Emilio Vavarella – The Sicilian Family


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The Sicilian Family is a photographic series of 44 digital elaborations of vintage analog photographs, based on my reflections on memory, glitch aesthetic and conceptual photography. I was also driven by a personal interest in the origins of my family, however, I didn't want my research to disrupt my existing relationship with my relatives or to become the main point of the project. I intended to gather memories and photographs: building an archive was a necessary part of organizing these materials. The archive had to both reflect the process of my inquiry as well as the nature and origin of its content, including the tensions between fact and memory, public and private, subjective and objective.

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Emilio Vavarella, Nonno Giovanni e fratelli, image 44/44 from The Sicilian Family series, (2012-13), digital photograph

I started my research in 2012. I had a clear idea of what I needed and what I wanted to do, but there were still many variables to define. The first phase consisted of a series of visits to all my living relatives. They loved telling me stories about the family, all of which had never been written down. Those stories had been passed down orally from one generation to the next - sometimes things had been forgotten, other times uncomfortable truths were ignored, or no interest was shown in facts that didn't match their version of the story. Every now and then, one of my relatives was able to find a few old dusty photos stored away, and they gave them to me as a present. Many photos had been lost for lack of interest, so I promised to take good care of the remaining ones.

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My great grandfather Giovanni, one of the original

photographs I collected

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My aunt Anna, one of the original

photographs I collected

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My great aunt, one of the original

photographs I collected

Sometimes my relatives didn't know who the people in the pictures were, and I was only able to discover that later. Some of the pictures were ruined, but had notes written on the back: usually love messages sent from husbands temporarily working abroad in Germany or Argentina. Those messages helped identify the subjects of the pictures. My family archive in its textual and visual form was almost complete.

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View of the back of some of the collected photographs.

It was sent from Offenbach (Germany) and portrayed my grandfather Giovanni and other Sicilian immigrants working

on the railroad.

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View of the back of some of the collected photographs.

It was sent from Verona by my great grandfather to his wife, brothers and sisters.

Among the last documents that I found, was the identity card of my first paternal ancestor, a Sicilian orphan to whom someone gave an invented last name: Vavarella. Thus, I realized that my last name only goes back four generations.

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Front of the identity card of my paternal ancestor Emilio Vavarella. The fields "Padre" and "Madre" (father and mother) are left blank.

My mother's lineage goes back further than my father's, but wasn't too difficult to track. A few of her family members had already visited the Archivio Centrale dello Stato (the Italian National Archives) in Rome and tracked their last name, Raffo, back to a family of self-made merchants from Genova. My maternal great granddad was the first Genovese to buy land in Sicily, and that was the beginning of the Sicilian branch of the Raffo family. After I left Sicily, I continued my research during my studies in Venice, Tel Aviv and Istanbul. I had many questions and I kept speaking with other relatives over Skype to learn more. After several months, my archive was complete.

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Screenshot of one of the Skype meetings.

For the second phase of the project, I decided to scan each original photograph that I had collected and to open each digital file using a basic text editor in order to visualize the photo as text. Through this process, the pixels of the images were automatically translated into the alphanumeric ASCII code. This code is a non-intelligible sequence of characters that contains all the information required to recreate the image through an Image Viewer. Still using the text editor, I substituted a part of the ASCII code of each photograph with a story based on what I had come to learn about each person portrayed in that specific picture. The text was composed, in part, by the memories that were passed down to me, and, in part, by my own interpretation. Then I saved the text as a JPG file, forcing it to become an image once again. My alteration forced what were now my memories to coexist with the images, in an unforeseeable and new way. The archive disappeared but gave a new form to the photographic series. Finally, I organized the resulting 44 images into a structure that resembled a genealogic tree. All the memories and the connections among the people portrayed are still there, but in an ambiguous and elusive way. A bit like memory itself.

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Emilio Vavarella, Zia Mena and her husband Giovanni Cascone, image 4/44 from The Sicilian Family series, (2012-13),

digital photograph

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Emilio Vavarella, Bisnonno Giovanni, image 10/44

from The Sicilian Family series, (2012-13),

digital photograph

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Prozia Vita, image 26/44 from The Sicilian Family series,

(2012-13), digital photograph

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Emilio Vavarella, Bisnonno Emilio, image 36/44 from The Sicilian Family series, (2012-13), digital photograph

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Emilio Vavarella, Zia Anna, image 40/44 from The Sicilian Family series, (2012-13), digital photograph

The whole series is available on the artist's website.

Emilio Vavarella

Emilio Vavarella was born in Monfalcone (Italy) in 1989. His artistic practice focuses on political philosophy and contemporary technological power. Through the use of new media he highlights the ambiguous spaces and hidden structures of power. He has worked with holographic installations of collective memories, drones, Google Street View technology and has written memories into the ASCII code of vintage family photos. He has studied in Sicily and Barcelona and completed a B.A. at the University of Bologna. In 2013 he completed an MFA from Iuav University of Venice while also studying abroad at the Bezalel Academy of Tel Aviv and Bilgi University of Istanbul. Emilio’s work has been recently shown at: EYEBEAM, SIGGRAPH, GLITCH Festival, EMAF Festival, Mediterranea16, Boston Cyberarts, Jarach Gallery and Museum of Contemporary Art Vojvodina. His work has been published in: ARTFORUM, Flash Art, Leonardo and WIRED. He currently lives and works in New York.