The Spaghetti Tree, by Lucy Levene

9 Sep 2014

“It is not only in Britain that spring, this year, has taken everyone by surprise. Here in the Ticino, on the borders of Switzerland and Italy, the slopes overlooking Lake Lugano have already burst into flower at least a fortnight earlier than usual. But what, you may ask, has the early and welcome arrival of bees and blossom to do with food? Well, it is simply that the past winter, one of the mildest in living memory, has had its effect in other ways as well. Most important of all, it’s resulted in an exceptionally heavy spaghetti crop. […] Spaghetti cultivation here in Switzerland is not, of course, carried out on anything like the tremendous scale of the Italian industry. Many of you, I am sure, will have seen pictures of the vast spaghetti plantations in the Po valley. For the Swiss, however, it tends to be more of a family affair. […] For those who love this dish, there’s nothing like real, home-grown spaghetti.”

So said the voiceover of distinguished broadcaster Richard Dimbleby on a BBC hoax documentary which aired on April Fool’s Day in 1957 as part of the news show Panorama. The reaction from the public was as extraordinary as the documentary. At a time when Britain was deeply unaware of Italian culture many people believed that spaghetti did indeed grow on trees and contacted the BBC to find out where they could buy their very own spaghetti plant.

Lucy Levene could not have chosen a better title for her series The Spaghetti Tree, which presents her intimate, and at times performative, journey within the Italian communities of Bedford and Peterborough. Flirting with the tensions between reality and perception, stereotype and construction, all the while adroitly manipulating the photographic medium in all its nuanced and multifarious nature, she examines issues of identity and belonging, both of the subject and her own.

In the 1950s southern Italians were recruited to work for the brick and steel industries in Bedford and Peterborough, which were short on labour during the post WWII reconstruction boom. As reported by Terri Colpi in her seminal book The Italian Factor, by 1960 approximately 7,500 Italian men were hired by the London Brick Company in Bedford and around 3,000 in Peterborough. These men settled in the area, ‘rebecoming’ men with moulded identities from their homeland and their adopted country. They were reminded to be workers first and foremost, considering that in 1962 the Scalabrini Fathers converted an old school into a church named after San Giuseppe, the patron saint of workers.

But life cannot be just about work, even if the latter imposes you to change country and endure all manner of difficulties, something we Italians know very well. In this sense, Lucy Levene’s depiction of people’s leisure time blissfully reminds us that, as human beings, we can adapt to change and move on. Between February 2013 and 2014 she gained access to Italian community events in both Bedford and Peterborough. Initially she started out as an outsider, a traditional events photographer providing portraits as mementos. Over the course of time she became more and more embedded in these communities to the point where a woman was adamant that she knew Levene as a child. […]

The full version of Federica Chiocchetti’s essay ‘There’s Nothing like Real, Home-grown Spaghetti’ can be read in Lucy Levene‘s forthcoming photobook. For further details please contact the artist.

Levene’s The Spaghetti Tree is part of the exhibition Rebecoming: The Other European Travellers, curated by Tim Clark, 1000 Words at Flower Gallery in London. For more info on the exhibition visit Flowers website.