I am no bird, N°3

Maria Lai

In this new episode of “I am no bird”, we meet a great woman, a protagonist of the Mediterranean art scene of the twentieth century. A woman who was often drawn to the customs and histories of her home in Sardinia and in particular to the lives and voices of the women who lived there, becoming an ambassador of her culture and people. This format is today dedicated to Maria Lai, her life, her art, and her accomplishments.

Maria Lai is today one of the great names of the international art scene. One of the most unique and profound voices of Italian post-war art, she has articulated her artistic practice through various media including weaving, embroidery, drawing, and writing. Each work reflects the intense echo of an ancient relationship that recalls the dawn of narration and poetry.
Born in 1919 in Ulassai (Nuoro), a town situated in a rough landscape and threatened by continuous landslides, the child Maria Lai used to trace bold sketches on the walls of the kitchen with charcoal from the fireplace. She entered school at nine years old, and that was a difficult moment for her. As a free spirit, she encountered many difficulties in reading and spelling, but that was only until she met a sensitive teacher, poet, and writer Salvatore Cambosu, who instructed her to read verses out loud and follow the rhythm of utterances and silences. Through rhythm and silence, she managed to bridge her gap between illiteracy and literacy. Her encounter with Salvatore Cambosu, to whom she was linked by a deep, strong friendship, was pivotal for her formation.

As an artist, the articulation of language rested at the core of her practice. If the subject of Lai’s first pencil and ink drawings was Sardinian women silently at work, later she turned to stitches, fabric patches, and threads hanging loose from the surface of her works to create powerful “asemantic writings”. She developed an original language that generate unreadable and material writings, that evoke mood and thoughts. Instead of the typewriter so commonly used by the concrete poets of her time, Lai chose the sewing machine to abstract her signs and “letters,” and to record their indecipherable, illegible twirls. She baked books out of bread and clay and sewed others from incipit to end on soft fabric or paper. When Lai was asked by the municipality of Ulassai, her birthplace, to create a war memorial, she proposed instead a “monument for the living”: Legarsi alla montagna (To Tie Oneself to the Mountain), where she seamed together the entire village by making a blue ribbon fashioned from jeans fabric run from house to house, all the way up to the top of the impending mountain, as in an ancient folk tale.

“My role is to look for signs that still does not make sense, it is more like a game, but it has its risks. Playing with the wires, but my wires contain electricity, causing shock, burns, momentary illuminations.”

After a long withdrawal from the art scene, she then revealed a new direction: with the cycle of Telai (Looms), she deconstructed the framed canvas, creating sculptures in which painting and weaving intertwined, through which the vital legacy of her “archaic” roots was translated into the vocabulary of contemporary art.
“Creativity reveals itself in women’s everyday life.”