One day artist Mark Abouzeid's eight-year-old daughter came home from her school where they live in Italy and asked her father, "What's an extracomunitario?"
An extracomunitario, he told her, is someone who does not come from one of the 13 nations of the European Union. Someone, he didn't have to say, like you.
She took that to school with her. But the next day she came home and announced, "Dad, you're wrong." An extracomunitario, she had learned in school, is somebody who comes to Italy to steal jobs from Italians.
This experience inspired Abouzeid to begin a project he calls "The New New World," a series of portraits of modern-day, immigrant Florentines, placed into the poses, costumes, and props of classic Florentine paintings. The idea wasn't to copy the originals -- if that's what he had wanted, he could have done so much more easily and with much more exacting results in Photoshop -- he explained to me over email, but "to renew these subjects in a way to confront them with their predecessors." By placing these extracomunitari into the artistic and material representation of Italy, he could make them a part of it.
He worked with a team of theater technicians -- Diana Ferri, who does costumes for opera productions; Paolo Manciochi, who does make-up and hair for the Opera House; and artist Isabella Bartoli, who created the props -- to get the material and aesthetic details exactly right.
The models were selected not for their looks but by matching their contributions to the city of Florence with those of the subject of the Renaissance-era painting. "Dre Love is Lorenzo because he has done more than any artist to integrate music, rhythm and fashion style from both his homes, New York and Florence," Abouzeid told me. And Abouzeid himself appears as Amerigo Vespucci because, like Vespucci, he has been an explorer, trekking to the North Pole in 2009.
Lighting, Abouzeid told me, often presented the biggest challenge. "Artists of the period embellished their paintings, adding light and shadow as we now would with Photoshop," he wrote. One particular painting was lit as though the planet had two suns. Even though the paintings were interpretations of a period before electric lighting, the team had to turn to modern theater lighting in order to achieve the same effect.
It is commonly observed that with the rise of photography, painters were let off the hook for documenting "reality," and thus in the 19th and 20th centuries they moved onto more abstract and impressionistic art. Leave reality to the photographers. But Abouzeid's "New, New World" inverts, or at least confuses, that divide. He has photographed (and printed) the paintings, and, in a sense, he has painted photographs, constructing his portraits before taking a shot. "Reality" isn't so much the domain of a particular technique, but something you argue with your creations.
And that includes political reality. "Italy, without foreigners, without tourism, would be dead," Abouzeid says. "None of us are here because we want to take something," he continues. "We're here because we feel that Italy has something to give and we have something contribute."
With his photo-paintings, Abouzeid places the foreigner into the Italian narrative. These are the people who make our city, he says. They belong in our country; they belong in our stories about who we are; and they belong in our art.