Street artists from 10 countries around the globe gathered in Rome and put their talents to use in creating an outdoor art exhibit designed to place beauty at the center of an impoverished neighborhood. “We are in a new paradise. In a paradise in which we have contributed with beauty and with art to make solidarity (and) closeness coexist amongst those people who society marginalizes,” Emmanuele Emanuele, president of the Roma Foundation, told CNA. The foundation heads up the Big City Life project: a large, outdoor, art exhibit consisting of 20 wall-sized murals designed and created by 20 international artists that cover the sides of 11 buildings in Rome's poor Tor Marancia neighborhood. Although not a true ghetto by definition, Tor Marancia is considered a periphery of Rome, and is colloquially referred to as a ghetto by Romans due to its rough appearance and the poverty of those who live there. The open-air museum is the result of the joint-effort of the entire community — many of whom didn’t speak to each other or interact beforehand — as well as the artists and members of the foundation. Work on the portraits began Jan. 8, and concluded Feb. 27. Open to the public 7-days a week, the exhibit has very few works that are visible from the street. In order to see the full display of murals, a person has to enter the area and walk around inside. Beauty is one of the things man needs to most, Emanuele said, calling it “the protagonist of culture.” “I think that beauty will help to save the world, and will also help to redeem life's sadness,” he said. Street art, he emphasized, is an important artistic expression of beauty. “I'm convinced that street artists don't have anything more or less important than artists in a home or a gallery.” With a history dating as far back as 1539, the Roma Foundation operates its own projects that help in designing other initiatives that aim for a big impact in five main sectors: health, scientific research, aid to the underprivileged, education and arts and culture. The Big City Life initiative is the brainchild of the “999 Contemporary Street Art” project, which is funded by the Roma Foundation. Stefano Antonelli, who works with 999 Contemporary and helped to pioneer the project, spoke with CNA about the specific murals that are included in the exhibit. One of the pieces he discussed was a large image of the Virgin Mary. The only religious image among the murals, the Marian portrait was done with acrylic and spray paint by an Italian street artist called Mr. Klevra, who works for an energy company and keeps a low-profile as an artist. It took the artist three days to paint the image, which extends nearly 33 feet wide and 49 feet tall. Antonelli said that Klevra is an expert of Byzantine iconography, which is “absolutely strange” due to the fact the style is often unused and considered outdated. Rather than traditional styles, young artists today tend to prefer strong, “pop-oriented” colors, he said. However, Antonelli explained that the Marian image proved to be a “quite unique” addition to the exhibit, and served as a representation of something meaningful for the Italian people. “We are in Italy, we have a Catholic tradition we are in the city of the Pope and we thought that placing a Virgin Mary in this place could be something really powerful,” he continued. The parish priest of Tor Marancia, Don Marco, was initially against the portrait being placed where it was, however after meeting with the artist he is set to bless the image in May, which is traditionally understood as the month of Mary.
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