A painter, a writer and a refugee enter a book…

When in Florence for the biennial where my wife’s sculptures were exhibited, we had a day to ourselves. Should we visit the Venice Biennale and its supposedly avant-garde modern art, or Rome, for the paintings of Caravaggio? Are we going to the future or to the past?

It was not a difficult choice. It must have been Caravaggio, whose powerful works drew you in and made you feel uncomfortable. The 16th century Italian was a notorious brawler, murderer and hoodlum and his life begged the question: the man or his work? Can we, should we separate the two? The prolific artist who was in constant exile (usually fleeing the law) had died at 38; only about 80 of his works survive.

In a brilliant essay of her new collection,black paperTeju Colewrote to visit the cities that Caravaggio had been in exile, to see his works there.

“Caravaggio’s places of exile had all become important flashpoints in the immigration crisis, which was no coincidence: he had gone there because they were ports,” Cole writes, and unexpectedly connects Caravaggio to the moral issue of our time: forced displacement and immigration.

“I could no longer separate my exploration of Caravaggio’s years of exile from what I saw around me in contemporary Italy,” he writes, “the sea was the same, the sense of endangerment rhymed. “

He reads that a sunken refugee boat is docked in Augusta and heads there. He writes movingly about the struggle and death of the desperate human cargo, his responses stemming from the confrontation with an empty boat. In Syracuse, he takes a survivor, a young Gambian, to a church where CaravaggioThe burial of Saint Lucyis housed. The writing here is down-to-earth, stripped of drama, and most powerful for that bond across the centuries.

Saul Bellow once asked: Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The best answer came from an American sports journalist, Ralph Wiley. “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus,” he wrote, “unless you find profit in fencing the universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.”

We live in each other’s worlds. The Tolstoys and the Shakespeares, the Kalidasas and the Mishimas belong to all of us. Wiley’s response accurately identifies “how we live: in a polyphony of cultural influence that is not overshadowed by other facts of race, age, gender, citizenship, or historical period,” Cole writes, eliminating the air of “cultural appropriation”. argument so dear to some contemporary decision makers of social norms.

In a crude version of this formulation, a non-Western writer cannot write about Western art (although the traffic has been in the opposite direction for centuries). Cole, a Nigerian-American, essayist, novelist, photographer and rule breaker, in this essay points out that Caravaggio is the Caravaggio of the Zulus, while reminding us why the suffering or death of any person should affect us all.

Few write about the interconnectedness – of people, of ideas, of writing techniques, of history – with such acumen.

(Suresh Menon is editor, The Hindu).

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