Black is the Colour… Femficātiō’s interview with Aldo Tambellini

By Kamaria Muntu and Malkia Charlee NoCry
Interview: 14th October 2012 @ 12:00
Published: 29th November 2012 @ 22:45

Aldo Tambellini with poster “Black Is the Color, Space is the Place”, poster from the European Media and Arts Festival in Germany, 2010.

Running down the street; that’s how all meetings begin with Femficatio. Kamaria waiting downstairs, as she’s either early or she’s late. It was the 14th of October, the day after we saw a live performance of Black Zero and Moondial at the Tate Tanks; And though we were dog tired from the night before (which will be explained) we were feverish with excitement.

We arrived on the 13th of October to Tate Modern at 6pm on a blustery London day that threatened and drizzled rain. 6pm was when Tambellini’s exhibition, Retracing Black was to begin, with a film showing that would lead to the live performance of

Black Zero 1965 and Moondial 1966.

Aldo Tambellini: Black Zero beautiful recreation of the 1965 performance at The Tanks, Tate Modern Museum of Art, 13 October 2012 Photo: © Tate Photography/Gabrielle Fonseca Johnson, 2012

Yet when we arrive at the Tate Modern, anxious to see the films that are primarily found on YouTube or student experimental theatre nights, we were told by the ticket counter that the show had been cancelled (we found out that wasn’t the case only after the live performance). If we had an expense account like the big newspapers we would have channeled our anger into an excuse to go to one of those posh restaurants overlooking the Thames by the Millenium Bridge; but alas, working class artists, we engage in a two-hour wait outside Pret a Manger (as we won’t pay extra to sit inside a coffee shop) and then on to the Tate’s exhibition on Modern Propaganda on the 3rd Floor.

Excerpt of Poem “from brainscan 90” by Aldo Tambellini.

When it trickles closer to 9pm, we walk to the same ticket counter, asking about our complimentary tickets arranged by the amazingly efficient Anna Salamone. You see, Aldo Tambellini is not simply a pop media icon. Deeply rooted in the political consciousness of the 60s, Aldo Tambellini was a part of the Umbra poetry collective, a member of the Italian American Civil Rights League and a current member of the Liberation Poetry Collective. And in his arts activism, he became close friends with many of the Umbra poets, (Norman H Pritchard, Ishmael Reed, Brenda Walcott, and Askia Touré). During the 90s, Kamaria Muntu, a feminist poet and Femficatio’s Editor did a lot of art collaborations with Touré (and read with some Black Arts Movement poets at historic events such as the National Black Arts Festival). So though we didn’t know Aldo personally, we thought we deserved a bit of better treatment than we had been getting since we arrived at the Tate’s ticket counter at 6pm. By 9pm no improvement,

we arrive at the same ticket counter and receive the same puzzled looks…

It wasn’t long before we weren’t the only one’s waiting. There was a motley crew of artists – orange hair and polka dot dresses, many saying things like Ciao and being very Italian who knew Tambellini and were further in line and awaiting for their tickets. Somehow many minutes later we did receive tickets to see Aldo, and during our relatively brief time of impatiently waiting, a line had formed throughout the entire thoroughfare, down the hall, about 300 to 400 people deep. Craning necks like snakes to see the beginning of the line, and the two of us craning our necks to estimate where it ended; we anxiously anticipated this renaissance man, with over 1,000 pieces of art, ranging from paintings, sculpture, drawings, slides and film reels (not including his hundreds of poems). He has been a fellow at MIT working with such innovative communication strategies as slow scan; and at 17 he was the youngest professor of art at Syracuse University.

So of course there was fidgeting, there was annoyance – we had all come to see Black Zero directed by Aldo Tambellini,

Aldo Tambellini with film reels, 1967

a rare treat that only comes around a few times in your lifetime, so open the door Tate Modern. They finally drew back the doors to reveal the white, grey and black room at 9:15, huge white wall, tube televisions on static, old-fashioned film reels and pillows on the floor – which weren’t enough, as the walls to the edges of the televisions swelled with people. At the end of the performance which was nothing short of amazing, Tambellini accepted our invite for a further chat.

Somehow we arrive at the hotel where Aldo and his partner Anna Salamone were staying (and if we knew where we were going we might have managed to be early and not late).  Breathless at the counter, we’re here to see Anna, a woman appears, long beautiful silver pony-tail, short and womanly, she grabs our hands, leaves us with black coffee and tea and delivers us Aldo Tambellini.

The interview was 1hr and 28 minutes and it was a most pleasant exchange. We felt instantly at ease – not just because Kamaria and Aldo shared stories about Umbra poets and performing poetry, but because with four people excited about creating and creation; it was hard not to have one idea overtake another in an endless stream of consciousness. If Aldo didn’t have a long string of anxious journalists waiting for his words, our conversations may have never ended. We touched on everything from politics, art, creation, technology, love, life and trauma to the process of re-invigorating spirit.

Aldo Tambellini is 82 years old, with an odd tale of being born in New York City and then almost immediately being taken back to Italy, to a town called Lucca where his grandfather on his father’s side retired from running a coffee plantation in Brazil. By the time he was a young teenager, it was World War II and he experienced the horrors of demolished cities, German soldiers with gangrene examining his art, and far more close calls with death than a young boy should experience. Aldo was shot at in the high stalks of corn fields, and grew up where all media was used as an instrument of propaganda.

Kamaria Muntu: Amiri Baraka was speaking at  Rich Mix about how they took his poet laureate because of the poem Somebody Blew Up America…

Aldo Tambellini: Talking about propaganda, I grew up in Italy during propaganda. You know what they use to do? They use to paint, because you know Italian houses aren’t made out of wood, they’re made out of stone and brick, and they’re around the whole block like that. Not the house all the individual apartments. They use to paint the whole wall outside white OK. He [Mussolini] use to speak from Rome, there was a balcony in Rome, and they would announce that he was going to speak; [so] people would get on the radio, and if you didn’t have a radio he had speakers all over, OK? He use to make very short phrases, like about Hitler and what was happening…and every body would applaud. And then those phrases that he would say, some of the more propagandistic and catchy phrases, they use to paint on the wall, this white wall, imitating his own writing. So there would always be this big M, which always reminded me of the McDonald’s sign, [but this] big M for Mussolini; and it looked like his writing blown up, his phrases on the wall. One of his famous phrases I remember was about the plough, and it say’s The plough that makes the Führer grow, and it’s the sword that defends him. They were very practical phrases; you know the one’s they fed people.  O tutti eroi o tutti morti – Either All Hero’s or All Dead. In other words you fight to the end. And they would imitate his handwriting, and then the radio broadcasting non-stop propaganda. That’s all he was talking about. And what do you think America is doing?

We went on to speak about the Palestinian children and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Aldo feeling very strongly for the children affected by war. His award-winning 2005 film entitled Listen [depicts both the paranoia of the power structure and the drive toward war, expressed through the lens of his political poetry.

Tambellini’s work is a cross between dance, poetry, painting, light show’s and guerrilla film-making, leaving the impression of a moving painting.

Aldo Tambellini: The Rebel

A classically trained artist, his full body of work represents his quest to keep changing his technique, sharpening his outlook and using art as a means of finding variegated routes to communicate politically and also simply just about life and living. The colour Black; a metaphor for the cosmos, a metaphor for the unknown and also a metaphor for the struggle of Black people usually drives his art forward. And everything he does is created to further understand  the secrets of the universe and also uncover the secrets of war and carnage (something of which he has a first hand account).

Malkia Charlee NoCry: Do you think that your visual communication is  a new form of communication similar to how African’s used drumming as a way to send messages across distances? And that at some point, we will be able to quantify exactly what is being said in your work and others – not just a feeling but an actual language?

Aldo Tambellini: Well communication happens to be… I wanted to originally start with video as an art-form, OK? And when I was at MIT, I got very interested in art as a communication, not just art as art. There is an electronic box called slow scan, and let’s say you’re here and I mean New York, and [you both have slow scan]. So you come in front of a video camera and I myself go in front of a video camera, today with Skype it’s obsolete all this. And then we start, and then I see you, little by little, boom boom boom boom, every few seconds begin to scan it down, and you can put writing on that.  And we did it with Japan, Austria, and there were several countries we did this.

We tried to do different things. I was always trying to connect things together, and it was again about communication, it wasn’t just about art. I was always trying to think of an idea. And the students loved it, because anything with technology involved they get excited.

There is a place in Massachusetts by the ocean called Marconi beach, and you know Marconi invented the radio right? Built up in 19 whatever – he sent a message from that tower to Europe without any wire, the first time someone sent a message without wire that distance; before he made the radio. I went there with my wife Sarah [before she passed] and we made a slow scan to somebody in Austria, honouring the event. I have always merged art and communication… Because the way I am, after I’ve done something, I do something else. Like after I did all those slides, I started doing performance. I don’t just do the same thing over and over, it’s not my nature. And then I do the poetry.

Black Zero from (1965) and Moondial (1966), the play of lights with the painted cellulose slides are not like you would imagine.  Of Black Zero Aldo has said, “We are the Primitives of the Space Era”. His compatriots have dubbed his work the precursor of MTV. That’s true, but it’s much more than that.

The others who’ve come behind to commodify Tambellini’s seminal works have trivialised the power, missing the point completely.

His work is the paranoia of Rumsfeld’s mentally ill diatribe of unknown unknowns (a line from Aldo’s award winning

Aldo Tambellini (left) and Aldo Salamone (centre) after the Tate Performance 13th October 2012. Photo: M Charlee NoCry

2005 film Listen); his work is that content you can’t name – that bit of something that makes avant-garde jazz groove without written notes – it’s what makes a poem sing. It’s that creativity that isn’t ever truly copied, just distorted like noise.

KM and MN (to Anna Salamone, partner and Manager): How is it working with Aldo?

Anna Salamone: What do you mean how is it? As long as I know my place, and ultimately being a very clever woman and having to negotiate everything, I happen to get my message across. [Laughter] Actually I have to say the truth of it… is that Aldo has given me the opportunity to be creative, which is something I have always had, but I always held back because I didn’t think… I didn’t trust myself enough. And he’s the one that’s encouraged me and he’s said –  you can do it. With encouragement I know I can take more risks.

What you don’t expect in 1 and a half hours is to find artists as multilayered as Aldo Tambellini, willing to modestly share how dedicated they are to love and life – or couples that are as powerfully engaged in creation, even in their older years. They let you know that everything that bothers you, everything that infuriates you… is what fuels you. Is creation. Is as vast as the cosmos which is “Blacker than a hundred midnights/Down in a cypress swamp.” James Weldon Johnson


Film excerpt of interview, with art and movie excerpts, Produced by Kamaria Muntu and Arranged by M Charlee NoCry:

Producer: Kamaria Muntu
Arrangement: Malkia Charlee NoCry
Artist: Aldo Tambellini
Footage courtesy of the Tate Modern, Archived Footage and Aldo Tambellini and Anna Salamone

A book of Aldo Tambellini’s art and outlook will be published under Femficātiō Publishing in  2013/14. You can send any stories or clips you have of Tambellini’s work; along with impressions, interpretations and perspectives. There is a possibility it can be included within the manuscript, email

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