THE MODICA STOP on the erratic airport bus from Catania was more rugged than I expected for an ancient UNESCO World Heritage spot. But a few hills down the road we were engulfed by the voluptuous Baroque architecture that defines this beautiful Sicilian comune: “The historical center is over there,” the driver beamed.
Sveva D’Antonio of Laveronica Arte Contemporanea met me at the parking lot with a disarming smile and the equally disarming presence of seventy-four-year-old Emory Douglas, the graphic artist behind the Black Panther newspaper (1967–80). Douglas had wanted to go on a stroll, and picking me up was as good an excuse as any. Celebrating the gallery’s ten-year anniversary, Corrado Gugliotta and D’Antonio had invited the revolutionary designer to share his experience and artwork with the community in a laudatory, aptly titled show, “Freedom Is a Constant Struggle.”
Struggle was the furthest thing from our mind, though, as we were treated with a visit to Cooperativa Sociale Quetzal La Bottega Solidale, a fair-trade chocolate laboratory, where Monia Berti and her perky eleven-year-old son Giacomo educated us on the bittersweet economy of cocoa—from its history of exploitation to its spiritual Aztec history. Dinner followed al fresco with antipasti, arancini, and ricotta.
The next day collector Francesco Taurisano picked us up in front of San Pietro church to take Gugliotta’s car to Scicli (another late Baroque gem). The scenic trip was accompanied by a sound track of the E Zezi Workers Group, a mid-1970s band created by Alfasud car factory workers. Insurrection was the theme of the day. At the Convento del Rosario Scicli, Laveronica had organized an emulation of the Black Panthers’ free breakfast program in collaboration with Maria SS. del Rosario Day Centre for Juveniles, which cares for kids from disadvantaged families.
“I was the old man then, twenty-one going on twenty-two,” Douglas said, laughing while pointing at his slide presentation, underscoring the early Panthers’ extreme youth. Sixty-five Sicilian kids patiently surveyed photos of the African American revolutionary group––founded in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale––feeding children (and at times distributing as many as ten thousand bags of groceries), handing out shoes, and sending ambulances to communities where officials wouldn’t venture. After a roaring “Thank you!” the mob rushed the tables for a sugar-coma-inducing breakfast. Assisting the sisters were collectors Ignazio Manenti and Francesca La Terra, intern Sarah Lewiecki, and artist Guglielmo Manenti, who created a satirical illustration of the Black Panther Party logo for kids to color, and a logo with Laveronica’s name. Running back and forth, children stopped to hug Douglas, their affection palpable.
That evening we headed to the city of Ragusa, known for its Baroque and fascist architecture. “Welcome to our headquarters,” said Pippo Gurrieri of the Ragusa-based Sicilian anarchist group Sicilia Libertaria. (Gurrieri collaborated with the gallery last year on a project by artist Jonas Staal and curator Matteo Lucchetti.) We toured the three-floor building as our guides explained the construction of the Multiple User Objective System ground station (MUOS) in Niscemi, a US military transmission facility. “Every war the US starts, they do it from Sicily,” said Gurrieri, whose group is part of the “No-MUOS” movement that calls attention to the harmful effects of electromagnetic radiation on nearby inhabitants and wildlife. The evening’s meal was gluten-themed: fries, a lot of them, and pizza. Nearby, on a concrete platform, an outdoor karaoke station provided Laveronica’s team and friends a stage to celebrate their anniversary.
Saturday night the gallery officially opened. Our crowd filled the narrow cobblestone streets in front of the exhibition space, and then headed to CoCA, which was hosting an outdoor presentation by Douglas. “It is small, but it has the expression of a dream,” said Rosario Antoci, as I pointed out the romantic setting.
We fetched beers with artists José Angelino and Federico Baronello and settled in for Douglas’s impressive account of the images he had authored over the years, tributes to the causes he and the Panthers fought for. The list was long: the assassination of Bobby Hutton; Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics medal ceremony; the 1972 silent protest by US Olympic runners Vincent Matthews and Wayne Collett; the high veteran suicide rate; Nixon, Obama, Trump, Guantanamo Bay.
Douglas shared his message matter-of-factly, always clear on right and wrong, but never putting one group above another. “Racism is as strong today as it was then,” he later told me, and while no doubt true, I found his very presence reassuring. The night went late at Singola Organic Restaurant, where we danced, drank fancy white spritz, ate cannoli, and fused two seemingly disparate worlds: Sicilian dolce vita and the fight for human rights as visualized by the former minister of culture of the Black Panther Party.