Matera, perhaps more than any other place, is defined by its past. The ancient city, which was once the European Capital of Culture in 2019 and has been an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993, is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. People still live inside Matera’s Unesco-listed sassi, although it’s often filled with tourists spending the night there just to experience a characteristic B&B.
My first image of Matera was slightly different though, as I had the GPS set to the most recent artwork in the city: a mural painted by Moroccan street artist Mohamed L’ghacham on a social housing building, the last stop of the public art project Ubuntu, curated by MAAP. (Viale dei Peucezi / Via Lucrezio)
The area could not have been more different from the postcard-pretty, frozen-in-time image of Matera I had in my mind. The intimate scene of different generations sharing a meal brought the warmth and conviviality of their home to a rough and disadvantaged neighbourhood through poetry and inclusivity.
I was surprised to find that all shops in the area were mysteriously closed; so, I drove to the city centre to grab a bite, ending up at a beautiful tavern, Taverna Lucana, which served regional specialities. Historically, Basilicata was a poor and isolated region, so the cuisine is one of a traditional nature, using wholesome and rustic ingredients, boasting of vegetarian dishes aplenty.
After a pantagruelic lunch, I carried on with my street art hunt by foot. I headed towards another peripheric area where I found a mural by Momo (on a school, Scuola Bramante di via Greco), a piece by Rouge, and one black-and-white paste up which was part of a series of posters made from archived photos of the 2nd of July, when Matera celebrates the ‘Festa della Madonna della Bruna’. I was eager for more, but just at that moment the sky darkened and -suddenly- it was raining.
“You brought the rain to Matera” Mauro, with whom I had an appointment later in the afternoon, texted me. Mauro manages a 13th century tower in Matera’s sassi. He bravely wants to turn it into a contemporary art museum, which would inspire locals and visitors alike. His ambitious project is, however, encountering many bureaucratic issues, resulting in a five-year series of misadventures which he is documenting through the social media project ‘Volevo Solo Aprire Un Museo’ (meaning “I just wanted to open a museum”).
I discovered ‘Volevo Solo Aprire Un Museo’ on YouTube when I was working on an equally as challenging museum project in Amsterdam. I was swept up in Mauro’s story and couldn’t help but reach out once I visited Matera. At our arranged appointment, Mauro was kind enough to let me have a sneak peek behind the scenes of the Tower Art Museum (TAM), explaining its history and the vision behind it.
The plan for the space was as irregular and maze-like as the plan of the old city. Every room had its own distinct character and you could roam through the alleys, passages, and stairs feeling like you were inside a painting by Escher.
Once inside the TAM, I could feel the energy of a project in the making: the determination of the team and the give of the artists. The artworks created by Canemorto for the museum are pure genius, both as site-specific installations and as a way to subvert the classic storytelling of this city’s past. This concept is at the core of TAM’s vision, it’s actually part of the name itself: TAM stands for Tower Art Museum, but it’s also the reverse of MAT (Matera).
After the tour, we kept chatting at Il Birrificio, a cosy pub serving local craft beers. Before saying goodbye, Mauro recommended that I visit the MUSMA, the national museum of contemporary sculpture. The MUSMA is also housed inside Matera’s iconic sassi, in a 16th-century palazzo, Palazzo Pomarici, which was originally a Dominican convent.
Despite the tourist crowds which filled Matera, I was the only visitor at MUSMA’s contemporary sculpture collection. I walked through the tuff aisles, fresh and moist, shrouded in a sweet shadow that contrasted the late-summer sunshine breaking into the irregularly-shaped, narrow courtyards. I especially liked the lower floor of the collection, where artworks dialogued with the irregular space and the darkest hypogea were lit by neon sculptures.
A poignant work from MUSMA’s collection was a crucifix by Luis Gomez de Teran, an artist who has been working on the religious subject and exploring its ancestral symbolism for quite some years. He also painted a mural in the streets of Matera (Via Benedetto Croce) which is clearly part of the same series.
After my visit to the MUSMA, I took a quick 10-minute drive, stopping at yet another street art spot: the ‘Open Playful Space’. (Piazza Degli Olmi) This is where Mr. Thoms and Skolp painted their iconic puppets in 2019. Their joyful piece wraps up the pedestrian area beneath a huge concrete building, one of many in Matera’s ‘unlisted’ areas, which look exactly like countless marginal areas of our cities.
As I drove outside of Matera’s perimeter, passing across golden fields dotted with hay bales and abandoned farmhouses swallowed up by mother nature, I once again stepped into the past, and in doing so marvelled at that magical land which is the Basilicata region.
Prologue – A Piece of Matera’s Tower Art Museum
For five years, the Tower Art Museum has been struggling to open. To help the museum through the final spurt of its journey, which has been dotted with many bureaucratic issues and red tape, the founders have launched a crowdfunding campaign in perfect ‘Volevo Solo Aprire Un Museo’ style. With my donation I received a piece of the museum inside a small well-thought-out package. If you would like to help this museum too, please have a look at their campaign here.
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