In a clearing at the end of a long field demarcated by stone walls, a group of people sit at a rectangular table framed by several low hanging olive trees. Two large sheets tied between them create a canopy of shade that offers at least some respite from the unforgiving sun.
The people at the table, recognizably different from one another, draw quietly. Indistinct music plays softly in the background, at times drowned out by the perpetual hissing of cicadas. They draw: horses, fish, trees, snakes and new creatures conjured from imagination. Collections of fables written by Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos lie strewn about the table. In the intense, dry summer heat, large black flies relentlessly buzz past ears and land on exposed flesh. Imagine a cadre of balaclava-clad rebels emerging from the forest, farming tools and rifles in hand.
Free Home University is in its summer session, and a group of artists, activists, farmers (some living as refugees) from Nigeria, Gambia, Kurdistan, Congo, Great Britain, Russia, India, Egypt, United States have convened in Italy’s southernmost province of Lecce, in the dusty village of Castiglione d’Otranto.
This ad-hoc community is gathered to explore the possibilities of collectively imagining and enacting alternative ways of being and living. The focus of their learning on this occasion is the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN)—a resistance movement in Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico.
On January 1, 1994, the EZLN or Zapatistas as they are commonly known, began an armed rebellion against the Mexican government. Their objective was to defend the sovereignty of the mostly indigenous farmers that have long resided there, from land grabbing, state violence, and forced displacement. The Zapatista struggle continues today, non-violently. For many rural communities, and political formations around the world disinterested in replicating capitalist structures and dealing with the impacts of globalization and uneven development, it exemplifies how a successful resistance movement can be fomented and sustained.
Led by the Russian activist-art collective Chto Delat, the June session of Free Home University explored the applicability—“through resonance and dissonance” of Zapatista learning towards new forms of “transnational solidarity.” How can rural communities in Puglia that are struggling with issues of sustainability—as their ability to live off the land is challenged by market forces and government neglect—learn from the constructive teachings and mythologies of this Indigenous resistance movement? During this session they have been asked to create contextual creatures with characteristics reflective of each individual’s desire to embody a generative future.
Since 2014, Free Home University has hosted learning communities, drawing close to 300 participants from Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Austria, Belorussia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, England, France, Germany, Greece, Jordan, India, Mexico, Russia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, Senegal, USA, Venezuela, and from all over Italy and Puglia region—counting the countries of origin of the asylum seekers and refugees involved, that would also include Nigeria, Gambia, Congo, Iraq, Mali, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Kurdistan, Sierra Leone, and the Magreb.
Rebaz rolls down the street in his customized wheelchair, expertly dodging on-coming cars, potholes and cracks in the road. His perpetual smile has a captivating breadth and warmth. His genuine emotional interest in the people and place around him is palpable.
Rebaz was just twelve when an Iraqi missile took his legs. Kurdistan in the 1990s was inhospitable terrain for a differently abled young minority Kurd. He credits his parents for disallowing him to wallow in misfortune, challenging him to excel at school and to participate in sports and other activities that might have otherwise seemed improbable.
Despite the odds being stacked up against him, Rebaz expresses not even the slightest indignancy. This is his third Free Home University session, and he is clearly endeared to his fellow participants. For Rebaz and the other migrants and refugees, FHU is one of the few spaces they feel welcome, where their contributions are valued by their host communities.
For the past five years, FHU has brought together improbable configurations of artists, designers, environmentalists, political thinkers, educators, members of the local community, and generally like-spirited individuals that believe in coming together and learning from each other as a generative way to produce social change. Every year they arrive in Castiglione, and with their presence they address and respond to an issue or need or desire central to the local community, introducing new ideas and energy through a process of “deep listening” to inspire and strengthen the efforts of their hosts, a local sustainable agriculture collective, Casa delle Agriculture.
Castiglione d’Otranto is located in Puglia, a region of Southern Italy that accounts for close to half the country’s olive production. Since the end of World War II, it has been a target of predatory industrial agriculture and mafia control. Agri-coercion, manifested in toxic waste dumping and forced mono-farming of cash crops—tobacco and olives—has drastically affected the landscape, dietary traditions and foodways. Silence around political corruption and mafia control of waste management in the region has contributed further to environmental degradation and cultural malaise.
The past decade has seen significant outward migration of young people unable to establish gainful employment in the tradition of their parents and grandparents. Dusty country roads wind through massive “cemeteries of dead olive trees”—the remains of vast orchards decimated by the xylella fastidiosa bacteria that has been plaguing the region. What was once a lush expanse of fertile greens and browns is being transformed—through neglect, corruption and ineffectual public policy—into a wasteland.
But there are those who are working towards a program of “agricultural revolution,” collectively organizing the donation of land for revitalization. Their immediate practical objectives are to reintroduce seeds and plants indigenous to the region, experiment with “evolutive biodiversity,” generate crop studies that provide a clear understanding of the dire situation, and to host community meals with locally sourced produce and cultural activities that bring the community together with a sense of common good. This ultimately creates platforms where knowledge and learning can be shared across communities and transmitted to younger generations across the region.
Established in 2011, Casa delle Agriculture has grown from a small, rag-tag group of farmers and agronomists formulating a strategy to preserve their land, livelihood and traditions into a regional movement. Donatella Serafino and her husband Gigi Schiavano, a chef and an agronomist respectively, are pillars of the initiative. They recall the first meetings in 2010, when 10-12 friends began discussions on environmental sustainability. One year later, they decided to organize their first public engagement, Notte Verde, or Green Night, in an attempt to respond to questions being posed by younger generations about the future of agriculture in their village and beyond.
With an awareness that most fields in the area were no longer being cultivated, “we decided to reclaim traditional farm practices and reclaim abandoned land.” As a result of this initial convening, the collective was able to secure land donations and get started. According to Donatella, they chose the date—every August 31, the harvest moon—to attract fewer tourists and make a celebration, a festa, a “night for local people.” They convinced local businesses to use the raw materials cultivated in their field, and to donate their time and service in a common effort of activation. To establish legitimacy they involved elder farmers already organized into the nationalized union.
The fundamental question they sought to answer was “how to create jobs in fields that are very vital and very vulnerable.” Relying solely on resources from within the community, Casa delle Agriculture has faced an uphill battle and continuing difficulties without sustainable funding.
“We considered the job of farmers, as the art of farming.”
Understanding the potential of incorporating music and art, Casa delle Agriculture began working with Free Home University to test these possibilities. Notte Verde, which began as a meeting of a few like-minded environmentally conscious local leaders, has since grown into a cultural phenomenon, attracting thousands of attendees from around the country and abroad.
They began by exploring and experimenting with pedagogical and habitual connections between the day to day life of farmers, and the rituals of other, more abstract creative practices. For instance, working the fields is in and of itself a collective performative action—one that can be translated in new ways through artistic performance. Donatella and Gigi credit the enormous influence that collaboration with FHU has had on their organizing practices—the exponential enhancement of their efforts in creating a platform to educate their communities by integrating art, music, performance and food in “developing an (alternative) narrative, and tackling the question of how to deal.” And how to cease waging war against the land.
The partnership between Casa delle Agriculture and FHU is hinged on the “consideration of the field as a place of social life,” says Alessandra Pomarico, curator and founder of Free Home University. Since its inception, FHU has sought to enhance social, political, economic struggles utilizing creative practices and processes inculcated in more privileged settings (yet abstracted from the art world itself), to troubleshoot the real-life challenges of marginalized communities. “Reclaiming a relationship with the land,” through deep participatory engagement in collective imagining.
A “common orchard of minor fruit trees,” a village oven for collective use, a farmers’ market as a social space, a common kitchen, experiments in building with hemp, upcycled and agriculture waste materials, a prototype for dry toilets, a donkey bank to reintroduce the animals on the farm and protect an endangered species, support for agricultural school “for younger generations and new migrants”, for the stone operated community mill, the commission of artists to paint the village walls with social justice dedicated murals, visual and urban installations and campaign in support of the Notte Verde (Green Night), these are some of the projects dreamed and manifested by Casa delle Agricultura with FHU’s support. What started as few exploratory visits to fulfill an inquiry in food production cycles, land systems and social issues, has flourished into a long-term artistic collaboration and a friendship among collectives in a mutual aid relationship. The evolution of sophistication in their community organizing practices is visible in the success of Notte Verde and the renewed commitment of younger generations to preserving the land and local farming practices.
At 36, Donato Nuzzo currently serves as the President of the Casa delle Agriculture Co-operative which is a new-born sister initiative of the Casa delle Agriculture Association. During the day he works at a welcoming centre for migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees. In the past decade, the international refugee crisis has created jobs for locals that can supplement their income from farming. He states a primary objective is the recuperation of plant species that have been excluded by agrobusiness for the past 40 years. Cultivation as a form of transformation.
Donato is well versed in the history of agriculture in Puglia (not much different from many other places), stressing the direct connection between corporations manufacturing arms and those that produce chemicals for agriculture—a relationship that he says began in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Stockpiles of leftover chemicals made for war had to be utilized somehow. The result were experiments in the use of gamma rays, and chemically infused fertilizers and pesticides in modifying crops and increasing production capacity and crop yield. The downside was the extreme pollution of local water sources and the infusion of toxic chemical waste in the soil, which is still persistent today.
The region began experiencing corresponding health effects. In the 1970s, pathologies connected to gluten levels, obesity, and allergies increased. At the time, the use of pesticides was in evident relation to epidemic rates of liver, pancreatic, and intestinal cancer in adults, and an increase in the number of children diagnosed with leukemia, left unaddressed.
Donato’s focus is on using land that has been untouched, and has been coordinating soil testing to find suitable plots for revitalization. At the same time, he is pushing for a move back to “natural farm practices of grandparents and ancestors.” The Co-op farms following two year rotations to allow the land to rest, plants legumes to oxygenate the soil, and uses animals instead of tractors to plow fields to avoid additional damage. It’s a slow process of reverting backwards to reintroducing local species and practical knowledge that has been all but completely abandoned.
While Donato feels that young people are responding to the call to stay and returning to the land and traditional farming practices, Italian law is strict and operates not for the protection of the consumer but for the continued use of chemicals, and the new generations lack access to historical traditional knowledge, a challenge they are tackling by promoting education programs and individual learning.
Over the past five years, FHU has provided invaluable, if often immediately intangible, support to the Association and Co-op’s agricultural reform processes and in expanding and manifesting their vision. Beyond financial support, Donato cites the immaterial and cultural benefits of the ongoing collaboration: people from around the world coming to their small town has enriched their efforts—expanding their thought processes and energizing a vision into a reality.
And at the same time, Rebaz continues his work on the ground as an interpreter for new immigrants arriving in Lecce and taking names on the court with his wheelchair-basketball team. Rebaz, like so many FHU alumni, daily embodies the politics of transnational solidarity evoked in a steady learning process—community resilience and transformation through deep listening and active kindness.
Accompanying Art: Chto Delat’s Learning Stations
In 2021 in their solo show titled New Kinetic Melodies: on miracles, disasters and mutations for the future at The Gallery Apart in Rome, Chto Delat created a space where all the three films of their Zapatista trilogy created a dense space for learning by bringing together drawings, collages, textiles, a series of signaling flags, and sculptures.
Everything centred around three wooden objects on one hand a school lab desk, on another hand, a puppet theater on wheels, or a model of a sailing boat with masts-antennas and sails-banners.
Each of the Learning Stations corresponds to one of the three films and references a space where the learning films were experienced, composed, enlivened.
The first of the Zapatista films—The New Dead End #17— was with Школа Розы (the Rosa School of Engaged Art) in the village of Siverskaya near St. Petersburg, the second was with Free Home University and Casa delle Agriculture in Salento (in the South-East of Italy), and the third was with The Piraeus Open School for Migrants and State of Concept in Athens. The collages above are from Dmitry Vilensky’s series Wandering Earth. They are traces of poetic, mental, oneiric, and otherwise experienced travels that help us navigate through the dreams, hopes, and desires of the seven protagonists of the film.