When entering the America-Italy Society of Philadelphia, two self-portraits of Nenne Sanguineti Poggi greet me as they hang parallel to one another. These are the first pieces you see in the posthumous retrospective exhibition of her work: Artist Without Borders, curated by her son Vincenzo. To the left she is a young lady: a certain pureness shows in the lines, with a precocious gaze in her eyes. She was thirteen. To the right: age has taken over gracefully, and that once precocious gaze is now a whirlwind gaze of cultural experience and stories. Of the hundreds of works behind her, this self-portrait was one of her final ones; made at the age of 102–just a year before her passing.
In the exhibition, exist the ninety years standing between the two self-portraits. With seventy artworks of paintings, drawings, prints, mixed media, and sculptural reliefs, ranging in subjects from portraits, art historical references, to genre-studies, it doesn’t take a single walk-through the exhibition to discover Nenne Sanguineti Poggi lived several lives in a single go. Entering the exhibition, I meet Vincenzo, Nenne’s only son, and the key curator of her collection. In the hour we spoke of his mother, he told me about her experiences of living in both Italy and Ethiopia decades at a time, living and executing art through the genres of expressionism, cubism, to abstract expressionism, and how F.T. Marinetti, the founder of Futurism, was one of many artistic dinner guests at her family table. Talk about a life well-lived.
With a familiarity to having a traveling artist as a mother during the majority of his childhood, he tells me,“[Commissions] were so frequent with my mother, that I didn’t give it any attention. my mother would go to a client’s home to put up a new mosaic, which resulted in her going to Cairo for two months.” Nenne was commissioned by the Ethiopian Government, together with many private clients, to create murals in both mosaic and relief-sculpture form—many of which still exist in Africa and Italy today in official buildings, schools, banks, hotels, business offices and private and public chapels. Vincenzo tells me about how she worked closely with the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie and Italian architect Arturo Mezzedimi, as she played a major role in decorating City Hall in Addis Ababa in 1961. In the exhibition there is an album with photos of her process, where you can see her in deep focus as she works.
“[She was] involved in the arts at a very deep level…” Vincenzo tells me. Having studied under Esso Peluzzi, Nenne’s work grew with her alongside her native and ex-patriot countries. Much of her work contributed to the discourse of its time: Impressionistic and Post-Impressionistic studies using similar pallets, even a thematic use of (Cave Drawings of) Lascoux-esque animals in her etchings.
Talented and well-regarded among her colleagues, life as an artist was not exactly easy for Nenne as one would deem. She had also lived through World War II, and the social consequences that followed. Vincenzo tells me about his grandfather dying in Savona when Nenne was only thirty-years-old. He had suffered a heart-attack during his efforts to safely transport artwork from the Museum of Savona–a museum her father had been a chief organizer of–to a local Sanctuary in the countryside, in order to avoid possibility of bombing, vandalism and theft. During this time, bombs were an imminent fear among many Europeans. Many of the survived artworks were transferred successfully by her father. Posthumously, in recognition of Nenne’s value as an artist and in memory of her father, the Museum has entered one of her landscapes in its permanent exhibits gallery.
Out of the many movements she had lived through and painted well-executed studies of: Impressionism, Cubism and Abstract expressionism, one of the most evocative pieces in the exhibition is actually the smallest, existing solely in its own genre-free context. Hanging in the corner by the exit there is a small painting of what are called “Angels of Lalibela.” This piece was one of many that had been sold and given as gifts to friends. Based on a Coptic Christian Ethiopian belief telling the story of angels maintaining God’s work, this was frequently commissioned to her by her clients. “Whenever someone had a baby, she made them one of these paintings,” Vincenzo tells me. In the self-portrait hanging in the lobby next to her first self-portrait, these angels are depicted in the background—a detail one will only come to terms with before leaving.
He tells me of their conversation only a few months before her passing, a time during which she had become very arthritic, “jokingly she said ‘the alternative would be worse. these last two months…failure and decay of who I am, ending this could not be worse than living through it’.” After learning about her life, well-lived and bountiful in friendships and family I could not agree more on her pain. But in speaking to Vincenzo, a dedicated, full-of-life, representative of his mother, I saw she had passed the torch of her art–and her grace.