Crossings, Massachusetts – Malta
Kathleen Bitetti is an American artist born and raised in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where she remained a life-long resident. Since the beginning of her career, her multi-faceted practice has involved feminist protest and advocacy for progressive social change. Throughout her work she has connected aspects of her private life – identity, personal and family history, and her own body – with far larger sociopolitical struggles. Aesthetically, she identifies with no single medium, and has deployed visual tactics and techniques as necessary – drawing, sculpture, craft and vernacular folkways, found objects, text, photography, video, installation, social media, performance, and public art. She has maintained an abiding interest in how the familiar aspects of daily life are permeated with tropes of oppression, injustice, and inequity. For Bitetti, the personal has always been the political, and this belief underpins all her work – as artist, writer, curator, activist, and public policy advisor.
In her most recent projects, over the past decade, the personal is also the historical. Her increasingly performance-based practice uncovers and elucidates complex webs of connection across centuries of time, miles of distance, and multiple individuals. This always includes herself - not as Kathleen Bitetti per se, but as an Everyperson, an embodied metaphor for the relevance and participation of individuals in the broader scope of History. She grounds her research in what she knows best – self, family, and her native and beloved Massachusetts, and discovers intersections of history, geography, politics, emotion, and spirituality. She also hastens to underscore recurring patterns of abuse of power that manifest themselves differently in the particularities of time and place.
For her new project Crossings: Massachusetts-Malta, Bitetti traces ties between these two very distinct and far-away locales over four centuries: the participation of a Maltese man in the American Revolution, American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson’s formative visit to the island nation in 1833, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s key meeting with British allies during the Second World War in 1945, and the artist’s own trips to Malta in the early 21st century.
Bitetti commemorates each of these events with packages of related materials enclosed in identical clear plastic bags. The bags include texts, maps, photographs, hand-made booklets, charms (small pictorial metal pendants created for charm bracelets), and other found objects. Together, the contents of each bag tell the story - with words, images, and objects - of each of the four separate historical episodes. Some items are also shared across bags, and many are hand sewn, to link events and people across centuries. Every bag contains the small image, familiar to Catholic children everywhere, of a guardian angel hovering over two tiny barefoot children as they cross over a raging river on a rickety wooden bridge. This picture of protection has been deeply meaningful to Bitetti since her own childhood, and she includes it in most every project that she creates. Several identical bags are prepared for each of the four events, and then are placed by the artist in historically specific public locations as gifts for those who come upon them.
The meaning of Bitteti’s idiosyncratic artistic practice is far more than the sum of its very disparate parts. This is not a didactic or fractured history lesson, and it’s far more than an expression of the artist’s desire to locate herself historically. Crossings operates at a much deeper psychological and mythic level due to particular strategies that the artist deploys, related directly to ancient and deeply embedded spiritual practices, behaviors, and rituals: pilgrimage, talisman, and votive offering. The four historical events are all profound, and even heroic, voyages. A Maltese man emigrates to the New World and takes part in a political upheaval, a philosopher sets off to find himself, a President seeks to end the most horrible war in human history, and the artist herself performs the work of the pilgrim: pursuing self-knowledge by traveling to sites to internalize the importance of places as they relate to events long past. Bitteti’s charms are direct cultural descendants of the talismans or amulets used in cultures world-wide to ward off evil and harm, often carried by pilgrims. And upon arriving at the far away shrine, the pilgrims would leave the talismans as votive offerings, to express thanks for a safe and successful journey.
Bitetti leaves her bags full of history and memory and magic not to show gratitude to deities, but to connect what she has learned, and what she has felt, with utter strangers – Everyperson reaches out to Everyone. The gifts set out on their own journeys to draw more people into the realization that self and history are inextricable, and in an increasingly global world, place remains central to identity. And Bitetti insists on the right of safe passage for all.
Director, Fitchburg Art Museum