Artist Interview: Attilio Fiumarella: Works of Mercy

fig 1 and 2

It is very timely, interviewing Attilio Fiumarella about his work on show at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, hosted by the University of Birmingham, it reflects on European flow of people in Birmingham as the great welcoming city, the division that appears in society between the disenfranchised which is sharply in focus as we approach a general election and then the increasing volume of local photographic activity.

Attilio is an accomplished and award winning photographer who chose Birmingham as his new home in 2013.  Born in Naples and trained in architecture and photography in Porto, Portugal he has the natural instinct for the visual, rooted in the authenticity of communities and the means of using photography as a political and social ‘voice’.

Caravaggio’s singular painting of 1607 is hung over an altar in a Naples church, steeped in the Christian tradition of the gospels, cites the seven acts of mercy, feeding the hungry and the sick, burying the dead, visiting the imprisoned, dressing the naked, the offer of shelter, receiving the thirsty.  These all play out in one painting, the tumble of figures powerfully highlighted against a very muted street backdrop.  Attilio speaks calmly and fluently about the memory of his childhood and the abiding nature of the act of art placing the fragility of humanity onto the conscience of church-goers and applies it to his days walking through Porto, a city that was struggling years after the banking crisis that created a community of need, with the homeless, prostitutes young and old sitting in a square and lines of people, including students, queuing at food-banks.  Attilio observed those queues daily, having sold books and possessions to fund his own version of Works of Mercy; he needed to demonstrate the empathy with people.  The project was appropriately born in Naples where he shot a dark, underexposed series of 7 images which would serve as a backdrop to seven models.  The models were homeless men he talked to and explained that he wished to make images of men who could be offered an opportunity to participate in a studio, posing to reflect the acts of need and mercy.  One by one the images were made, reflecting the immaculate planning typical of Attilio’s architectural training as he was able to book the school of photography studio for only one hour at a time, placing his models at ease, setting the lighting and explaining with sketches how the props should be harnessed, always keeping in mind the individual backdrops that he was to merge with these studios shots in a post-production blend to achieve the final image.

Working from the platform of success Fiumarella then approached the prostitutes and after the first cautious candidate agreed to take part she was happy to convince others of the merits of the venture.  In all 14 images were created; a female and male series.  The prize for emerging photographers was bagged and for three years the work toured throughout Portugal.

The series is moving and enthralling and provokes a reminder that in the twenty first century we are allowing a degraded, helpless group of people in all our cities, but Attilio’s wish was to provide an authentic dignity to his collaborating models which he does with aplomb.  Printed and framed at almost life-size scale we are provided with a series of images which one views as a painterly execution, it somehow seems possible to swing between the natural tendency to look at these rather than ‘through’ them as many of us do with photographs. Reassuringly it was good to hear that as many models as possible were found and provided with a print of themselves; this was noted by Attilio as a moving and tearful moment, seeing the quality and beauty in the model and photographer’s joint venture.

A moment of serendipity occurred when Attilio arrived to settle in Birmingham and he attended a local portfolio review, a common process in the photographic world, where he was seen by one of the most influential people on the Birmingham photographic network, Pete James, who immediately saw the deep meaning and quality of the series.  Pete in turn made contact with the Barber and the journey to making a rather excellent foray for that institute to dip its toe into showing photography, rather momentus, as the first in its history.  It is not possible to view this series without seeing its relevance to now and the election just weeks away and matters of conscience.

2017 is clearly going to be a great year for engaging with photography in Birmingham.  Pete James has been collaborating for a long time with Mat Collishaw, he of Young British Artist fame, and a truly amazing experiential installation called ‘Thresholds’ is due at Waterhall, BMAG from June to September based on the innovation and birth of photography in 1839 which was on show at King Edward’s School just months after the very birth of the art.  You will be able to immerse yourself with the latest artificial reality goggles, headphones and a backpack and walk though the Victorian room touching the vitrines showing the equipment and prints from the 1839 exhibition with moths around the lights and mice running around your feet.  This is part of Developed in Birmingham and is a cutting edge techno experience which matches the shocking new world of photo that was on display for all to see at the birth of the new reproducible world.  BOM, Birmingham Open Media, is hosting a parallel show called ‘A White House on Paradise Street’ by artist Jo Gane in collaboration with Pete James and Leon Trimble. This exhibition is inspired by what may be the first Daguerreotype image made in Birmingham, and potentially the first image made in England using the Daguerreotype process (a process invented in 1839 by Louis Daguerre, using silver plated copper). Now missing, the image is said to have depicted a White House on Paradise Street and was made by Birmingham based scientist, artist, lecturer and patent agent George Shaw in the summer of 1839.  So keep an eye out for more information.

Fig 1 To Shelter the Homeless

Fig 2 To Admonish the Sinners

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Fig 3 Barber Institute Exhibition



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