What narratives can music tell about migration and identity?

by Valentina Orrù


Black Med is a project by Invernomuto, the collaborative practice of visual artists and musicians Simone Bertuzzi and Simone Trabucchi, and one of the most interesting projects at Manifesta 12: The Planetary Garden in Palermo, Sicily. It consists of a series of talks and listening sessions along with bi-weekly online commissions of music mixes – involving visual artists, musicians and academics throughout the duration of the biennial, from June to November 2018.

The project takes its name from ‘Black Mediterranean’, a term developed by scholar Alessandra Di Maio, which, drawing from Paul Gilroy’s ‘Black Atlantic’, reflects on the key influences that Africa has had on the development of Europe. The Mediterranean Sea (from Latin ‘mid’ ‘terrain’, in the middle of land) – now the site of a humanitarian crisis and political battle – has historically been a complex entity where exchange, fight, colonisation, resistance, life and death all happen. It separates but also unites territories: Africa and Europe.

Music traces the hidden or forgotten (or never understood), yet alive and intertwined narratives of the Mediterranean. And it does so by, “like the sea[,] resist [ing] representation”[1] and offering many different meanings to words such as culture and identity. Black Med has been translating the complexity of Black Mediterranean through the language of sound and video, while at the same time making space and time for imagination, exchange, and reflection, both offline and online.

Invernomuto, Black Med, video still, courtesy of the artists and Pinksummer, Genova (4)
Invernomuto, Black Med, video still. Courtesy of the artists and Pinksummer, Genova

The Black Med talks and listening sessions have been taking place at Teatro Garibaldi in Palermo. This city, at the centre of the Mediterranean, can be described as a materialised form of Black Mediterranean. Each event has involved guest contributors and a DJ set-performance by Invernomuto, in response to one of the three curatorial themes of Manifesta.

Attending the opening episode Black Med #1, in June, was an evocative experience. The event was around the theme ‘Borderless’ and featured a talk with scholars Alessandra Di Maio and Iain Chambers. ‘Black Athena’, a song by the Italian band Almamegretta, opened the session followed by the presentations of Di Maio and Chambers, who drew together the theoretical framework not just of the event itself but of the whole project. It wasn’t obvious to know what to expect from the listening session, which kicked off with a track by Amsterdam-based/Egyptian artist Kareem Lotfy ‘Fr3sh’. It was pretty singular and refreshing how then all the songs that followed added a different layer to the multifaceted meanings of ‘Borderless’ in relation to Black Mediterranean.

Instead, Black Med #2 last month, in response to ‘Accountable Networks’, presented a contribution in a different format: a 35-min long radio show podcast hosted by artist and writer Jace Clayton/DJ Rupture about the links between alternative technologies and sound in North Africa; followed by a compelling series of field recordings, made with the phone and commissioned to musicians in the refugee camp of Lesbos in Greece. The show opened with ‘Lampedusa’ by Berlin-based/Sierra Leone-born musician Lamin Fofana, a song that hardly keeps you still in your seat. To confirm Invernomuto’s rigorous approach to research and ability to trace connections, the listening session then explored different aspects of networks exposing you to new perspectives on the topic. For example, it was particularly mind-blowing to think about the poetic of something like the Nigerian ‘419’ scams.

Indeed, what both talks and listening sessions have been doing so well is to bring theoretical and poetic dimensions together with sound. Although simple in their form, the listening sessions by Invernomuto are not just DJ sets but elaborate experiments of lecture-performance. The music is accompanied by a presentation of slides, a text for each track, alternate with evocative titles, to suggest possible imaginaries. The texts provide the audience with background information about the songs, the musicians, the albums and the genres, while also producing a narrative of the sound and connecting everybody’s subjective experience of the set to the overarching theme. What has been surprising is how this format has provoked multiple reactions from the audience: people have been listening, reading, dancing, or all of these together. The subjective and collective values embedded in these actions are recurrent dimensions in Black Med and what makes the project so interesting.

Invernomuto, Black Med, video still, courtesy of the artists and Pinksummer, Genova (1)
Invernomuto, Black Med, video still. Courtesy of the artists and Pinksummer, Genova

Since June, it has been a fun journey to follow blackmed.invernomuto.info. The online platform has been hosting video loops by Invernomuto and music mixes commissioned to musicians, visual artists, and academics that, alternating every two weeks, have been responding to Black Mediterranean. The results are fluid combinations of visual and sound narratives that open up to possibilities rather than fixing any images. The video loops have included blurred images of urban landscape, dreamlike portraits of a place, a fictional character, an unrecognisable symbol, a muted object of tradition and so on. While these poetic narratives feed our imagination, they also challenge mainstream references to the Mediterranean, migrant, migration, European city and African country. So far music mixes have involved Kareem Lotfy, Lamin Fofana, British writer and academic Paul Gilroy, Ghana-born Dj Ryna, Italian DJ and one of the precursors of Cosmic Disco Daniele Baldelli, Berlin-based Greek musician and founder of the multi-disciplinary label PAN Bill Kouligas and many more.

The platform has been an essential part of the project and a place for experimentation. It has been increasing the opportunity to engage with the project for a larger audience: like with the listening session, through the concept of Black Mediterranean, exploring and collapsing into one both personal and collective spheres. Music mixes are expressions of individuality and at the same time an act of sharing with someone and/or many. This way, they are and have been important for the musical self-education and experience of many.

Invernomuto, Black Med, video still, courtesy of the artists and Pinksummer, Genova (3)
Invernomuto, Black Med, video still. Courtesy of the artists and Pinksummer, Genova

Black Med has been opening up questions and exploring ideas that deconstruct definitions of migration and migrant identity by reclaiming their complexity and subjectivity. The different formats and Invernomuto’s ability to experiment with them have been key in relation to the audience and the contributors involved: their roles are not fixed. Instead, individuality and collectivity are placed on the same level, without definition of a subject and an object, I and other, or any hierarchy. As a result, the narratives coming out from it are complex because personal, subjective but not defining, of many but not cliché, powerful because accessible.

The music mixes commissioned for Black Med will be available to download as part of a limited-edition zine soon to be published by Marselleria and Artissima. For more info and project updates check out Invernomuto’s website here.


Simone Bertuzzi (b.1983, Italy) and Simone Trabucchi (b.1982, Italy) have been collaborating as Invernomuto since 2003. Their practice focuses primarily on moving image and sound, while often integrating sculpture, performance and publishing into their work. Recent solo shows include The MAC, Belfast (2017), Artspeak, Vancouver (2015), Triennale di Milano, Milan (2014) and Museion, Bozen (2014). In 2017 Invernomuto won the Museion Prize 1 and is currently a finalist for the MAXXI Bvlgari Prize. Bertuzzi and Trabucchi have developed individual lines of research into sound with their respective platforms Palm Wine and STILL.

[1] Iain Chambers, Mediterraneo blues. Musiche, malinconia postcoloniale, pensieri marittimi, 2012.

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