Painting Palermo
Valentina Brushi, 2022


«The waters cross the capital of Sicily from all sides, where perennial sources also spring. Palermo abounds with fruit trees […] and within the circle of walls that are a riot of orchards, such is the magnificence of villas and how many fresh running streams, borne by canals from the mountains»: these are the words written by the Maghreb geographer Al-Idrisi in 1139. Guest of the Norman king Roger II, he described the beauty of Palermo, capital of a multicultural reign, overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, in the centre of the Mediterranean. The echo of these verses could come to mind visiting Laurent Ajina’s latest exhibition, as well as the evocative sound of water pouring from fountains, the colours and scent of flowers and fruits, the green of the gardens, the blue of the sky and the golden glare of the meridian light.

The artist conceived the exhibition as a large installation that starts at the entrance of the Crone gallery in Berlin, transformed ideally into the monumental atrium of an ancient “palazzo”, evoked by four large canvases that refer in their forms to imposing columns as if to support the architectural structure of the gallery. Then, entering the courtyard-garden of this imaginary palace, the artist has installed the four canvases of the "Flowers in the Wall" series, where the geometric shapes and the combination of colours of these abstract works become vehicles to transport the observer into an “other” place, potentially more complex than that of a figurative representation. Here, the square or rectangular coloured shapes are intertwined and connected to each other by black parallel and curved lines, dense in some parts of the surface whilst more spaced out in others. Geometric shapes that act as counterpoints introducing emotions through colour and referencing the screens of mobile phones that have now become a constant filter between our gaze and the world. It is also as if the artist had interiorized the centuries-old cultural and architectural stratification of Palermo, expression of the different civilizations that have followed one another here: Phoenician, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman, Swabian, French, Spanish, etc. A unique place, at the crossroads between East and West and, in this clot of traditions, only apparently opposites, the artist has recognized elements in reference to his own biography being a Frenchman of Iraqi origin.

This new series of works entitled "Palermo Paintings" was conceived by the artist last January, when he found himself spending a quarantine at Palazzo Viola, in solitude due to the pandemic, overlooking the octagonal square of the Quattro Canti, the baroque heart of Palermo. The square is also known as the “Theatre of the Sun” because once a day each of the four buildings that compose it, is touched by sunlight. In this period of forced isolation, the artist was able to re-think and visually explore the architecture of the city, assimilating the images that had struck him most in his own journey through Sicily. From the Byzantine mosaics of the Palatine Chapel to the Mondello beach, from the Botanical Garden - among the most important in Europe and the Mediterranean area - to the cloister of the monastery of San Domenico with its banana trees and cycas plants originating from Asia, but also to sense the contradictions of the contemporary city and its difficult recent history. A pause that became an opportunity for an inner journey, mentally connected to the eighteenth-century tradition of the Grand Tour, when European travellers saw the island as the place to experience the stratifications of the past, testimonies of different civilizations that met and merged, demonstrating in the centuries that the migratory processes and the displacements of populations are a source of cultural wealth and creativity. For Ajina this investigation is resolved in a personal identification of the internal structures that make up the urban rhythm of the places where he lives or has lived, from Vienna to Los Angeles. A connection between past and present, between different elements, between order and chaos that the artist expresses through the stylistic code of wall drawings made with a black marker. In this way, Ajina traces lines on walls that multiply the points of view and connect the works painted on canvas to each other in a network of graphic traces that are sometimes geometric, sometimes chaotic, in dialogue with the architectural context. A game that the artist usually plays with the spaces he inhabits, a performance in which the body measures itself with the dimensions of the wall, the tension of the line drawn by the artist's hand with his resistance, a way of giving a new meaning to the environment.

The exhibition continues with a series of smaller canvases dedicated to fountains, between geometric lines, curves and blue points, like “fresh” pauses in the intensity of the rhythm of the exhibition narrative and the show ends with a canvas in darker colours, in shades of ultramarine blue. It is a work of the "Profound" series, which brings to mind the Addaura cave with its Neolithic rock engravings (testimony of how man has always felt the need to create images on walls), but also to the sea that runs along the city, or to the nights with a starry sky. The title of the work seems to recall a "deep time", the ever-present palimpsest of history, as Dominique Fernandez wrote in his “Le Radeau de la Gorgone (Promenades en Sicile)” (1988), «civilizations have succeeded each other in Sicily, without the birth of one leading to the death of the other. They still coincide. They declined and disappeared one after another, whilst remaining present. Each, in dying out, transmitted a little of its splendour to the other. Each twilight has left its gilding»[1].

Valentina Bruschi


[1] The original French text: «Les civilisations se sont succédé en Sicile, sans que la naissance de l'une entraînât la mort de l'autre. Elles coïncident encore. Elles ont décliné et disparu l'une après l'autre, tout en restant présentes. Chacune, en s'éteignant, a transmis un peu de sa splendeur à l'autre. Chaque crépuscule a laissé ses dorures».