Connecting to Culture

A line that cuts and divides, but also the place where things meet. A separation, but also a rule with which to come to grips, to know, interpret, understand, absorb. The border is a state of mind, the extreme point of thought that always poses a challenge: respect it or cross it? Admit impossibility or transform it in the deep regions of change?

Antonio Marras,  The Fabric of Cultures, 2006

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On April 27, 2017 Marras’ Milan concept store and art space “Nonostante Marras” hosted an exhibition and events around Fashion Revolution, a movement started in the UK following the tragedy of Rana Plaza where on April 24th 2013, more than a thousand garment factory workers died.

It was through Marras that I came across the work of one of his collaborators, Maria Lai. Her work served as inspiration when designing the  syllabus for an Italian Language class. I started to think about how I could better connect language and culture through an approach that privileged content over grammar.

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Language courses cannot be considered in isolation from “content courses.” Language courses are “content courses” par excellence in which students are able to explore, discover and learn about the socio-cultural context that is strictly related to the language they learn while acquiring and developing their skills.

Poetry is a wonderful tool for examining the power of language and words but also as a way to elicit active responses from students. In preparation for a student project aligned with Maria Lai’s work, I assigned a poem by Aldo Palazzeschi entitled “Rio Bo” that did not present many challenges from the linguistic point of view. This was a starting point to elaborate on the definition and differences between literal meaning (denotation) and symbolic meaning (connotation). This kind of practice allows us to further our reading of more difficult works.

Students were introduced to the language of poetry and encouraged to explore another kind of materiality: that of words, their weight and resonance in our embodied relationship with life, reality, the world. Students were asked to compose poems in Italian and we did editing in class.

This kind of exercise allowed them and us as a group to touch upon other layers hidden in words and language in general. This was also a chance to practice how to learn new vocabulary and understand translation as a process that involves the act of interpretation as something we do all the time as human beings.

Students explored translating how we feel and think about things in our native tongue and in the foreign language we are learning. In some cases the students’ mother tongue was not English, e.g. Chinese, Portuguese, Russian. Practice of this kind reveals our ability to navigate in different spaces and to experiment with and feel the materiality of words. Like a texture…

The midterm exam was a project to be done in steps and involved working with different media:
> read the brochure on Maria Lai’s exhibition at the MAXXI in Rome.
> do research on the artist. Prepare a power-point with the most important aspects oh her life and work.
> select one of her works and comment on it, say why it was important etc.
> select material for their own textile work that together we decided to call “Pagina cucita” (sewn page)

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We brought to class different fabrics and we discussed the possibilities. We discussed how to compose the page, how to use threads or other kinds of material, a photo, a poem, etc. Each student completed their page and as a further step they had to describe their project and explain their choices. We practiced writing this text, the vocabulary, grammar etc.

The Final Exam contained a reflection on the Lai project that intersected with art, material culture, fashion, poetry and the history of women.