Dans Mon Souvenir, C’était Blanc

by Serena Vittorini

Dans Mon Souvenir C’était Blanc is the new project commissioned by CultuurCentrum Mechelen to photographer Serena Vittorini. Developed in collaboration with the industrial heritage site Bois du Cazier, the work is a multimedia narration exploring histories and memories between Belgium and Italy. The resulting installation comprises of a series of photographs, archival material and a sound piece outlining the story of a fictional character, a miner’s son of Italian immigrants in Belgium after WWII. Through different voices, languages and media, the project addresses issues of mobility and displacement, labour and exploitation, hope and nostalgia, in the present and the past.

The title, Dans Mon Souvenir C’était Blanc, references an interesting case emerged from academic research by Anne Morelli, a Belgian historian of Italian origins specialised in history of religions and minorities. In the interviews she conducted with Italian miners, Morelli noticed certain recurring elements, such as the reminiscence of a snowy landscape upon arrival in Belgium. Her interpretation of these unbelievably consistent accounts is that snow, far from being an actual recollection, was part of the shared imagery of Italian migrants’ experience. Dans Mon Souvenir C’était Blanc reflects exactly on this combination of fact, fiction and feelings that makes up collective and individual memories.

Collective memories of Italian migrants and Vittorini’s intimate childhood flashbacks are merged in a script by writer Alessia Capasso, developed and recorded by sound artist Federico Fontana. The series of pictures shows objects, spaces and territories – suspended between present and past – to which the narrating voice feels emotional attachment. Belgian industrial landscape: unsafe tunnels, shacks and terrils, piles of mineral waste. Italian destitute Arcadia: pastures, villages, fresh milk and lands. Both countries are perceived as mythical geographies through the perspective of a subject in a crisis of belonging.

The pervasiveness of black and white in the photographic series symbolises the reasons behinds migrations, which started in 1946 following an economic agreement between Italian and Belgian government. Italian unemployed and impoverished classes were offered the prospect to work in Belgian mines that were at the time falling into disuse – in exchange Italy would have received much-needed coal for postwar industrialisation. Many Italians left with the perspective of better living conditions and a salary that could have allowed them to afford even salt, a luxury good that they could have never have the means for otherwise. Coal for salt, black for white, oppression in exchange of a mirage of wealth. The 1956 mining disaster of Marcinelle, which ended the coal treaty with Italy, appears like the natural result of industrial capitalism’s exploitation of labour and resources.

Between documentary and fiction, Paul Meyer’s Déjà s’envole la fleur maigre portrayed the reality of postwar migration with a cast of non-professional actors playing a family of Italian miners in the Borinage in 1960s. Similarly, imagination and truth merge in Vittorini’s work, which is at the same time autofiction and a spurious account on historical events. Dans Mon Souvenir C’était Blanc invites to reflect on autobiography and historiography as instruments for the representation of complex realities made up of individual perspectives and collective conditioning, human concerns and sociopolitical narratives, memory and history.