About Terra Incognita
Terra Incognita is an award winning artistic research project by Shirley van der Maarel under the supervision of Dr. Mark Westmoreland, Leiden University and in collaboration with the new and old residents of Valle di Comino, Italy. Across Europe refugees are placed in remote villages to resolve issues around depopulation and a shortage of urban accommodation. The research project seeks to understand how refugees create a home in an area that many Italians have chosen to abandon. The result is an academic text, a documentary film and a visual guide.
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Research context

Valle di Comino is located in between Italy’s mountains. Its location at the top of a hill this is no longer a strategic advantage. With low birth rates, young people moving away, and older people passing away, the area has depopulated and houses have become derelict. The situation is common across Italy and mayors of ‘abandoned’ towns have made international headlines as they try to sell houses for 1 euro or actively attract (refugee) immigrants. It is within this context that in the past few years, refugee facilities have opened in Valle di Comino. During the three winter months of 2019 I used artistic and collaborative ethnographic methods to understand how refugees create a home here. It was part of the MSc Visual Ethnography Programme at Leiden University, supervised by Dr. Mark Westmoreland. The research was conducted with the help of an incredible list of incredible people.

Results summary

Life in the valley is calm and safe. But there are few jobs available, few Italians speak to the refugee newcomers and long travel distances make it hard to move around. It means that the refugees’ lives here are often marked by social, physical and economic isolation. In isolation it is difficult to learn a language, find a job or connect to a place and its people. On top of that, their lives are controlled by rules, people and conditions that constantly change. The world around them is unknown, and it is so unstable that it has become unknowable. With a text, film and guide, this research tried to recreate this terra incognita – land unknown. The text forms the academic backbone, the film makes you feel what it is like to live in the unknown, and the guide shows how everyday life takes shape in such a world.

And then…

The research was finalised in the summer of 2019. In August 2019 there was a daylong celebration and presentation with all the participants and residents of Valle di Comino. The event consisted of a community workshop, an exhibition of the guide, and a film screening with Q&A. The guide was presented during a workshop ‘the future of the visual essay’ at the University of Antwerp. In October the research project won the Janneke Fruin-Helb Award and in 2020 it went on to win the Prof. dr. J.D. Speckmann Award and the Leiden University Thesis Prize 2020. Currently, the research is further being developed as part of a PhD Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester. Meanwhile I’m always on the lookout for opportunities and collaborations to share the film, guide and knowledge. Get in touch via info@land-unknown.eu