Class of 1988, Alberto Ruce is an urban artist born in a town near Catania in Sicily. As a self taught artist, he approached tagging and graffiti during his teenage years. At eighteen he moved to Paris, a city full of inspirations, where he studied drawing, painting, and perspective at the Atelier des Beaux-Art for three years. He is convinced that one paints “with the brush, but above all with the head”, and that art should be for everyone; he loves the Mediterranean, and his style, over time, has moved increasingly closer to figurative from lettering.
He has participated in national and international residencies and festivals. His solo exhibitions include 4.33 (2013-2017), Empathy (2019-2020) and the Transumanze project (2019).
Last June he was the protagonist of Beyond the Walls of St. Ursula, a redevelopment project of the former Florentine monastery, in which he participated with Beyond Everything. In a long chat over a pastis, we talked about this and much more together in Marseille, where Ruce lives and works.
In 2020, the Metropolitan City of Florence commissioned the French company Artea to redevelop the complex of the former monastery of Sant’Orsola in the San Lorenzo neighborhood. Storia, a subsidiary of the company, kicked off the redevelopment project with the exhibition Beyond the Walls of Sant’Orsola, curated by Morgane Lucquet Laforgue, in which you participated along with Sophia Kisielewska-Dunbar. From June 1 to July 2, 2023, the complex was transformed for a month into an ephemeral museum, open extraordinarily to the public in anticipation of the opening of the future St. Ursula Museum proper, scheduled for 2025. What was it like to participate in this first step toward redevelopment?
In 2022 Morgane, the museum director, called me to propose that I participate in this project, explaining that she wanted to do it in a former convent, where the Mona Lisa’s tomb had been discovered. I imagined something completely different. Here in Marseille I had my studio in an old convent of cloistered nuns, made up of many small cells, where I used to study a lot. When I wanted to paint my canvases I would go outside, where there was a big garden with a vegetable patch shared with the whole neighborhood. I thought I would find a similar environment, especially thinking about Florence. Instead, just concrete. My first reaction was wondering where the frescoes were, I felt like scratching through all that concrete and finding them. When we arrived in front of the main excavation, Morgane told me that she would like the focus of my project to be there and to do what I preferred, “It’s up to you.”
It gave you a lot of freedom, then. For Beyond the Walls of St. Ursula, you created a project entitled Beyond Everything that is articulated in the ancient church and the former apothecary’s shop. In the latter you created murals that recall the activities of the time, while in the other room, you portrayed Lisa Gherardini and her daughter Ludovica, using a linen cloth as a support and thus launching yourself into a new technique.
Why this choice?
I for St. Ursula had perhaps the biggest carte blanche of my life, and I was really happy with it. All projects should be like that. Morgane knew my work very well-she even mentioned murals of mine that I had almost forgotten-and she was sure of her choice. And I’m a big masochist [laughs, ed.], so I decided to do something I couldn’t control 100 percent. Murals are my comfort zone; throwing myself into the installation was a challenge, party do to wanting to push my technique to an unknown point: As a good writer, I’m always looking for a little adrenaline.
When I went to see the site for the first time, my eyes instinctively searched for a wall, but without finding it. The room on the right side has a whole series of columns, a space too small for what I wanted to do, while at the bottom it has a large window. I could have covered it, maybe made a fake wall, but that’s not my style, I like to work on what I really have, leaving the support as natural as possible, without intervening. I chose to do the installation on sheets to create the wall I was looking for and needed. These would also allow me to create the shroud effect needed to make a kind of requiem for Lisa Gherardini, as was my first idea. Not only that, I also discovered that the convent had been used, in the past, as a reception center for people fleeing the war. Given the huge spaces, families would create their environments just by using their tarps, so they would have their little intimacy. Lisa’s husband, then, was a linen merchant: that would have been the most suitable material for my work because it had a connection to the place.
In your work, you have reconstructed many important moments in the history and evolution of the convent, from its origins to the present day, making a sort of ephemeral museum. This demonstrates how important the context of your work is to you. Unsurprisingly, you chose all women from the San Lorenzo neighborhood as models for your works. How did the search go? It couldn’t have been easy, it’s a neighborhood full of people.
The context changes the work. This is a very important point to think about. If decontextualized, mural painting loses its meaning.
The portraits I did have a strong meaning within the former convent, precisely because the subjects are a mother and a daughter. They are two women known in the neighborhood, historical figures in the San Lorenzo market, and therefore identifiable to those who live there. This symbolism corresponds with the story I wanted to represent: the mother-daughter embrace, the embrace between Lisa and Ludovica. Similarly, the hands I painted in the apothecary’s shop are of the local women who are disappearing in the neighborhood. They call themselves the Survivors of San Lorenzo, and they are a small neighborhood committee that organizes events but mostly works to foster integration in the area. The hands of the Survivors disappear in my painting just as the artisans are disappearing, swallowed up by the tourist mass and stalls.
I always start researching quite early. In this particular case, I was lucky because Morgane put me in touch with Paola, one of the Survivors. I wanted to know the people, that’s what I always want to do in my projects: to know at least the history of the place and, if possible, that of the protagonists. I also inquired about what herbs were used in the convent’s apothecary shop for pharmaceutical purposes, and one morning I went to the market to buy the ones I would need for the murals: all local, zero-mile art!
When I asked Paola if she knew of a mother and daughter who were historical in the neighborhood and willing to lend themselves as models, she introduced me to the very person who worked at the fruit and vegetable stall I had used. I had already painted-before painting I took photos from which I then drew the image of women’s hands as they worked the spices, even with mortars brought by themselves. I believe in this idea of sharing, of collaborating on a project to do it together. My way of painting is very individualistic. As a matter of hand and painting style, I can’t delegate tasks to anyone, so I like to get others involved in preparation; I like to choose models, be with them, and compare.
The mother was also outstanding, with an explosive personality. Initially, she was a little shy but then she let herself go, despite being in her eighties. She has a really beautiful face, with features where I find a lot of the Florentine.
This is also curious. I think about your Transumanze project: you often chose people as models who perhaps by age or lifestyle are not close to the idea of being represented or photographed. How do you approach them?
My girlfriend, Carla, is very good with the camera and often accompanies me during projects. Even when she’s not there, the process is mostly about getting to know the model, otherwise, the result risks being too set. When you paint a portrait it is as if you are spending time with the person, as if you are talking to them. So you have to figure out if there is a feeling if that is the right model for you and vice versa. You don’t always come across well-disposed people. It is normal and it is right for everyone to feel comfortable.
Let me tell you two anecdotes, one negative and one positive. The first is about Transumanze, a project done in Sicily, which is about the disappearance of ancestral things, people, and techniques, and the deep relationship between man and nature. I had met a carpenter whom I would have liked to portray. I tried to explain to him that it was a mural, but he didn’t quite understand-it’s hard to explain, he just didn’t understand the point of painting on a wall. With work already started, just as I was about to make his face, he asked me not to do it anymore, because his wife did not want to. I managed to solve the problem by completing the mural anyway, but without the eyes. This way the man’s face is not recognizable, but only a kind of silhouette, and the lady’s wishes are respected.
The beautiful anecdote, on the other hand, concerns a fisherman, Girolamo, whom I had decided to portray for an urban art festival in Oliveri, Sicily, where there was a historic tuna fishery. The wall for him was on an old cottage that fishermen used to sew their nets. We spent a few days together, he took me on the boat with him and showed me how he made hooks, and how he cleaned the fish. I would photograph him and he was very comfortable.
Did he have a wife?
Yes, he had a wife. This time, however, I did not tell her that I was going to portray her husband. I made the mural in just five days’ time, however, also punctuated by attending a festival while Jerome was at sea. On the evening of his return, I discovered that he was going to do karaoke at a club, a born exhibitionist! As soon as he saw me he thanked me, really very moved. That gave me satisfaction, I felt I had done justice to the hard life of fishermen, especially those who caught tuna for years and then had them taken away. It is something that partly pays off.
People’s stories are what matter most, even more than the physiognomy of faces. If there is a good story that makes sense to tell for everyone to know, everything else takes a back seat.
Staying on the subject of relationships, I now ask you to move us to another plane, namely that of the audience beyond the work. Your way of painting so veiled and delicate seems to suggest that you want someone to come and discover you; an invitation to look more carefully. Your works presuppose a kind of research.
Absolutely. My will is to surprise the viewer.
I want him to be surprised to see a blank canvas, which is not blank. What I imagined when I did my first solo exhibition was a gallery full of people looking at seemingly white paintings, so that passersby on the street, from outside, would wonder why, the sense of what was going on.
In front of the work, an almost theatrical situation is created by this said-unsaid that is part of the work itself. It is as if it were a performance. The surprise effect arises when the viewer realizes that he or she has not been paying enough attention, as we all often are, myself included. It is like a game. Added to that is the technical challenge of being able to hide an image, managing that fine line between perceiving it and not seeing it anymore. I want the viewer to discover me, in fact, but I risk them not seeing me. I like the idea of collaborating with the viewer because the mural is made for him, and in the society we live in, where everything is ready and served, I ask for at least the effort to find the image. I ask for his time because I want to spend time with him. If the viewer then doesn’t perceive it or perceives a different one, that’s okay too. It can happen: it’s like when we look at the shape of clouds. Let’s play, let’s play with art and painting!
Street art is expected to shout and instead, you seem to want it to whisper.
This is also part of my character. When I started making murals, in my small town where I was disconnected from the world, I didn’t know anything about graffiti culture, not even that it was connected to hip-hop. I started because my spirit as a rebellious, alternative teenager wanted to say to those around him, “I exist,” which is then the spirit of what I call muralism.
Human beings have always tried to represent something on a wall, just think of the Lascaux Caves; they wanted to convey a message. Graffiti shouts and screams that message.
I entered this world because I wanted to be different from others. If graffiti now has to be seen so much and has to jump immediately to the eye, I want to do the reverse: I want to create something that no one sees and still be able to call it graffiti because it is street art whose nature is to be contestational and to express its presence in this society. I wanted to add this aspect to the movement: there can be a lot of poetry even in works made with the codes of graffiti art, We can make delicate works and even reach a technical level that is close, because it will never be, to oil. We can look for the depths and transparencies of a Leonardo or a Caravaggio.
Thus, my paintings disappear and become transparent.
So far we have talked about disappearing into the light and white, but you have also done the black.
I did black in the chapel of a convent in Marseille. I painted the scream of a girl to represent the nuns who lived there in seclusion and had taken a vow of silence. Black on black can also work. The key word remains really “hiding”: putting transparency to make the image imperceptible.
Also in Marseilles, another mural of yours comes to mind. A Wonderful Kiss in Le Panier. You made her cheekbone from a crack that runs along the wall, just as on another break, you shaped the profiles of the protagonists. I was really impressed, I had the impression that that image had always been there, that it was her exact place in the world. It was the wall itself speaking.
There is great respect for the medium in your works. How important is it?
When I saw that wall, I had the same impression as you.
It has often been pointed out to me that my works contain a notion of time, as if they were always there, as you said. I have thought a lot about this observation and now try to make it an added component to the way I paint.
Respect for the medium is key, and even then it turns out to be a technical challenge because the wall doesn’t always allow you to find an image. When it doesn’t, I still leave all of its texture-if there are mushrooms or spots, for example, I keep them and try to work from that with the images. I am a very listening person, and so probably this side of my character is reflected in the way I work: I am behind the medium; not in front, but always present. Everyone has their way of looking, there are things that one eye notices and others do not. I am very attentive to details, those are the ones that make things interesting and leave you with something more.
The details are what tell the stories.
Yes, they show you that particularity that you don’t know if others have discovered. Interacting with the wall by leaving everything as is also meant to invite the viewer to take the time to see all these details, why not?
For me working with words, even their choice is a detail to pay attention to. “Ephemeral” is a term to describe the transience of things and, today, it is often used with negative connotation because it is associated with something unstable, and perishable. Your works are ephemeral by definition, but they are not ephemeral in the sense that is given to this word. I guess you have a different understanding of this term.
Yes. When you think about it, everything is ephemeral. Even the Sistine Chapel would be ephemeral if we didn’t put a lot of effort into restoring it. In the days of the Greeks or the Egyptians, there were so many temples of which only vestiges now remain, and there was much use of color, even if it has not come to us. Yet the pyramids remain the pyramids and ancient statuary still fascinates so much. As an artist I chose to be a street painter, not a studio painter: once I make the mural, I leave and never see it again. I can only attach myself to it during the creative process, then I have to untie myself. So I am very accustomed to the ephemeral, and I would like us all to learn more from this concept, because everything and everyone is momentary, even without getting into philosophical discourses about the now and the present.
We cannot create anything by thinking about whether it will last in the future. If we chase things too much, we lose them; we lose the sense of why we were making them. Art history is a big sieve: every year, every century, every new movement is a blow that is given and in the end what is left are the biggest pieces. When people talk about street art fifty or a hundred years from now, Banksy will be remembered in the same way that Raphael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo are remembered from the Renaissance, although in their time there were many more talented masters. I consider it a true artistic expression to be able to make something that can disappear overnight but that, while not physically, remains forever. Ephemerality is neither an added value nor a flaw: it is a challenge.
In my specific case, it is also therapeutic. I have a habit of always cataloging everything: it reminds me not to get attached to things.
Let me ask you one last question. Born in Catania, moved to Paris, returned to Sicily because you were homesick for the Mediterranean. How did you arrive in Marseille? Above all, do you notice a certain difference in the way the city receives your art, compared to Italy? There is a great openness here.
After many years in Paris, I realized that I missed Catania very much, and when I returned, with a new perspective, I rediscovered my city. I realized that I needed a closeness to the sea and a relationship with nature that was more comparable to that with the urban agglomeration. I also wanted, however, to work and live from art only. In Marseille, a Mediterranean city, I found this balance for now.
In Italy, I’ve had some wonderful work opportunities, like in Bertinoro or now in Florence. I even think that the movement that is now called street art is much stronger in Rome or Bologna than in Paris. Paris is a city that commissions and invests a lot in urban works, but in Italy some crews and artists want to convey a message, like Canemorto, Blu, Nemo’s, just to name a few.
They are artists who make murals regardless of the following they will have and the success they can get from a commission. Even abroad, we Italians are super renowned. However, Italy is behind in terms of grants and has not understood that giving space to street art and muralism can lead to the strong revaluation of some neighborhoods and contribute to the creation of a different kind of tourism, one that goes alongside the classic tourism we are used to. It would be multiplying, not taking away space. The real big difference I notice between the two countries is that objectively the French ecosystem, at least fiscally, makes it easier for you to do the hard – but beautiful – task of being an artist.