In 2014 Agata Lo Monaco's photo reportage "Festivals in Sicily" took shape, focused on the desire to immortalize the religious traditions of her hometown, Gela. The photo 'Hands Outstretched', selected by the photographer Giovanni Chiaramonte, won the competition organized by the Triskelion association as part of the 'Spring of Art' event, while the photo 'The Taking of the Flag' was exhibited at the MACRO (Museum of 'Contemporary Art) in Rome. The project remains open to further elaboration. Agata has lived in Germany, in the Frankfurt area since 2015, where she continues to devote herself to the study and practice of photography.
Photography by Agata Lo Monaco
Text by Valeria Tardo
(translated from Italian)
The photographic project "Festivals in Sicily" was born from the intention to tell, through images, celebrations and religious rituals of ancient tradition that still play a prominent role in Sicily. The choice of reportage photography is linked to the desire to weave a visual narrative capable of combining the analytical perspective with a documentary slant, with artistic expression. Agata Lo Monaco's gaze captures faces, gestures, details and overall views, selecting and returning to the observer's eyes segments of a reality that is both objective and intimately subjective, a reflection of an individual feeling from which a non-verbal discourse full of suggestions unfolds.
The shots she took in 2014 in Gela on the occasion of the feasts of San Giuseppe and Madonna dell' Alemanna are the result of a contemporary point of view that aims to capture the underlying ancestrally of religious cults that are also characterized by a marked theatricality, for a devotional fervor that takes the form of a complex of external elements that refer to the staging.
The use of black and white emphasizes the pathos of photographic representation and is connected to the stylistic choice of Ferdinando Scianna, a Sicilian photographer who in the 1960s developed a work with a similar subject. Of the feast of St. Joseph, which takes place on the 19th of March, the artist fixes the most characteristic aspect, namely the setting up of the so-called "altars" in the private homes of those who thank God for having granted them grace, for having heard a prayer.
These are in fact large tables set to represent particular votive offerings (ex-votos), foods and food products made with a function attributed to them, which refer to the concept of votive offerings that was already present in polytheistic religions prior to the advent of Christianity. They are practices that testify to humans' atavistic search for contact with the divine sphere. At the end of the party and the exposition of the ex-voto to visitors, the food is eaten during a sort of ritual lunch presided over by three people, usually of humble socio-economic background, who symbolize the members of the Holy Family.
On the first of May (May Day) the same Saint is celebrated in his persona of a worker, and on this occasion an auction of goods donated by the faithful to the Church takes place in the town square, which also includes the presence of live animals (poultry and sheep). The photos show, with great insight, the generational contrast in the perception of a strongly folkloristic scenario that seems to have little to do with spirituality. The body language and the looks of the participants speak of this contrast. Agata immortalizes the veiled restlessness and the noticeable disturbance in the astonished gazes of the children, who reveal a certain empathy towards the suffering and fate of those animals with their legs tied, being treated as if they were inanimate puppets.
They are counterbalanced by the pride and cheerfulness of the adults, exemplified in particular by the showy smile, almost a grin, of an old woman who has just won a rooster. It is inevitable to ask if the strength of a devotion that crystallizes into tradition will continue to guarantee its survival.
On the feast of Maria Santissima dell' Alemanna, which is celebrated from the 5th to the 8th of September, Agata's documentary captures the moments of the exit of the consecrated statue of the Virgin Mary from the church, with the crowd of faithful extending their hands to heaven. The procession includes stops dedicated to the undressing of newborns for the blessing of the priest, they are raised upwards, in the direction of the statue of the Madonna, by a priest. The children's clothes are then bought back by the parents themselves so that the proceeds can be donated to the poor.
Finally, there is the so-called “paliantino” or “cuccagna a mare”, on the Gelese beach. A horizontally arranged pool supported by two trestles is placed in the water, and the competitors are asked to walk the surface, sprinkled with grease and soap, trying to catch the flag placed on the opposite end without falling into the sea.
A sporting competition inserted in the context of the feast in honor of the patron saint of the city that makes one think of the gymnastic competitions of the ancient Greek civilization, the athletic competitions connected to the cults of the Panhellenic sanctuaries, such as that of Olympia, or the Athenian Panathenaic festivals that commemorated the goddess Athena, protector of the polis.
In reality, the veneration of the Madonna dell' Alemanna has its roots in the early modern age, originating from the discovery, in 1476, of a medieval Marian icon that is believed to have been brought to Gela by the Knights of the Teutonic Order. As the Teutonics' were called Alemanni on the island, the Madonna was given this name. The origin of this fascinating custom is uncertain.
Agata's photographs possess an almost bodily intensity and a fervent evocative charge and artistic sensitivity, and so they manage to transmit in a palpable way the mingling of sacredness and materiality that distinguish Sicilian religious holidays, as heritage of a varied and deeply stratified culture.