This year Misteri e Fuochi (Mysteries and Fires) an international project organized by Teatro Pubblico Pugliese (Bari, Italy) has been focused on the theme “pilgrimage, a spiritual and cathartic path through the territories intersecting the visions of the passion and contemporary suffering”.

When we talk about “pilgrimage” we always think about religion. For example the Holy Land acts as a focal point for the pilgrimages of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. “Samsara” that in Sanskrit is used with reference to the circle death/rebirth means pilgrimage in the eastern philosophies. However we have to re-think this theme in its universal meaning: a journey in search of significances (a journey to holy places or to seek fortune or to look for something hidden in ourselves). It is a journey that connects us to the holy whatever it means. Every real or metaphorical journey related to memories or spiritual search is a pilgrimage. Puglia, the land in which I was born, a land of fires, mysteries, processions and Saints, hosts one of the three pilgrimage routes to the Holy Land and it has always been considered the Door of the Orient. “Here in Puglia the route of gathering is also the route of passion, myriads of processions and sacred rituals linked to the Via Crucis remind it; a place where very ancient spiritual traditions may encounter reflections on the contemporary man’s condition, a place of transit in which to leave a mark”.

One of the most highly awaited shows in this edition has been the performance Passage through the world commissioned by TPP Teatro Pubblico Pugliese, curated by Franco Laera and produced by Change Performing Arts. For this special occasion the International leading contemporary artist Shirin Neshat and her life partner, the filmaker Shoja Azari, worked on images, video and space concept of the project while Iranian musician and singer Mohsen Namjoo on music, vocals and live performance to create a real masterpiece availing the participation of Faraualla Vocal Ensemble and the Mourning Woman of Bari Old Town. In fact after having visited the city of Bari emblematically projected for centuries as an ideal bridge between the European and Middle East culture, the three artists involved a group of women of the old city, last witnesses of the mourning rites in funeral ceremonies, and the vocal ensemble Faraualla, committed to the preservation of traditional music and popular songs of Puglia. The project has mixed “musical forms and echoes of the Islamic culture intersect with elements of the Christian culture and religion in an experience of genuine artistic and creative crossover, a real reverse shot to the echo of dramatic events of violence and intolerance that bring bloodshed to our days”.

Under the dome of the foyer of Teatro Margherita in Bari the scene conceived as a circle was occupied by two groups of women moving around the only man present on the scene who was in the centre. The public was organized also in a circle while at the four corners there were four monumental projections of women almost motionless and always in black and white. The only colours visible on the scene were white and black. The black-suited women are ten mourning women of Bari old town chanting prayers as in the ancient funeral rituals of which in Puglia, Basilicata, Calabria and Sardinia still remains occasional tracks. To be dressed in white were the four members of the group Faraualla whom vocalizations intersected the voice and the music of the Iranian musician Mohsen Namjoo playing the setar, a traditional Iranian stringed instrument. So the only colours other than white and black were the colours of the sound, the music that as explained by Shirin Neshat "is the only language that does not need translation and produces instinctive emotions". The colours of sound combined East and West, Islam and Christianity, black and white, life and death, light and darkness.

Don't underestimate the link between the theme (pilgrimage) and the conditions of the artists. In fact the Latin root of the word “peregrinus” means “stranger, exile, immigrant”. Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari are living in exile over the last three decades as well as Namjoo has been exiled from 2007 because a song he wrote and recorded (Shams) included a quotation from Koran.

This performance recalls almost two previous artwork created by Shirin Neshat: the two screen video Turbulent (1998) and the video Passage (2001) created with the collaboration of American composer Philip Glass. In Turbulent the subject was the absence of Iranian women from musical practice. The artwork conceived around the opposites (black/white, male/female, full/empty… ) showed a man (Shoja Azari) performing to a full house a traditional love song with lyrics by the Iranian mystic Rumi and a woman (Sussan Deyhim) performing with emotional intensity to an empty auditorium. Passage was an allegorical artwork about the inevitability of certain circles (death and rebirth, darkness and light, etc.). Here black-suited men carry a corpse in a long journey ending in a desert burial site while a group of black-veiled women excavated a bare-handed singing a primal chant suggesting a communal ritual. With her words she “used symbolism to meditate on tradition and tell the story of human loss, hope and renewal in the face of existential mystery wonderment and awe”.

Passage through the world probably started from these themes acquiring specific characteristics based on the possibilities to connect different worlds and cultures. The circle is a symbol of eternity, of time, of spirituality and personal growth. The pilgrimage is a journey and the journey is an allegory of the life, a symbol of the man condition, its wish to know but also to face the unknown, to grow wiser its spirituality and life. The same word “passage” means the journey from a point to another. The performance has been unforgettable (also because the first in Italy) and its rhythms and images go strongly to the heart.

Images, video and space concept by Shoja Azari and Shirin Neshat.
Music, vocals and live performance by Mohsen Namjoo with the participation of Faraualla Vocal Ensemble and the Mourning Woman of Bari Old Town.
A project commissioned by TPP Teatro Pubblico Pugliese, curated by Franco Laera and produced by Change Performing Arts. Photo credit: Luciano Romano