This story first appeared in August 2017.
Johanne Affricot is a woman comfortable with complex intersections. Her own identity has Caribbean and African roots but meshes with a distinct European flair. Her work as founder and creative director of GRIOT magazine pushes the boundaries of social commentary with piercing artistic vision. And even her latest video series, appropriately titled The Expats, follows the complications of being black Italian while living internationally. In this interview, Johanne unpacks the personal motivation behind her work and how she uses art to raise the visibility of Black Italians, both at home and abroad.
Let’s start from the beginning. Where did you grow up and what is your background?
I was born and raised in Rome. My mother is Haitian and my father is Ghanaian-American. I grew up cross-culturally. If I’m not mistaken, the first time I travelled to Haiti with my mother, I was only four. I must thank her because she infused me with love for the island and my Haitian roots. I still need to learn more about Ghanaian culture, which I’m slowly discovering.
I was raised in a multi-African Diasporan environment since my mother’s Haitian cousins were living in Rome and married Senegalese and Congolese men. I remember we always spent our Sundays with them and with my cousins (their sons). We listened to the Haitian and Senegalese music and I remember I used to watch the DIY (do-it-yourself) ‘90s-style Congolese music videos (which in my opinion, UNESCO should deem a treasure of humanity <laughs>) and eat Haitian food. I would hear the stories my Senegalese uncle recounted about his country and its history. The stories were sometimes very sad. So, if I had to identify myself I would say that I am an Italian-Haitian-Ghanaian and a proudly Pan- African woman.
What was your experience as someone of black identity being raised in Italy? How does that factor into your overall sense of Italian identity?
With regard to the past, I can tell you that my experience of being black was singular. I mean, I knew I was the only black in the room, but at the time I always failed to answer “the questions.” It was as if my dominant Italian identity feared letting my other identities emerge on the surface. I didn’t have other black Italians my age to relate with. If they were there, I failed to relate with them in the past like I have in recent years. And I grew up in a very white environment. I didn’t suffer because of it but I think it is the reason why it took me a long time to be where I am today.
When I turned twenty-one, I travelled to Haiti. I remember that that year I told my mother: “Mum, I want to go to Haiti and New York this summer. I want to stay with my family.” I hadn’t gone to Haiti for eight years. At twenty-five, I had an internship at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (I was studying Communication and then Cooperation to Development at the university). They made me a special contract as external expert that allowed me to travel to Africa for the first time. I went to Mali. I think that experience is maybe the first one which stirred my need to reconnect with my identity.
Photo courtesy of Marco Brunelli
I met some local creatives, artisans, and other professionals who worked for the “The Role of Women in the Economy of Sub-Saharan Countries” conference organized by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The day before I left, I was riding in a car to the hotel that passed the Niger river and was captivated with the beautiful sunset light and the voices of some young Malians I spent the afternoon with (one of them was the son of the Italian Counsellor in Mali but he was black). I remember I told myself, “Why have I never seen this Africa on the Italian television? Why do they think they (we) are only poor, not smart, and always in need?” Of course there was poverty but, like in Haiti, the air was also filled with carefreeness, normality, positivity. You see?
I also met an African-American artist whose art shook me into action. When I went to the Burning Man [festival] in 2014, I participated in an event (there are many events running in the eight days Burning Man takes place) called “Being Black at Burning Man.” That was my first experience hearing people share their experience as black people in a predominantly white environment, the opposite of the Afropunk Meraviglia. Both Burning Man and Afropunk were amazing — such revealing and inspiring experiences.
So, I’ve started catching up on all the time lost, questioning myself, my black Italian identity, and what I wanted to do. Every day new questions arise, which is the amazing thing of this life journey, because it pushes me to talk to myself. It continuously shapes my way of thinking and my creativity. It is also painful; I don’t want to be too naïve, because this journey often makes you face a reality that does not reflect your vision at all.
And there’s a lot — a lot of cultural work to do in Italy if you really want to improve the situation which, in these summer days, seems it’s getting worse due to the many episodes of racism experienced by black Italians and Africans living in Italy.
The problem is that there are some in Italy, as in many other European countries, who say they are leftists or vote Democrat (the so-called Liberals) that are very attracted by black culture, especially African-American culture. However, when they have to deal with black Italian fellows and their struggles — forget it, it’s a mess. On one hand, they think (and sometimes say) they are “helping you” and make you feel as if you should be grateful for their help. On the other hand, they don’t pay any attention to your struggles, because they are fond of the other black experiences and cultures.It’s important to say “some” and not all because you also find people prone to hear you and help you amplify your voice, like Jazz:Re:Found, not to replace it.
You are the founder and creative director of GRIOT Magazine. For the uninformed, share a little bit about GRIOT. What was your mission when you created it?
GRIOT is a web magazine and also a creative hub that designs and develops projects in the culture, art, and music fields, since I’ve been working in communications and cultural/art events for ten years.
Five years ago, I worked in a creative agency and I was the project manager of a very big project sponsored by Italian beer brand Nastro Azzurro — Peroni. The project was called ‘Nastro, Say Yes to It,” where IT stands for Italy, Italianness aimed at celebrating Italian creativity through fashion, urban art, and design. We launched a call for arts. Artists uploaded the images of their artworks and projects on Nastro Azzurro’s website we created for the occasion. There were three curators who had to pick fifteen talents to be exhibited in the final event. There were also twelve emerging artists, pre-selected by the curators, who had to create site-specific installations for the final event. Well, no black Italian creatives sent their works. And the audience who attended the final event that took place in Milan during Fashion Week was only white. I vividly remember wondering why there were not black Italian creatives, designers, fashion designers, artists. Where were they? Did they exist?
This was another catalyst for creating GRIOT, which has a cultural, creative, and artistic approach. I launched it two and a half years ago. GRIOT aims at inspiring, sharing, spreading culture. It celebrates aesthetic, creative and cultural diversity. It’s my passion and it reflects my life, who I am, and my work.
The mission was and still is to create a space where black and African descendant creatives, artists, cultural producers (in Italy, Europe, Africa, USA, Canada — the list is long) can feel represented, and be inspired and related to. A cultural, artistic, and physical space to meet other black people. A physical space where everyone, no matter their skin color or cultural background, can discover and learn new, interesting things. A space which also says to the international black, African — and non-African — community, “Hey guys, there’s also this creative and cultural Italy, even if you don’t see it visibly when you come here or when you watch TV documentaries or read articles on Italy.” That’s why I launched a new video section called “Motherland▷.” You can find stories focusing on Afro-Italian creatives and artists, people who inspire us the most, and stories of black and African descendant artists who happen to visit and/or live in Italy. You might also find stories of other creatives not necessarily black or Afro.
GRIOT takes a specific perspective. It marries social commentary, especially on issues of black identity, through an artistic voice. Was this intentional or was this naturally reflective of the creative process?
Yes, it was intentional because it’s a result of the creative process. Since I come from a creative and cultural working background, I felt that this was the best and most familiar way to me to marry social commentary with an artistic voice. I can’t imagine doing it in a different way. I’m not saying I’m not able, but this is how I feel comfortable.
Trailer for The Expats (English version)
Last year, you did a beautiful series on the experiences of Black Italians abroad. What was the catalyst for the videos? What was your rationale for this series?
We, as black Italians, are poorly represented in Italian mainstream media. I bet that some people don’t even know about our existence, both in Italy and abroad, even if the panorama is slowly changing thanks to the work of many artists and cultural producers.
There’s an experience I can mention and that I bet every Afro-Italian once – at least – lived in their life. That is when some white Italians hear you speaking Italian and tell you, “Oh Jesus, your Italian is perfect. But where are you from? Why do you speak Italian so fluently?”
Most of the time when Italian media deals with the “Afro world,” it mainly shows (stereotyped) stories of African immigrants/migrants who arrived here via sea, clumped into small boats. They rarely air stories — normal stories — of black Italians. That’s why I shot the documentary series “The Expats, The Untold Stories of Black Italians Abroad,” where abroad stands for both trying to make your own way outside your country and always being perceived as someone who is not part of the Italian culture, but a person coming “from abroad.” Since there are many white Italians emigrating abroad, I tried to create a short circuit narrative aimed at levelling the field and shaking any narrative system which pretends not to acknowledge this contemporary Italy. We are Italians.
Also, by using the term expat in the title, I wanted to call into question who gets to be called an immigrant, who gets to be an expat, and the privilege associated with whiteness in the international sphere. A few years ago I read an article on The Guardian that dealt with these topics, (“Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrant?”). It inspired me a lot.
Anyway, the journey is the central element of this experience which links each expat, in different ways, to a path that has already been taken by their own families and to a larger narrative of immigration, borders, belonging, and home. In the series, they discuss their new and past experiences, being Italian both at home and abroad. Of recognizing and rejecting identities, racism, love for their country, and disappointment, and obviously of their creative jobs and projects, because we are not a monolithic block.
Photos courtesy of Marco Brunelli
What was the response from both Italians and non-Italians?
We received a very good response from some mainstream Italian online newspapers and vertical blogs and magazines. And also from the international audience, thanks to the support I was given by Afropunk and She Leads Africa, and today by you, The Black Expat. Many Italians and African-Italians joined the conversation and shared the episodes. I loved when I would hear, “This is so amazing and liberating when you see stories you can relate to.”
Do you feel that people are still learning about the Afro-Italian experience?
Definitely. It takes a long time. I, too, am still learning. Not only are the majority of white Italians starting to acknowledge this Afro-Italian and Afro-International experience, but Afro-Italians themselves. There are many who were and still are the only blacks in the room and don’t know other black Italians or they didn’t grow up surrounded by a black/African family. Or they’ve never seen all these stories featuring black creatives. And I’m profoundly happy and grateful when they write and thank me for the work we, as a team, are doing, or when they share some contents they would love to see and read on GRIOT mag. It’s important to me because they see and understand what we are doing, what we are trying to do. They believe in us.
One important thing to take into account is that in Italy there is not the same black consciousness or pride as in the States, the U.K., or France. We need to build it and it’s not easy because black Italians are not as united and organized as the African-Americans, British or French.
But we at GRIOT are positive, and despite the big efforts and obstacles we face every day, we keep focusing and doing our best to make our stories more visible, by featuring as many black creatives, artists, and cultural producers as we can.
What is next for you and GRIOT?
GRIOT is now designing a project for Jazz:Re:Found, a very big music festival that is occurring in Turin on November 29th through December 3rd. Last year, they organized a panel called Stay Black. Afropunk editor in chief Lou Constant-Desportes and I were invited to participate as panelists. The purpose of the panel was a reflection on black music, its messages, and the increasing attention it is gaining among a heterogeneous audience.
What was supposed to be the final phase of the panel turned into a real debate. I turned it into a debate because it was necessary, mandatory. There were some Afro-Italians among the audience who attended the panel, some whom I had personally invited, who tried to make their voices heard, and they spoke up about being often left out of the artistic, creative, and cultural discussion and space.
The bitter remarks at certain points did not take anything away from the discussion and every instance was heard and argued. In the end, it was a good opportunity for both confrontation and reflection. A moment of growth and learning. And even if it was too white-centered, I was happy that the festival contacted me recently for a media partnership and have embraced my idea of creating and co-developing a project that is more aligned with GRIOT, sharing the black Italian perspective and focusing on some of the topics GRIOT looks at every day.
This was the option I put on the table because I don’t want just GRIOT’s name and logo on their communication and visuals. We want to involve and give space to as many black Italian artists and as creatives we can, to show that we exist, that we produce music, art, culture. That we create. That there are many of us and that we are different. We are definitely trying to make it happen. So, we will see.