Taking back Palermo from the Mafia’s grip

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All images © Alessandro Di Giugno

Alessandro Di Giugno’s images of his hometown show a city and its people refusing to be defined by recent history after four decades living with the mob’s crime and intimidation

Scrawny and unremarkable in appearance, Matteo Messina Denaro is responsible for a reign of terror in Italy spanning decades. As a leading Cosa Nostra mob boss in Palermo, he allegedly boasted that he oversaw enough murders to “fill a cemetery”. He is accused of strangling the pregnant partner of a rival Mafia boss, and of abducting the son of a man who turned state witness, keeping the boy chained up for two years before killing him and dissolving the body in acid. He went on the run in the early 1990s, but on 16 January this year, after more than 30 years evading capture, Messina Denaro was apprehended by special forces at a private cancer clinic in Palermo. Italy had finally nabbed the boss of all mob bosses.

“For 40 years, Palermo was the setting of Mafia madness, triggered by a lust for power,” says Alessandro Di Giugno of his hometown. “So many tough years, in which great authors and artists were born”; some of whom exposed a city crippled by a Mafia stronghold. Palermo became synonymous with Cosa Nostra – until recently. “The Mafia no longer has a workforce available to it as before, and my generation is perhaps the first to be aware of the change.”

“They convey calmness and pride, which is the result of social and cultural redemption – a response triggered by the Mafia massacres that have permeated every aspect of Sicilian society”

Over 10 years in the making, Di Giugno’s Palermo I’ve never hated you is a prolific series that “responds to a desire to obtain a social and environmental picture of Palermo that for too many decades has suffered the effects of a Mafia dimension rooted in its social and political fabric”. It is an open-ended project, a compendium, “to which I constantly add new images, precisely because of its anthological nature”, says Di Giugno.

Palermo I’ve never hated you is a seemingly disparate array of photos that, stitched together, creates a portrait of Palermitani who refuse to be defined by their hometown’s associations. The collection is an ensemble in which each image is integral to the whole. Di Giugno says his Palermitani are “united by a common purpose”, deeply rooted in culture and language, and decidedly territorial, as if saying with a fixed gaze and a full chest, ‘I am the face of Palermo’. “They convey calmness and pride, which is the result of social and cultural redemption – a response triggered by the Mafia massacres that have permeated every aspect of Sicilian society, from the 70s until today.”

The images are timeless, toggling between what Di Giugno describes as “the local and the universal”. Salvo Ferlito, who curated Little Anthology – a show of Di Giugno’s work at Galleria XXS in Palermo in October 2021 – describes his photographs as “connected to each other by a logical and linguistic thread that makes them tiles of an articulated mosaic coherently composed in a single stylistic and narrative whole”. For Di Giugno, the show was personal: “It’s perhaps the exhibition I have always wanted to make. It brought together a presentation of my work in the form of a dialogue between themes and subjects. The photographs were not hung on the gallery’s walls but displayed on a long lectern. Visitors were invited to move the photographs around, from one location to another.” This immersive aspect “was a pretext for having an ever-changing set-up, an ever-changing relationship between the photographs on display” – an echo of an evolving city. Palermo I’ve never hated you makes no distinction between old and new; it has no timeline, no constraints. It is fluid, capturing a people bonded by purpose, in perpetual flux – just like Palermo itself.