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Italy's 'Golden Waves' art project promotes solidarity for migrants

Italy's 'Golden Waves' art project promotes solidarity for migrants

Many Italians are appalled by their government's stance towards migrants, particularly the recent decision to prohibit 47 migrants on board the nongovernmental organization ship Sea Watch from disembarking.

Last weekend, numerous municipalities staged peaceful protests by inviting citizens to join hands in a circle around their local town halls in a giant symbolic embrace: a gesture of solidarity for migrants.

This weekend in the village of Pianoro, just outside the city of Bologna, another public protest, this time artistic, is underway. Saturday mornings usually mean farmers' market in the main square but this Saturday locals are waking up to a golden surprise.

Pushing back against 'a loss of humanity'

Artist Mili Romano is a professor at Bologna's Academy of Fine Arts. She's also a much-loved member of the small community of Pianoro, where the works she's curated can be found dotted throughout the local streets, parks and piazzas. An expert in public art and anthropology, her energy is as big as her smile. But right now she's angry. Very angry.

"Not only this government but I think everywhere in the world we can see a loss of humanity, a loss of heart," said Mili. "There is only brain, rationale, economics, abstract relationships through the web."

Read more:Italian mayors rebel against Salvini migrant laws

Over the past two years, Mili's been running art projects bringing migrants housed in the municipality together with students from the art academy and the local secondary school.

"In these two years, living and sharing a lot of time with these immigrants, I knew a lot of them," she said, adding that a friendship grew "between me and them, between them and the students at school."

Action through art

And that's how the idea began. The original plan was to put on a public exhibition of the fruits of their intercultural artwork this weekend. But with Mili's increasing fury at what she calls the new government's political cruelty, that plan changed.

"I decided that it was time to do something, not to accept, and I think that art must be used in order to stimulate, to push people to think, and not only as a representation of things," Mili said.

Mili's idea was to create a powerfully symbolic installation as a gesture of dissent and condemnation: a plea for solidarity. Something that all the citizens would see and immediately understand.

"And I thought about an action that could involve. An action to share with the town hall and mayor — to put at all the windows of the town hall gold thermal blankets that are those blankets around which migrants are wrapped during difficult sea rescue procedures," she said.

Read more: 'Human Cargo:' Refugees deal with trauma through art

The town hall is located at the top of a flight of steps: a large rectangular building with 25 windows overlooking the piazza. Mili would call the work Onde Dorate – Golden Waves. Locals out and about on a Saturday morning couldn't fail to notice such a glaring, daring statement. The question was, would the municipal council agree to display such a politically charged piece of art?

"When I proposed such a kind of action I imagined that they [would say] 'you are crazy! It's not possible to do such a kind of thing, what are you proposing?'" Mili said. "And they immediately said 'Aaaaaah! It's very strong, it's fantastic, we like, and we can do it.' And I couldn't believe my ears."

Building compassion

"For us as a municipality it signifies taking an official stance," said Benedetta Rossi, Pianoro's councilor for culture, equal opportunities and human rights. "Through this action we are declaring our own opinion that it's important to maintain a humane dimension. We believe in preserving the will to look after people, whoever they are, because in doing so we become more compassionate. As soon as we start to forget this, we start to lose part of our humanity, and we don't want our community to regress like that."

Locals like Eritrean Luwam Yemane are particularly touched by the action. Luwam's brother made the dangerous trip from Libya across the Mediterranean in 2015.

Read more: Italy: Seaside getaway turns into dumping ground for migrants

"He arrived in Calabria and was overjoyed to be greeted by kind, lovely, compassionate people," said Luwam. "He told me they actually gave him two of those thermal blankets because he was dressed very lightly. He had nothing at all, having lost everything after being captured at sea the first time he tried to cross. He was wearing someone else's T-shirt and then those blankets. So I'm very happy to see them and I think it's right to use them symbolically."

Over the past few days, Mili's also been distributing some thermal blankets to locals and inviting them to fold them in half and hang them out of their own windows. Easy to buy from pharmacies, she's hoping her political-artistic message will go viral.

"It's an invitation to everybody to share this action as big gold waves that become larger and larger and larger like music or like light," she said.

And the deputy mayor of Pianoro, Franca Filippini, hopes other institutions will follow their example. "I hope it's a wave that will catch the wind and there'll be lots who'll copy us," she said.