My mother’s family came to Scotland in the first decades of the 20th century from the hill towns around La Spezia in north west Italy. Growing up between Scotland and Italy, my grandparents were products of industrious Italian families who saw the West of Scotland as a prime location for business – cafes and ice-cream shops. Five Lands is a visual exploration of La Spezia and its environs, a place to which they frequently returned over the course of their lives, and in whose hills their bodies are buried.
Taking my grandparents’ origins as a point of departure, Five Lands explores my relationship with Italy today. Living all my life in Scotland and visiting yearly for family holidays, I am divorced from the economic and political realities of life there. My viewpoint is almost childlike, focussing on colour, texture and detail. My experience of this place has been spun like a web over decades, with my grandparents’ holiday flat in La Spezia as its epicentre. The house still contains remnants of them, the never-decorated kitchen and 40 year old curtains a testament to the tenacity of a mother country.
The notion of permanence is tied to the idea of economic migration, the definitive leaving of one geographical space for another. Yet, in my family and in many Scots-Italian families of the diaspora, the yearning to return recurs. For holidays, for family events, for retirement, for burial. This duality, of living out a concrete existence in one country, while yearning for another, is unique to the immigrant experience. It is a discomfort that exists far back in my family’s memory, and the collective memory of all immigrants. As the bloodline marches into the future, the link to the country of origin becomes ever more tenuous. It becomes an almost magical place, wrapped in mystery and foreignness. The concrete economical reasons for emigration recede, and nostalgia sets in.
These images are intensely subjective – I see them as observations and impressions rather than as any kind of document. Nostalgia removes a place from its historical context, creating a personal emotional reaction that evokes recent and distant experiences with the same vividness. I see Italy as I’ve always seen it, on my first visit 25 years ago and on yearly trips ever since – a place of saturated reds and faded pinks, of bright, almost invasive sunlight, of piercing, uninhibited shouts, of warmth, of weeping. It is a place at once strange and familiar, where every corner holds a memory. While the rest of the world has rushed on, for me La Spezia is suspended in time.
Of course, much has changed about the place – there are internet cafes where we once made the weekly trip to the telephone exchange, a two-second delay as my father’s voice reached me from Scotland. There are silent ATMs where I once waited with my grandmother in a noisy bank on weekday mornings, a cacophony of voices as everyone argued the urgency of their particular transaction. But the essence of the place remains: the sweet, rotten smell of ripe fruit and warm rubbish, the tacky romantic pop music, the ancient Fiats, too fast and no seatbelt, and the old men chatting in groups outside the grocer’s. These constants root me in a time when I became curious about this place, its particular air of tradition, its peculiar smells and shapes so alien to a child growing up in grey, rainy Glasgow.My grandparents’ family tree is barer now – where once there were huge gatherings, now only a few relatives remain. Families are smaller now, and sons and daughters leave for more exciting places – Milan or Rome. Each summer, there are more graves to visit at the cemetery at Padivarma, in the hills. The marble facades bear the familiar names of Rossi, Sarti, Lodola, Ciuffardi – names that stretch back for centuries. The graves are well cared for, cleaned often, and visited regularly. Kinship with the dead is strong here, religion connecting us to forever in a continuum that defies mortality. The past persists, despite the creep of American restaurants, the urban sprawl, the shops that (sacrilegiously) now open on Sundays. The place my grandparents came from is still there, in the blue mornings when crickets chirp, and at dusk when ancient bats cross the violet sky.
Sarah Amy Fishlock is a visual artist. A graduate of the Glasgow School of Art, she works mainly in the field of documentary photography. Her work explores the relationship between the individual and wider social, historical and political realities, the tension between national and familial identity, and the problematic nature of memory.
See more: www.sarahamyfishlock.com