We have heroes, people who fought for our liberation," Camara says.

He points to his whimsical painting: a man in white on horseback, floating above a yellow desert, two half-moon crescents in the starry sky. It could be a Chagall — transplanted to Africa.

Camara's painting is an attempt to show that during Colonial times, oppressed Africa and Africans had their own heroes — freedom fighters. His painting, he says, is a "positive" response to the harm caused by colonialism.

While organizers says they don't have a record of how many locals have seen the art works, about 200 townspeople attended a showing of a documentary on the project called The Art Of Migration at a large church in Trevi on September 16.

Federica di Marco, one of Trevi's residents, says the migrants have given as much to her as she has to them. She's been teaching some of the refugees Italian.

"It's been emotionally draining," she says. "I've connected with their stories, their voyage, their suffering, you live through it all. It's been a very significant experience for me."

According to Italian law, migrants cannot work while seeking asylum. With no control over their future, the Trevi migrants are grateful for the opportunity to do something with their time and learn new skills.

And who knows, maybe one of them will emerge as the Matisse or Chagall of this African diaspora.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.