TRANSMIGRATIONS : Indian and Italian Times

INDIA from afar

through the images by BIANCA SFORNI


BIANCA SFORNI, Le Corbusier Watches at Mill’s Owners Association, Ahmedabad, 2016

Confession of a soul from Charles Louis de Montesquieu’s Histoire véritable, True Story (mid eighteen century):

“No doubt I was the biggest rascal in all Indias, and the servant of an old gymnosophist [naked wise man] who spent fifty years to obtain a happy transmigration and, practicing rough penances, made himself a skeleton in this world not to be transformed into a vile animal in the afterlife. As for me, persisting in a cruel behavior at every occasion, I was terrible, executing all the animals falling into my hands. To tell the truth I didn’t dare touch the old cockerels in my master’s court, or some old goose almost sixty years old, and I took good care of an old wrinkled cow that made me crazy, because she didn’t have teeth to graze anymore and, when my master ordered me to walk her around, I was almost forced to hold her in my arms.” (Montesquieu)

Many stories of cruelties follow. From the time they happened to the confession we read, there is a gap of four thousand years.

“I engaged myself in the seduction of a young woman. Her husband happened to discover it and killed me. Because my soul was brand new and hadn’t yet animated other bodies, she was directly transported into a place where philosophers had to judge her. They measured the weight of my whole life: the scales fell violently on the side of the evil acts. I was condemned to migrate through the most shameful animals … but, instead of been stunned, distressed or complaining, I kept my usual good mood and, seeing other shadows scared, I burst into laughter. One of the major philosophers admired my bravery and became benevolent: ‘To show you that I appreciate your firmness, I will grant you the only gift which is in my power: it is the faculty to remember everything that will happen in all the revolutions of your being.'” (Montesquieu)

BIANCA SFORNI, Regina della Notte, Kolkata 2016

BIANCA SFORNI, Quando le ruote non avevano i raggi, 2016

BIANCA SFORNI, Agricultura, 2016

BIANCA SFORNI, Pastoral, 2016

I also transmigrated more than once in my life. I have been a scholar long enough to absorb so many stories from the past, from centuries old volumes that had lost their weight from the infinitely small insects eating the paper, that in the end I found some treasures never touched, never studied, but was forced to abandoned them. The academic rules were hard, and their imposition on the volumes and on me was an insane mortification. I saved one volume, deciding to expose it to the public as much as I could. This time I succeeded: Elvira Sellerio –  publisher from Palermo – put it in her Blue Collection: Montesquieu, Storia Vera, 1983 (second edition 1991). I translated the little book into Italian, with an essay I wrote realizing that our Western way of looking at India’s religious beliefs is marked by a misunderstanding we will not overcome. Transmigrations are only deaths without pain, they won’t be stopped by human desire to trace their history. To us from Europe, instead, memory is the only road to reconnect the fragments of an invisible movement. I don’t know why, we call it history.

BIANCA SFORNI, A Street is a Room Without a Roof, Kolkata 2016

When my friend Bianca recently went to India, for real, she probably borrowed the spirit of some soul who allowed her to see, through a transparent light, figures moving across a living space in which there is no distance between past and present. Humans merge into a sort of density, objects lose their opacity. Stones and metals show through their bodies the shape of the mountains they are made of. All of that in order “to avoid the paralyzing effects of experience, to use the mind in different ways.” (John Cage)

BIANCA SFORNI, Dancer, 2016

BIANCA SFORNI, Comari, 2016

BIANCA SFORNI, Our Cousins: the Sacred Squirrels, 2016

And now, even knowing that the description of my very first transmigration is affected by frames of thought rooted in Italy, in the Greek-Roman civilization, I lay it down next to Bianca’s Indian photographs for this is, to me, the only way to figure out what a transmigration is, without relying on two thousand years of books. My personal attempt at stepping into that world.

BIANCA SFORNI, Librarian, 2016

I was a girl looking down at the floor of a semicircular room of an apartment, the entrance room. A combination of red, green, gray and brown stones irregularly cut and randomly recombined. They were as hard as me, standing up on them and discovering my feet with clean shoes over that shiny surface. My mother brought me there. She was there and then she was not.

A small suitcase remained next to me, I was wearing a red coat with golden bottoms I didn’t like. I was ten years old. Nobody had spoken a word to me about my new life in the city, in an apartment of two sisters, friends of my grandfather. There I was. Not at all in my mind that I was going to spend in that place the next eleven years of my life.

Middle school was about to start in a few days. It was the end of September. I was scared by how neat and clean things were around me. The house was built with a curved wall on one side, as the building looked half toward a square, and half toward a street. Vibrations produced by the tramway were so strong that, at the passage on the curve, the walls trembled.

I don’t remember having feelings of any kind: I was an empty body quickly growing on a couple of legs, with short hair, and my usual freedom compressed in another me, out of that house. It took a long time before a soul joined my body again. When it happened, she found a different person: taller, language cleaned up, no more countryside accent after a constant work of correction, sort of linguistic surgery operated by the sisters. A new language called French had started to spurt from my lips, my brain was lost in rules, grammars, Latin, my behavior cleaned up from a body-language considered socially dangerous. For a street child from a village, education was hard. My natural paradise was lost.

I realized a soul (mine? someone else’s?) had reentered my mind, guiding at least some of my wishes, when despite the foreign environment, made out of replicated mental habits strongly persistent in the aristocratic principles rubbed on me every day by the two aristocratic sisters, I found my new freedom reading books. I fell in love with them. The first very long book I read, at 13, was Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, of course in French.


BIANCA SFORNI, Anand’s Magic Guardians, Ahmedabad 2016

“keep a clicker / in / your pocket wittgenstein / just in case you / encounter / ugliness that needs / transformation / ugliness that / after / one / click / you accept / as beautiful / transformation / sudden change / of / mind / the third india is dharma / good’n’evil / true’n’false / right’n’wrong / in the / moral sense / discrimination / following in a general way.” John Cage, A Year from Monday, 1963

INDIA: Images of Silence and Light

January – February 2016



(All the photographs: © Bianca Sforni)

INDIA 2016-

Le Corbusier Watch at Mill's Owners Assiciation, Ahmedabad

Le Corbusier, Clock at Mill Owners Association, Ahmedabad

INDIA 2016-
As soon as the British stopped playing games in the Indian subcontinent  Le Corbusier clocks started to turn at the Mill Owners Association Building in Ahmedabad, it is 1954.

The Mill Owners Building is the first of four completed commissions by Le Corbusier in the city. Ahmedabad? You may dream about Arabian Nights but it is the sixth largest city in India and a wealthy one. The Sabarmati river no longer kisses the Gandhi Ashram and concrete walls separate the water from the ghats.* No longer the precarious encampments made by nomadic tribes out of mud and clay occupying the riverbed in the dry season are to be seen here. Just as if they had been washed away forever:  modernization is a very powerful monsoon. As well, no more spinning wheels’ subtle noise, no more bleating from the herds and no more discussions between Gandhi and his wife Kasturba, but the carefully designed Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Museum, planned by the master architect Charles Correa in 1963, stands in for them. Home of the ideology that set India free, a very moving place.

* steps leading to the water.

An iconic image of Gandhi found at the Mill Owners Association. Background, Morak stone paneling:

INDIA 2016-
The decade following 1947 independence is punctuated by the will of a nation to represent the new democratic state in fieri, and modern structures are conceived. Thanks to Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, Louis Khan is consulted and he conceives the domicile of IIM (Indian Institute of Management).
‘’In Absolute Glory, as the order is respected.” Walls of red bricks folding the space around a symbolic central piazza. An arched ceiling covering an elevated corridor makes you think you are ambling through a city of the Renaissance: not far from Milano, Vigevano, where Leonardo da Vinci was designing under the Sforza.

IIM-INDIA 2016F-BS-1_2016_IIM-student-quarters-detail Classic and immaculate. Louis Kahn, detail from IIM, 1962

The aim was to enable future generations to operate in the new born India: it is still happening, as the IIM is considered today India’s best business school. IIM, a modern construction looking old, bricks eaten away by humidity and sun. The sand of Gujarat used for the bricks contains salt, the same salt covering the soil of the nearby Kutch region, through which Gandhi marched with his followers. Salt makes it a challenge to preserve and maintain this magic place, simple in its design, classic and monumental.

Louis Khan’s architecture is about light. In his own words : “Material is spent light: The mountain, the earth, the stream, the air and the wind are spent light.” Matter is burned light, fire. “A wild dance of flames that settles is felt as material.”

You talk about fire and here it is. All over India. The rays burning our pale skin are worshipped by the Hindus as Surya, the God sun.  Many temples have been erected in his honor for thousands of years. A very ancient practice. The sun that gives us light and life. After that, the atomic bomb.

A mysterious shrine or symbolic offering to the gods found on a pic of the Aravalli mountains:

misterious shrine or simbolic offering to the gods found on a pic of the Aravalli mountains

INDIA 2016-

 Banjara : Fragment of Gala Head Covers, circa 1900- 1930. Abstract geometric patterns reflect landscape and nature.

Banjara or Vanjai means trader in Sanskrit. They were merchants and carriers of grain and salt and traveled the lands of Central India, the Deccan and Western India. From the dry plateau of Northwestern India these ancient traders of grain, dates, salt and coconuts went as far as Spain. It was around one thousand years ago when the migration started … the Roma … wanderers, not easily compatible with European order and laws in the present day.

The Roma are the descendant of those Indian traders and share the same language. Their language is also like the one spoken by the people who settled in the valleys of the Swiss Alps: Romaji. Their life in today’s India, indeed, is not easier: in the state of Rajasthan and Maharashtra they are in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category. It all started during the 18th Century: the British colonial authorities placed the community under the bounds of the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. This act restrained the movements of the Banjara people.
While the history of human beings is defined by migrations and wanderings, borders designate countries. Visas and permissions where required, during this trip, to continue the exploration of the sub-Indian continent and to visit high security and ritual places. Our destination was Shere-bangla-nagar, the masterfully designed home with gardens built like a fortress by Louis Khan as a miracle on a lake. What a grand one. While the Assembly building is created in concrete, the residential buildings are conceived in exposed red brick.

Shere-bangla-nagar by Louis Kahn:

INDIA 2016-Dhaka

INDIA 2016-Dhaka

INDIA 2016-Dhaka

INDIA 2016-Dhaka


INDIA 2016-Dhaka

INDIA 2016-Dhaka


The miracle started in 1963, the first time Louis Khan landed in Dhaka, on the delta of the Ganga river.  It was the first of his numerous exhausting and exciting visits to the site, as those years where marked by turmoil, military coups, ethnic and linguistic discrimination and by civil disobedience. Dhaka will become the capital of Bangladesh in 1971.
Shere-bangla-nagar was realized, thanks to the will of Khan’s first trained Bengali pupil, an architect and a powerful nature, Muzharul Islam, the son of a mathematician. But only in 1992 were the sessions of the parliament held in the new building.

What took an American architect there? The answer is Art. This what I think. Maybe also politics, but Shere-bangla-nagar, the capital complex of the Bangladesh National Assembly, with its Assembly Building, a Prayer Hall (facing west) and the living quarters for the administration people, is fiercely standing under the tropical sun as evidence of an heroic deed of a nation and of an architect. A Rare thing.
Louis Kahn worked on it from 1963 to 1974. Built like a fortified citadel, this is also his last, grand project. On March 17, 1974, Louis Kahn was found dead in Penn Station, New York City, on his way back from India.



The home of Raw Art — 137 ac (artist collective)

PARIS 1947         NEW YORK 2011

A full day of snow in New York was enchanting enough, like an invitation to silence the tricks of the mind with a white curtain over the pupils. For the opening of an art brut exhibition, American and contemporary, it was a good omen. I’m not reviewing the exhibition. This is a story of friendship, hope and despair bringing up, despite sixty years of distance and different countries, the same wish for freedom and authenticity in art expressed by The Company of Raw Art in Paris in 1947. Ideas and projects came from Jean Dubuffet, Jean Paulhan, Charles Ratton, Henri-Pierre Roché, and Michel Tapié:

“We are seeking artistic works such as paintings, drawings, statues and statuettes, all types of objects owing nothing to the imitation of works of art seen in museums, salons and galleries. They should put originality to use, along with the most spontaneous and personal inventions, they should be productions which the creator drew from deep within, the result of his [her] own inclination and moods, […] regardless of the conventions currently in use. Works without masks or contraints. We believe these abilities exist (at least at times) in every man [and woman].”

Bianca Sforni, Annatina Miescher, and Jonathan McVey, others around them, are first of all connected by friendship. And one idea lives in their minds: there is no such thing as outsider art. There are artists. Some of them were treasure islands found over decades of psychiatric practice by Dr. Annatina Miescher: they were self taught, sometimes in a strong conflict with life. In 2011, after twenty years as a director of the Outpatient Chemical Dependency Program of the Bellevue Hospital in New York, Dr. Miescher invited them to be part of the 137ac (artist collective) and share a studio. Some of their works were hung on the walls of Bianca Sforni’s Noho studio on March 5th for an exhibition blessed by the snow. Bianca, or you could call her White, is a belated gift I received from Claudia, a friend for all her life, after she passed away. She was Bianca’s gallerist in Milan. I met Bianca in New York and we ate and ate remembering Claudia who used to love a great deal of good food. What’s stronger than friendship?

Here’s the story, written by Annatina doctor, with images of the 137ac studio first and of her Bellevue Hospital office between words.




137ac (artist collective) by Annatina Miescher

The 429.8 square feet studio is on the third floor of 137 West 14th Street in New York City. Four artist work there sharing all supplies. Kenny Guttierrez, the landlord, offered them a space in the building where he is creating a community he named Rat Park. He thought they would bring good karma. My parents pay the rent. I clean and help stretch canvas. Jonathan McVey made me stick to my dream and became my associate. We created a non-profit building support for the collective. We have no written contract with the painters, they have it clear: the studio air is tolerance, care and respect while they inspire and challenge each other to explore and develop their talent to the fullest. They have their own keys.

The four artists currently working at the studio are Paula Isaac, Janet Laing, Richard Lau and Uman while the collective counts several more. Painting need or desire and life circumstances do not always go hand in hand and the studio is small. Each artist has an extraordinary life course and could write a tremendous book, but they do not write, they paint. I hope you get to know them.

Now the dream. Mid 2010 I ended my over two decades career in Bellevue Hospital in order to continue practicing psychiatry based on my experience and ethical values outside of an institution in which the bureaucratic constraints had suddenly risen above the patient care. My time at Bellevue had been wonderful, I was the director of the Outpatient Chemical Dependency Program and together with the dedicated staff and patients was able to build a wholesome community for people to practice sober life in a fun loving oasis that included art, food, patient government and economy, pets and gardening integrated with first class medical and psychiatric treatments. My office was an art collection of patient works mixed with found objects and found animals. A timber wolf, a one eyed black cat called Six Toes, a pigeon, a pair of gay doves and three cockatiels roamed free in my office. Art has always been a way of life for me and I apply it to everything. “Practicing psychiatry is like making sculptures with found objects, you take inventory of what the person carries and help them balance it to walk on in life.” One day an Art Brut authority visited my office and was impressed by the art. His words still resonate in my heart: “you have to make them paint”, while his name faded. 

010_14A (3)
018_6Aannatina & birds


So I had a dream debt: to see what the talented people I had met there could do if given the opportunity. This opportunity arrived in December 2011. I was introduced to Bjarne Melgaard who was looking for a source of painters to collaborate with. He offered to share his personal studio in Bushwick with painters without formal art education or contact with the contemporary art world. I brought eleven artists and became myself part of the group.

Bjarne was an exceptional host, he made it a point to not interfere with our work and gave us unlimited access to art supplies. We understood he was looking for authenticity. Then he offered us his own painted canvas to collaborate on and asked us to do papier mâché pieces to illustrate a book we did not read.

He included our works in his show at Ramiken Crucible, Ideal Pole part two: all words destroy and brought the collaborative works and all the papier mâché works to London in September 2012, to be in his ICA show, called “a House to Die in”, our group was called the Bellevue Survivors. Our time in Melgaard’s studio came to an end.

Words of Melgaard in Opening Ceremony News News, October 2, 2013
“these people make art not as a career choice but because they needed it for survival. Their way of relating to the images and the pictures was so different from my own. It was so direct and so private and so spontaneous, all at the same time.”

We continued the group in a smaller version and adopted the name 137ac. the Bellevue Survivors name inspired people in the press to be at liberty to refer to us neither as people nor artists but “the schizophrenics”. Melgaard continued to donate supplies, and curated our first 137ac show :”Dans ma Chambre” in a pop up space in the Chelsea art Gallery district in May 2013. While we learned how to work as a collective we had another show “Artists in Resonance” at Adjacent to Life ( curated by Mark Roth in October 2013 and offered a couple of studio art fairs.

Then Bianca Sforni offered to host and curate a show “Art Brut” in her beautiful Bleecker Street Studio in March 2015. She had followed the collective since its beginnings in Melgaard’s studio. Her professionalism, dedication and care challenged us to realize we have a responsibility to take our place in the contemporary art scene.

CIRCUS 2 : Bianca Sforni visits Federico Fellini

Rosanna Albertini about



“On n’est pas artiste sans qu’un grand malheur s’en soit mêlé. De haine contre quel Dieu? Et pourquoi le vaincre?” (JEAN GENET) You won’t be an artist without the big danger which goes along with an artist’s life. Which God would you hate? And why should you defeat him? [her? it?]

An odd burden hangs over each artist, over each of us; it takes at least two forms: the one in the mirror, we fill it daily with imagined qualities. The other is the image of us in other peoples’ eyes, the one who dances in their minds. They are both images.

Their truth fades away like clouds, never stops changing. But we all strive to shape an imaginary “us” as if we were acrobats. A tightrope-walker feels like dying before he walks on the rope, not when he falls. As Genet said, he dies before appearing.

Paris, 1992. Bianca had prepared her meeting with Federico with the same anxiety of an acrobat before the show. Six months were consumed by waiting, asking for a day, a time. Letters and phone. It was the dawn of fax machines. E-mails only for scientists in research centers.

Rome, Summer 1993. At Fellini’s door, she rings the bell. It sounds like chirping birds. They were maybe in her mind. Her folder with new CIRCUS photos tight under her arm, she is on the rope. When Federico opens the door the windows of the wall behind him spread a sweet light, slightly golden, typical of the Roman afternoons. “Bianca, ma quanto sei piccola” -he exclaims. Piccola means young, in this case. “How young you are.” Not a giant, but Bianca isn’t short neither.

He had probably imagined a tough professional photographer at the top of her career, if she had dared to be in touch with him and more, to ask him to write a text about her images taken during Circus performances. In front of him was a dreamer, a young woman petrified by fear. They talked about cats and monkeys. A bunch of cats were at home in that room, one was striped. Federico looked at the photographs and said “Yes, I’ll do it.” And he did it for sure, from up there in the sky, throwing words among the falling leaves. October 31 he left the earth.

BIANCA SFORNI, Circus 2, 1992, Hand colored gelatin silver prints, 23 x 17.5 cm Courtesy of the artist

BIANCA SFORNI, Circus 2, 1992,   Hand colored gelatin silver print, 23 x 17.5 cm
Courtesy of the artist

BIANCA SFORNI, Circus 2, 1992   Hand colored gelatin silver prints, 17.5 x 23 cm Courtesy of the artist

BIANCA SFORNI, Circus 2, 1992    Hand colored gelatin silver print, 17.5 x 23 cm
Courtesy of the artist

BIANCA SFORNI, Circus 2, 1992   Hand colored gelatin silver prints, 23 x 17.5 cm Courtesy of the artist

BIANCA SFORNI, Circus 2, 1992    Hand colored gelatin silver print, 23 x 17.5 cm
Courtesy of the artist

BIANCA SFORNI, CIRCUS 2, 1992   Hand colored gelatin silver prints, 23 x 17.5 cm Courtesy of the artist

BIANCA SFORNI, Circus 2, 1992    Hand colored gelatin silver print, 23 x 17.5 cm
Courtesy of the artist

BIANCA SFORNI, Circus 2, 1992    Hand colored gelatin silver prints, 23 x 17.5 cm Courtesy of the artist

BIANCA SFORNI, Circus 2, 1992    Hand colored gelatin silver print, 23 x 17.5 cm
Courtesy of the artist


il faut aimer le Cirque et mépriser le monde. Une enorme bête, remontée des époques diluviennes, se pose pesamment sur les villes : on entre, et le monstre était plein de merveilles méchaniques et cruelles : des écuyères, des augustes, des lions et leur dompteur, un prestidigitateur, un jongleur, des trapézistes allemands, un cheval qui parle et qui compte, et toi.

Vous êtes les résidus d’un âge fabuleux. Vous revenez de très loin. Vos ancêtres mangeaient du verre pilé, du feu, il charmaient des serpents, des colombes, ils jonglaient avec des oeufs, ils faisaient converser un concile de chevaux.

Vous n’êtez pas prêts pour notre monde et sa logique. Il vous faut donc accepter cette misère: vivre la nuit de l’illusion de vos tours mortels. Le jour vous restez craintifs à la porte du cirque – n’osant entrer dans notre vie – trop fermement retenus par les pouvoirs du cirque qui sont les pouvoirs de la mort. Ne quittez jamais ce ventre énorme de la toile.    JEAN GENET


Bianca Sforni from New York


BIANCA SFORNI, Wood, Woods, Wood, 2014 Courtesy of the artist

BIANCA SFORNI, Wood, Woods, Wood, 2014
Courtesy of the artist

With the same wonder of the first travelers that reached the Pacific coasts we still, today, look at the Orient. After a quite long time in Los Angeles with its precarious balconies facing Japan, pushed by curiosity I crossed the ocean by plane, and landed in the mysterious island of Cipango.*

Not the celebrated cherry blossoms were waiting for me there, but a magic landscape that unfolded first. It was December 2003. The surreal shapes of a few cycads, in their elegant winter robes, komomaki, became the subject of five black and white photographs.

Trees isolated against a very velvety black background, to investigate the potentiality of human perception; combining the naturally ephemeral character of the image with its magical qualities.

The subject alone holds our soul.

 Trees, enlarged/diminished by photographic process, are a plastic representation of the real subjects.

A tree, axis mundi, is the link between the underworld, into which it plunges its roots, and the celestial spheres where its branches are stretched out.

Tree cults, in which a single tree or a grove of trees is worshipped, have flourished at different times almost everywhere on our planet. Even today sacred woods, a set-apart space of nature, are found in India and Japan just as in pre-Christian Europe.

Trees in Japan according to the Shinto tradition are the natural residence of spirits, kami.

Home of the nymphs in the ancient Greek-Roman world, where the belief was spread that, if a tree died, also the nymph dissipated. A metaphor of our human condition?


BIANCA SFORNI, Hollywood juniper, 2002, gelatin silver print, 55" x 67" 1/2 Courtesy of the artist

BIANCA SFORNI, Hollywood juniper, 2002, gelatin silver print, 55″ x 67″ 1/2
Courtesy of the artist


Without trees we cannot survive. Evergreen plants are considered sacred: it’s assumed they symbolize eternal life. The laurel, Daphne, junipers and firs, cypresses and palms, whose legends and iconography traveled from Mesopotamian cultures to Judaism to the Roman world. Because Cycads** were already extinct in the Mediterranean*** and surrounding regions, they are not mentioned by Aristotle’s disciple Theophrastus, but they have a long history in gardens of several parts of Asia not only for their beauty, also as symbols of longevity. They grow very slowly and live very long; some specimens are known to be as much as 1,000 years old. Because of their superficial resemblance, they are sometimes confused with and mistaken for palms.

The first garden was cultivated when men had chosen to stop their wanderings … but, if we investigate the bonsai, the portable tree, it’s quite possible to imagine that Asian nomadic populations with their caravans had started those trees in a tray as early as the Han dynasty (206-221BC). Paintings of the Sung dynasty (960-1280) depict potted miniature trees that became a fashion during the Kamakura Period (1185–1333), at the time of the great spread of Buddhism in Japan.

The inevitable blending of cultures brought the tradition of miniaturizing trees from Japan to the western world.

The majestic Hollywood juniper, 2002, outcome of many years of tending care by  expert hands,  is a third generation bonsai,  just out of the Los Angeles nights.

A memorial piece for the ones willing to remember the executive order signed on February 19, 1942, by U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, which led to the internment of tens of thousands of American citizens of Japanese ancestry and resident aliens from Japan. Most of them then living in California.

* Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco PoloIl Milione. ** Cycads, a family of plants which appeared circa 280 million years ago, the age of the earliest found fossil.  *** Paolo de Luca, Dipartimento di Biologia Vegetale, Università di Napoli