Painting, poetry, film, sculpture, humanitarianism, experimentalism and curiosity about the black, curving infinity that lies beyondthese concerns underpin the life and work of Aldo Tambellini. On February 22 at 7:00 PM the Harvard Film Archive (HFA) is running a rare screening of a series of his "black films,” which Tambellini will introduce in person. It will be a remarkable opportunity to discover the work of an artist and filmmaker who has been rather private in the past. “Over the years I made my own art for myself, and I was more interested in developing it and seeing it move forward than showing it off. I just started exhibiting recently,” says Tambellini. The HFA will screen the filmmaker’s experimental short films, each ranging from three to fourteen minutes with the titles of “Black Is,” “Black Trip,” “Black Plus X,” “Black Trip 2,” “Blackout,” “Black TV,” and “Moonblack.” But what makes the color, and the concept, of blackness so important to Tambellini? In his own words, “The theme of blackit’s racial, it’s artistic, it’s cosmic.”
Using black is Tambellini’s way of evoking the infinite space that surrounds our planet. The Russian cosmonaut Aleksei Leonov, the first man to walk in space, wrote, “Before meblackness: an inky-black sky studded with stars that glowed but did not twinkle; they seemed immobilized. Space itself appears as a bottomless pit. Such intensity of black does not exist on earth.” When Tambellini read these words in 1965, he realized that he has already been striving for a similar effect with his art and films. His work is also marked by a fixation with curved surfaces, because “everything in space is circular.”
One of Tambellini’s poems begins with the words, “Nothing in space is a square or a cube.” This focus on the spherical design of natural forms is evident in many of his creations, but it also functions as a small part of a larger theme. Through his art, Tambellini seeks to access that which is beyond the global, while maintaining a genuine concern for the social and political issues around him.
Tambellini, born in Syracuse, New York to an Italian mother and a Brazilian father, has always identified with black culture. The artist will turn 80 on April 29“It’s the same date as the birthday of Duke Ellington. I’m a big fan of jazz,” Tambellini says. He grew up with his mom and his brother in a working class area of Lucca, a town in Tuscany. At age three he started painting (“I was born an artist,” he says) and at age ten he began studying at the Lucca Art Institute. Tambellini’s town was bombed when he was thirteen, on January 6, 1944, the day of the Italian children’s holiday Befana. “I was on the street on my bicycle when the bomb came. It was a miracle that I survived. Since then I have written a lot of poetry on it,” Tambellini says. He remembers that frightening period of Italian history, when the government forced women like his mother to give up not only the pots and pans in their kitchen, but also the wedding rings on their finger to be melted and used for the war effort. Toward the end of the war, Tambellini recalls, “we were liberated just outside Lucca by an American black soldier.” For all his life Tambellini has associated himself with African Americans, especially intellectuals, who he connects with because of their plight. “A lot of injustice has been done to black people. A lot of injustice is also done to artists,” he says. When his black series was made in New York in the 1960s, the films communicated a profound social and political message. His archivist and manager Anna Salamone says, “Aldo is a man who lives and creates by what he believes. There is just no grey about it; you either believe in it or you don’t and if you believe it, you live your life by it.” Tambellini cites Byzantine art and Dante’s “Inferno” as other important early influences. Meaningful later influences include Sergei Eisenstien, and Jackson Pollack. When Tambellini was sixteen, he moved to Syracuse, New York, where he attended art college. In 1959 he moved to Manhattan, where he co-founded and opened the Black Gate Theater to show experimental films in 1967. In 1976 he moved to Cambridge. For eight years he served as a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he specialized in media. According to Tambellini, “All media has something to do with art. Television is an art which often isn’t used as an art. Film is, above all, the modern medium for the creation of art.” Just three years ago, the mayor made him an honorary resident of Cambridge and gave him the keys to the city in recognition of his cultural contribution.
And that cultural contribution is, indeed, significant. In addition to making films, Tambellini is also a painter, sculptor, choreographer, and poet, and will perform a poetry reading in the Pierre Menard Gallery in Harvard Square on March 7th. To him, all the arts are interrelated, with one complementing the other. Tambellini employs this philosophy when making films; instead of using a camera, he paints directly on the leader of the film strip. He then mixes the leader with words from his poems and prerecorded news strips, as in his film “Black TV.”
And Tambellini is also well-aware of how critical the college experience is to the development of a young artist’s mind. He says, “Studying on your own, having a personal interest and developing it, is the only way you’re going to learn anything.”