Expressions of Islam, hidden from view, in northeast Italy

Hidden Islam, Nicoló Degiorgis’ exploration of the hidden makeshift mosques across northeast Italy, and the silent, ecstatic worship that takes place within their walls, won the Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Award today.

“It’s a big opportunity for me as a photographer,” Degiorgis told BJP. “But it is also opportunity to give exposure to an important topic which needs to be discussed more, and with more sensibility. ”

In the Constitution of the Italian Republic, the right to worship without discrimination is a fundamental principle. The constitution was signed in 1947 after the collapse of fascism. Catholicism, Buddhism, Judaism and Mormonism are formally recognised religions in Italy. Islam, the nation’s second largest religion, is not.

According to a 2014 report by Pew, there are more than 1.5 million Muslims living in Italy, a figure expected to double by 2030. Yet, officially, there are only three mosques. Italy’s Muslim population is, by dint of the Republic, a diaspora, and Nicoló Degiorgis has visualised the disguised, temporary nature of this subjugated faith.

Italy is the home of The Vatican, the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica. Egyptian obelisks stand in piazzas across Rome, the spoils of the Empire. The home of Catholicism is monumental – an expression of faith, but also of power.

Compare this with the makeshift mosques that surround Degiorgis’ home in northeast Italy. They are incidental, improvised spaces; converted warehouses, shops, supermarkets, apartments, stadiums, gyms, garages and even a disco, found in industrial prefabs on a town’s periphery, unmarked, hidden down unkept roads and in abandoned strip malls.

In his photobook, Hidden Islam, which won the Author Book Award at the Rencontres d’Arles photography festival this year, and the First Book Award at Paris Photo today, Degiorgis prints his monochrome images of the mosques that surround his home on folded pages, concealing within the gatefold coloured interiors of Muslims in the midst of prayer. In some of the mosques, the devout are sardined in; in others just a handful of people pray together. Prayer mats are arranged, side by side, in the direction of Kaaba. Backs are bent. Food is shared. Each photograph shows a silent, reverential ecstasy in an unlikely, reinvented, but still holy place.

Nevertheless, these places of God are disguised as Islamic cultural centres, not mosques. They are, consciously and purposefully, anonymous to anyone but the congregation, for the region is rife with Islamophobic sentiment, the power base for the anti-immigrant party Lega Nord. The Pew report identified Italy as one of nine countries worldwide considered a “zone of rising religious hostility”.

Hidden Islam is an iconographic catalogue of the unfinished social development within Italian society,” curator Luigi Fassi wrote for Degiorgis’ first exhibition in 2011. “Degiorgis reveals the difficulties of this country to conceive itself as a contemporary society that has completely developed a sense of civil progress.”

This attempt to camouflage faith is not always successful. One community, Degiorgis shows, pray in the space directly in front of their warehouse. “It was registered as a cultural association,” Degiorgis says. “The municipal government decreed you cannot pray inside a cultural association, so this prayer is also a sort of protest.”

This issue of integration is complicated by the fact that fewer than one in 10 Muslims hold Italian citizenship. But the Italian government is not indifferent. In 2005, the Ministry of the Interior established the Council for Italian Islam, an umbrella body meant to co-ordinate, and give voice to, the country’s various Islamic organisations. The Council hoped to build a consensus for Islam to be legally recognised and eligible for tax bursaries, but was unable to unify the different mosques from across the Islamic world. Degiorgis’ series, for example, depicts mosques that converse in Arabic, Albanian, Macedonian, French, Urdu, Bengali and Swahili.

Degiorgis has shown skill in communicating these nuances. A former researcher on immigration issues at the University of Trieste, Degiorgis is also a graduate of the design-centric Fabrica in Treviso, and now a member of the Italian photo agency Contrasto. The book’s cover is an illustrated map of his native northeast of Italy, with a separate box indexing each place of worship, however humble. Degiorgis, from Bolzano, where he teaches a photography course in the local prison, has exhaustively created an appendix, resulting in something as sociological as it is aesthetic, as anthropological as it is artistic.

“Degiorgis provides a fascinating glimpse of a hidden world,” writes Martin Parr in Hidden Islam’s introduction. “He leaves the conclusions about this project entirely in our own hands.”

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Tom Seymour

Tom Seymour is an Associate Editor at The Art Newspaper and an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication. His words have been published in The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times, Financial Times, Wallpaper* and The Telegraph. He has won Writer of the Year and Specialist Writer of the year on three separate occassions at the PPA Awards for his work with The Royal Photographic Society.