‘Breaking Walls’: An artistic journey with migrants


Through his use of color and brush work, prominent painter William Papaleo shows the new face of Italy. He humanizes migrants, showing them as people instead of statistics, giving us depictions that are full of controlled and potent emotion.

The New York-born artist, a third-generation American, especially captures the texture, colors and toil of Southern Italy, a place that has absorbed layers of history and sunlight for centuries.

Son of noted Italian-American writer Joseph Papaleo, Bill has lived in Italy for more than 20 years, currently in Vietri sul Mare, beautiful town on the eastern limit of the costiera amalfitana. In America he divides his time between New York and Cape Cod.
 Papaleo art Italy
Son of noted Italian-American writer Joseph Papaleo, Bill has lived in Italy for more than 20 years.

A transnational artist who is in harmony with the philosophy of Robert Henri, a leading figure of the Ashcan School of American realism, Bill is inspired by “all art, poetry, music, dance and writing that attempts to get to the essence of what we are”.

His fascinating new solo show “Breaking Walls: An Emigrant/Immigrant Journey through Southern Italy” is on view through August 31 at the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, New York.

Stories unfold through the eyes of African immigrants whose suffering and struggle today overlap and echo the Italian-American immigration experience.

The figurative painter mixes and mingles narratives of identity, belonging and displacement in exquisite oil paintings and ceramic pieces.

“I call myself an ‘Amero-Italian’, a hybrid in the modern immigrant sense,” he says.
 Papaleo art Italy
Survivors — Oil on linen, 26 x 38 inches (2017).

Q: You were captivated by Italy as a New York kid.
WP: In 1968, my father wrote a bestselling novel, “All the Comforts”, and we had the opportunity to come to Italy while he wrote another novel. We stayed a year in Naples and visited the Amalfi Coast and other parts of Italy that left lasting impressions — all Italian art I saw and the paradoxes of Naples fascinated me.

Q: Did your father influence your choice to move to Italy?
WP: The book he wrote while we were here called “Out of Place” is about an Italian-American man who steals his children from school in the States and takes them to Italy because he can’t stand the negative American influence. The book explores how Italy influences the children and the Italian-American family. In a sense I am life imitating art.

Q: An anecdote on your father? How did he communicate your Italian roots?
WP: Our life dealt with that in many anecdotes and all his short stories, poems and novels. We had a lifelong dialog about it through art and painting. He definitely communicated a lot through endless Italian dinner parties with dear friends, artists, writers and workers that would walk through the door. He would listen to everyone and create conversations with people from all walks of life. Through Italian food we would always come to stories of Italy. My father was born in New York but my grandmother was born in Salerno. My father’s grandmother was born in Calabria. She was very dark skinned and spoke in rhyme. The Italian-American family was embarrassed by her but she may have inspired him. He wrote a short story called “Nonna” that was translated into Italian and published in “Italian Stories”, which won the American Book Award in 2002.
 Papaleo art Italy
Piazza del Gesù, Naples — Oil on linen 24 x 36 inches (2017).

Q: Was he proud?
WP: He was very pleased and proud when I first went to Italy on my own. Our relationship got much closer. He had wanted to be a painter before he became a writer, so he felt like I had developed, completed a part of himself as well.

Q: The nature of immigration is fluid and complex.
WP: Yes, and transformative and transnational. You have to understand who you are before you can understand what you want to express. Accept the limits of the self before you can enter the universal self.

Q: You try to understand the new immigration experience in a changing Italy by establishing a personal relationship with the immigrants you portray.
WP: I have worked with Amnesty International and others for many years on this theme. First, I try to really listen and see who the person is. I feel I have to earn the right to paint someone, especially create trust with an immigrant that has suffered the trauma of being forced to leave their home. I ask them to tell me what they really want the world to know, to give them voice through my painting, but also through their words. I like to show both my interpretation and their words. So we work together.
 Papaleo art Italy
Immigrants/Emigrants — Oil on linen 60 x 48 inches (2009).

Q: You also worked on a series of paintings where you depict modern African migrants over images of Italian immigrants to US in the old times.
WP: I was working on a multimedia show where we were specifically working on the attitudes Americans had about Italian immigrants and how it paralleled how (some) Italians think about immigrants today.

Q: As professor Fred Gardaphe notes, your “American” paintings vary a great deal from your Italian subjects both in color and composition.
WP: There is truth in that observation. It is also true I am evolving, so my painting style has changed as well. When I return to the US I often have sensations from childhood but I see the country very differently.

Q: When you travel between Italy and the US, it is a central experience alongside displacement. Is travelling, itself a kind of emplacement, one that co-exists with the notion and experience of displacement?
WP: Yes, in a sense I finally feel at home in both places, yet as I have become more aware culturally, politically and psychologically, I realize how every culture can be limited by it is inability to perceive its own cultural blindness. It is a modern reality that many feel like strangers in a strange land.
 Papaleo art Italy
Waiting for Work: Senegalese in Salerno — Oil on linen 26 x 38 inches (2011).

Q: In your father’s generation, the formation of the Italian identity in America was unequivocally linked to the motherland. How do Italian-Americans view the old land today?
WP: It is changing fortunately. There is still respect for Italy’s heritage but there is also more awareness that Italy has evolved too.

Q: Naples was a seminal experience to you.
WP: Naples for me was my baptism of fire in Italy. It doesn’t let you remain objective — you become part of it. I had been living in Rome but I always felt like an American there. I always return to Naples. My son lives there.