Helena Uambembe, Performance. Ph. Giulia Del Piero

“Notes On The Wake” in Villa Romana: a community held in memory


Curated by Mistura Allison, Notes On The Wake: Rhapsody and Lamentations in Three Acts is a group exhibition part of the ninth edition of Black History Month Florence and hosted by Villa Romana in Florence. Notes On the Wake displays the works of Leo Asemota, Lerato Shadi, and Helena Uambembe, African artists whose practice reflects on memory, identity, and time within the African Diaspora.

The exhibition aims to rewrite the historical and social narrative of the West by celebrating the ritual mechanisms of wake and grief: the artists’ works propose a new collective identity based on their rooted awareness of colonial history and the dysfunctional and brutal heritage of relationships in Western culture.

Helena Uambembe, Performance. Ph. Giulia Del Piero

Notes On the Wake mourns those who have already become victims of the insensitive, unethical, and degrading dynamics enlivening our society.

The exhibition is a practice of paying attention to the echoes of our past in the present, serving to resist the waves of forgetfulness.

Villa Romana was founded in 1905 by Max Klinger in Florence: it is an experimental space where artists can cohabit, offering an opportunity for profound individual commitment and collective change. From 2023, Villa Romana has turned into A House for Mending, Troubling, Repairing, launching a new public programme and artistic research. The Villa is now a place for developing tools and practices to cope with nowadays challenges.

“The first image that arose was the blue,” asserts the exhibition curator Mistura Allison: a colour that has become a symbol of an entire community and its pain, a story accompanied by a smothered jazz symphony, an expression of sadness and – at the same time – “joy and heaviness.”

In Villa Romana, time seems as fluid as the constant rain roaming outside the building. Once we enter the exhibition, a distant echo comes to us, a comfortable and familiar song in which thousands of stories mash up harmoniously in only one voice.

Carried away by the captivating rhythm of the music and songs filling the space, we wander in the dim light, engaging with photographic works, videos, installations and paintings.

Notes On The Wake. Rhapsody and Lamentations in Three Acts displays the works by three African artists: Leo Asemota, Lerato Shadi, and Helena Uambembe. The exhibition is part of Whole Rest, the ninth edition of Black History Month Florence, which explores the act of resting as a collective and revolutionary gesture. Notes On The Wake presents a story with grotesque traits, suspended between irony and drama: the theme of rest is portrayed as the symbolic experience of death – an eternal rest and an extreme stretching of time.

“What’s more soothing than death?”

Mourning allows us to experience absence, memory, and emptiness, disarticulating space and time. The wake resolves grief into a sense of witness, love, togetherness, and collective intimacy – a ritual in which friends and relatives become a single body.

Drawing inspiration from In The Wake: On Blackness and Being (2016) by the American researcher Christina Sharpe, the artists part of the exhibition investigate the celebratory, ritual, and collective aspects of the wake, highlighting how mourning can be turned into political action, giving substance to a chorality that honours individual memories.

“WITNESS APPEAL. SERIOUS ASSAULT […] A 16-year-old black boy was assaulted by another 16-year-old black boy who was armed with a bottle.”

In the quiet and absorbed atmosphere of the Villa’s atrium, Leo Asemota’s Map of a City (2001) is an archive of images and documents narrating how the urban landscape interferes with its inhabitants’ individual and collective identity. The work illustrates the contradictory marginalisations and controls imposed on the Black-British community in the 1990s, capturing through photography ephemeral messages scattered across the urban landscape, from street signs to advertisements.

Helena Uambembe. Villa Romana. Ph. Giulia Del Piero

Anyone can interact with the documents of Map of a City, vivid traces of recent history that can be observed more closely, establishing a direct and tactile relationship with them. With this work, Asemota wants to bestow upon us the burdens and scars of an entire community, capturing the intensity and cruelty that both words and urban environment embody and testify.

The work is a visual tribute to the countless anonymous lives that have influenced, and been influenced by, the city’s history.

“Days of toiling and fighting. Days of laughter and hope. She tried to keep the good thoughts and memories, for she did not want to pass on the disappointment and slight anger she had picked up over the years to her mango tree.”

In the second act of Notes On The Wake, the following two rooms reveal two video projections by Helena Uambembe: Toil (2021) and Até o fim (2023). Both videos explore the concept of individual memory as collective inheritance, using images filled with melancholy and “homesickness”. Drawing from the influence of activists like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Josina Machel, Toil narrates the dramatic story of a culture of disempowerment and injustice: the video portrays a decentralised world in which women who dedicated their lives to activism and the liberation of people during the civil and post-war periods in Angola are victims of social and cultural marginalisation, such as economic inequality and misogyny. In a setting that blurs the lines between dream and reality, Até o fim conveys the artist’s strong connection to her community of origin: the video features magical and ancestral imagery, with animal silhouettes, particularly buffaloes, overlaying Pomfret’s landscape in the background. With their apparent presence and shadows, these silhouettes hold an apotropaic and reassuring appeal to Angolan culture, expressing an indecipherable visual archive to us.

Leo Asemota. Villa Romana. Ph. Giulia Del Piero

The third act of Notes On The Wake begins in the central hall with the installation Blooming In Statis (2023) by Uambembe: it consists of clods of earth from which small, garish flowers of Delonix Regia bloom, accompanied by a deep, poignant Angolan funeral song that fills the entire room with its vibrations.

The installation tells how stasis can provide an opportunity for personal growth, describing identity as “an ongoing negotiation with the past and the present,” an expression of the self rooted in the collective, a multitude of multitudes. Here the artist refers to Akwaeke Emezi’s ideas in the debut novel Freshwater (2018).

Stasis does not imply silence or absence but rather a resounding space filled with echoes of past struggles and achievements.

Gaufi and Kgakala (2023) by Lerato Shadi are displayed on the room’s blue walls: these paintings use the performative gesture of writing to make thoughts and memories more concrete. Shadi portrays the intricate connection between individual and collective memory through a continuous flow of unreadable words and phrases. The large canvases capture the temporal and tactile aspects of memory and encourage us to consider how we might find healing by witnessing and connecting our own stories with those of others.

Taking inspiration from Naomi di Meo’s elegy to her younger self, Notes On The Wake encourages us to reflect and embrace change. In this exhibition at Villa Romana, time is embodied not as a linear progression but as a rich palimpsest – a living archive of what has been, what is, and what could still be.

Notes On The Wake gives attention to belonging and recognition, making us witnesses to a layered and indecipherable archive, a tale of active resistance capable of dealing with the traumas opened up by the African community’s Diasporic history.

Lerato Shadi. Villa Romana. Ph. Giulia Del Piero

Eva Adduci

Eva Adduci (Magenta, 1998) is an art historian, critic and assistant curator based in Milan.
She attended her master’s degree in History and Criticism of Art at Università Degli Studi, Milan. Currently working as gallery manager at the Milan venue of Boccanera Gallery. She is an Independent author and member of the editorial staff of FormeUniche. She is also an active member of Micro_Mosso and of the project space co_atto.
Areas of interest include the redevelopment of urban spaces, post-colonial studies, and ecology.

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