Pietro Ruffo is a trained architect but his obsession with maps and engagement with concepts of freedom make him an artist. In his first solo exhibition in the city, called “Terra Incognita”, he explores the fragmented lines of unknown lands, when explorers arrived on foreign shores to conquer and capitalise countries.
Ubiquitous in many of his frames are dragonflies, neatly perched on centuries-old maps, cut out from the very longitudinal and latitudinal lines. They hover in 3D, almost in flight. “A dragonfly can travel very fast in different directions but also has a very short life. It gives me the idea of complete freedom but also of fragility. So the question is what kind of freedom did colonisers give to the people and what did they take away?” says the 37-year-old.
At the Italian Embassy Cultural Centre, where the exhibition is on January 10, Ruffo has done a special India series. There are symbols of imperialist oppression that show skulls on the tricolour, some show the animals on India while another focuses on people. He has pulled out these maps that span various centuries from the 18th to the 20th, which show landscapes of the Indian Ocean, taking the visitor on a journey from early colonial rule to the world war and the current world where economic agreements are signed between nations. There is a reference to the BRICS nations, with each country represented with their respective flags on a map.
He pulls out references from British philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s theory on freedom to talk about his thematic idiom. “When I watched people during the Arab Spring, it was something that brought people together to the square. But once the despot is no more, people begin to have different ideas about freedom. Isaiah Berlin said that when someone thinks of the word freedom, it is problematic, because he will do everything to give it to his people. Most of 20th century despots in Russia and Asia were inspired by the French Revolution, but to make people free, they have done terrible things,” says the Rome-based artist.
His workshops in psychiatric wards in France and with Sarajevo child survivors tell of his passion for this elusive aspiration, freedom. During his research fellowship at Columbia University in 2010, he spoke to people across 30 countries, asking them their definition of the word. Ruffo came away with the understanding that for some people it is a freedom “of” something, while in some other places, it’s a freedom “from” something. “So, whenever I research more on this theme, it goes further away from me,” he says.
His next project is based in the heart of Rome, where he will draw a red line across 14km of the city. “It’s a public project with the city of Rome. Unlike popular tourist routes, this is like a non-tourist journey which will take you to unusual places in the city. I have worked with art historians on this project. There will be nearly 15,000 medallions put on the road and each will have different drawings depending on which part of the city you are in. These are inspired by antique Roman coins,” says Ruffo about the project which reinforces his vocabulary of layering the art, which comes from his home city, where the city itself was built layer by layer. It was also here that democracy was born and freedom for common people was discussed. Little wonder then that Ruffo can’t seem to have enough of it.