A conversation with Deborah Sanguineti
Would you tell us about yourself?
I was born in Kainji, Nigeria in 1967. My father was running a hospital there and my mother was a nurse. (Both are Italian.) We came to the United States in 1971. I currently live in New York. I am the executive director and curator of the U.S. collection of my grandmother's collection (Nenne Sanguineti Poggi). Together, with my father, Dr. Vincenzo Sanguineti, we promote, exhibit, and share the story of this remarkable woman.
What is your connection with Eritrea?
My connection to Eritrea is through my grandparents and my father. My grandfather, Tito Sanguineti, went to Eritrea in 1935 during the era of Fascism under Mussolini. He was a mineral engineer for Agip in Asmara. When the war broke out, he was rejected from entering the military so he continued to work for Agip, delivering oil from Somalia to Asmara. But at one point, unclear why, he was taken as a prisoner by the English and was brought to Addis Ababa.
Would you elaborate on that?
My grandfather was organizing the delivery of oil to the Italian troupes from Port Djibouti and Somalia to Asmara. When the British army broke through the Italian front and occupied Eritrea, my grandfather was arrested and sent to Addis Ababa to a concentration camp. He escaped by foot and other local means, and made his way back to Asmara. He told me the story of how he escaped - by hiding in the garbage that would be brought out every few days. My grandfather spoke very little of his war experience, but my father recalls him sharing that a local, native woman may have helped him escape.
Your last name resembles that of Sergent Sanguneti who was held as a hostage by Degiat (title) Bahta Hagos in Segeneiti in 1894? Any connection?
No, there is no relation to Sergeant Sanguineti.
On your grandmother?
My grandmother, Nenne Sanguineti Poggi, arrived in Eritrea in 1937. My father was born in Asmara in 1938. He attended the Liceo Ferdinando Martini.
My grandmother arrived in Eritrea, already an accomplished artist. She and Arturo Mezzedimi would become friends, and he would entrust her to interpret his visions of complimenting architecture with decorations, like her mosaics on the Agazien School in Asmara. He would also introduce her to the Emperor Haile Sellassie, who commissioned her for various public works, including The Enda Mariam Church.
My grandmother was a very prolific painter. She had numerous exhibitions and received awards while in Eritrea, of which I have the original articles. She was also a special envoy for the U.N. Those 30 years were her happiest. She fell in love with everything about Eritrea, which is obvious because it permeated her artwork until she passed in 2012 at 103!
My grandmother and I were extremely close. Maybe because I was the daughter she never had, and she was the mother I wish I had had. So, it was necessary for me to go to Eritrea to see her public works with my own eyes. I finally made the trip in October with an Italian tour group of architects and engineers. We flew from Milano to Asmara for a 10-day tour of the country. My grandmother’s autobiography best describes how she felt about Eritrea. She fell in love with the people, landscape...all of it. You can see it in her drawings and paintings on her website at www.nennesanguinetipoggi.com
Did I mention her latest exhibit will be in New York City in March at a gallery in TriBeCa?
What was/is your impression of your visit to Eritrea? Was it your first visit?
I traveled with a group with the College of Engineers and Architects of Milano, in collaboration with The Academy of Fine Arts of Brera. Yes, it was my first visit to Eritrea.
The first two days were spent in Asmara. A contact of a friend of mine who works at the Asmara Heritage Project, was kind enough to take me around Asmara to see Nenne's works as well as the city. The first one I came across was at the Agazien School. At first, I was frozen by the image. Then I cried tears of joy and disbelief that these beautiful symbols were right there in front of me, with her signature in the right-hand corner. Our next stop was the Enda Mariam Church with its 7 panels. I didn't cry this time. Once was all I needed. But I was awestruck by the presence it held as you walked up to it, and by the vivacious colors! Absolutely beautiful! Our third stop was at the old Cotonificio Barattolo, with her painted panels gracing the entrance. The manager was still there and kind enough to give us a tour of what is now "Dolce Vita". Our final stop was her stunning mosaics in the Casciani Chapel at the cemetery looking over the city.
We walked the entire city those two days, visiting the historical buildings which make up this world heritage site. As an Italian, I could see the Italian influence left behind..."Little Rome". But I also saw a beautiful people of all all ages and all walks of life. I recall seeing a muslim teenage girl in traditional clothing, walking arm in arm with another teenage girl wearing jeans and no headdress. I got the impression that, no matter what your religion, you would not live separate lives.
Back with the group, we traveled to the charmimg city of Keren, where the women wore more color than in Asmara, of vibrant reds and deep purples. The livestock market with its camels and goats and men draped in white futas was such fun. And watching the people go about their business through the streets, happy and serene, couldn't be more polar opposite to what you would see on the sidewalks of New York City.
On the road to Massawa, I would just stare out the window, taking it all in as much as I physically and mentally could. Someone on the trip asked me what I was thinking about. I was thinking about three people: my grandfather, my father and my grandmother. I tried imagining my grandfather, a young man, with adventure in his blood, making the road from Asmara to Tessenei and back again. His epitaph reads "40 years in Africa". I thought about my father, born here, growing up here, finding adventures to be had with his friends within the mountains, and how much of this far off land he carries with him to this day as he continues to live his lovely life in Philadelphia. And I think about my grandmother...am I looking at something she may have seen too, driven to stop and pull out her sketchbook, or return the following day with her paints and easel? I finally felt like I was there with them, the four of us all together in this majestic landscape. It was powerful. It was necessary.
Massawa, the port city on the Red Sea, was fascinating but not easy to visit because it is a war-torn city from when the war ended in 1991. I have never seen a war-torn city in person. These beautiful Ottoman and Italian influenced buildings have been severely bombed...and some of them have people living inside. It was so hot that residents would put their cots outside their doors to sleep. The children might be sleeping while the mothers made the ceremonial coffee, in part with hopes of selling one to a passer-by. My wish would be to see a complete restoration of these buildings, not tear them down to rebuild. But I realize the expense that goes with that.
Our next stop was Disse of the Dahlak Islands. We arrived during a sandstorm, a very uncomfortable sandstorm, especially if you wear contact lenses. But we slept under the stars. I opted for no tent, just a cot. I have never seen a sky so filled with planets and constellations and shooting stars and a Milky Way you could probably walk on....and a half moon so bright and so low that it woke me up one of the nights. We ate what had been fished that day, and we washed our plates and glasses in the sea with the sand. There was no running water, no bathrooms, no electricity, just 15 people getting to know each other, telling jokes and sharing stories.
There are more details I could share of what I saw and what I did, but it was the overall "feel" of this ancient land that captivated me, so much so that I am already thinking of WHEN I will go back. Because when I left, a small part of me felt like I left my grandmother behind. And that is because I have. She is on the church, on the school, on the factory, and certainly on other places I have yet to discover. The most special feeling I walked away with was pride. When people learned that I was the granddaughter of the artist who created the panels of the Enda Mariam Church, I could feel the respect they had for her, some also amazed because they never knew who the artist was! She is a part of Asmara as Asmara was a part of her.
Thank you, Deborah.