Art 42 Basel’s Art statements this year contained work that pushed the boundaries of its art fair context to explore testing political territories. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict loomed large at Zurich gallery Freymond-Guth in Dani Gal’s film work ‘Zen for TV And The Birth Of The Palestinian Refugee Problem’, based on the banned 1949 hebrew novella Khirbet Khizeh. At Neue Alte Brücke, Frankfurt, Simon Fujiwara replicated the interior of his parent’s Spanish hotel bar (as run in the 1970s under Franco’s rule), while at Naples Gallery T293, Patrizio Di Massimo presented a painting-based project concerned with the restitution of ancient African relics, taken by the Italians during fascist invasion of Ethiopia. An art fair rarely provides the ideal context for politically minded art, but this new breed of artist-historiographers appear acutely aware of their conceptual inheritance, whether in terms of the booth and the politics of display, the history of framing artifactual data as art, or the cultural memory.

Di Massimo, like Fujiwara, has already become an important fixture in this ever- expanding canon as it grows out of the host practices of Marine Hugonnier, Jeremy Deller, Anri Sala and other artists that query the construction of history. The Italian artist graduated from the Slade Fine Art MA in 2009 and, as the Art Basel solo platform one year later suggests, there is nothing remotely ordinary about his arrival. His Slade ‘Ten Little Niggers’ brought to mind the student works of 2003 Royal College graduate Haris Epaminonda (who represented Cyprus at Venice aged 27). While both artists are concerned with the legacies of their native cultural history, it was the equally audacious approach to their graduate presentations, in contrast with familiar student shock tactics, that gave one a sense of witnessing something new during a moment of déja vu . At the point of encounter, Epaminonda’s ‘difficult to place’, but referentially rich, video of disembodied human gestures, ‘Nemesis 52’, and Di Massimo’s wry installation about the West’s exoticism and subjugation of African cultures seemed to have little in common with the sensibilities of the local London art scene.

The Italian artist’s list of recent solo and group projects (at venues such as the Whitechapel, London, Witte de With, Rotterdam and GAM, Turin) is impressive but also tells a curious story of current curating, as well as art, practice. It’s interesting, given the specificity of Di Massimo’s investigation into Italy’s colonial past, to see the different ways an artwork might be interpreted as part of an exhibition strategy: to illustrate a mythological perspective on the past, perhaps, or an anthropological legacy. The artist and writer recently explored this territory as co-curator of More Kicks Than Pricks at the David Roberts Art Foundation, London. But essentially his practice, as several key curators and critics have already noted, extends beyond the politics of generally European conflict, and calls into question the dominance of, and bases for, Western perspectives on cultural production. On paper it can sound difficult to access, or ‘worthy’ but there is a seductive flipside to the scholarly formality of Di Massimo’s film, performance and installation projects; a lightness of touch at odds with the perceived authority of particular representational tropes and aesthetic conventions from documentary film-making to museum protocol.

Di Massimo completed ‘Oae’, 2008, an ambitious three-channel video work of his travels through Libya, while studying at the Slade. The film forms part of his ongoing research into Italian history, specifically the colonisation of Libya and Ethiopia in the first half of the 20th century. While Di Massimo has chosen to confront a period in the past his country would rather forget, he does not seek to draw conclusions, rather, acknowledges the cultural complexity of the situation and the subjective and corruptible nature of facts. Working with documentary, travelogue and cinematic conventions, he creates a fragmented portrait of invaded Libyan sites (Tripoli and Leptis Magna, a UNESCO-protected Roman settlement) that cannot be shoehorned to fit any single political or historical agenda. Archive footage of Italians executing prisoners of war taken from Mustapha Akkad’s 1981 film Lion of the Desert (banned by Italian authorities in 1982), contrasts vividly with those of Leptis (a de Chirico realm of Roman ruins with a mind-bendingly complex geo-political history), remnants of fascist rule in Tripoli and the soporific effects of a filmic drive along the coastal road—a parting reminder of the artist’s passenger perspective.

Negotiating Di Massimo’s dense practice is like reading a loosely connected series of novellas—individual works through which shared motifs, subject areas and trains of thought can be traced. In the past two years, he has commissioned horsemen to gallop between sites of power/knowledge and imperialist equine monuments in several European cities, and has re-scripted museological tours to reveal the subjective anthropological layers of Italy’s history. Di Massimo’s authorial position is necessarily ambiguous. For it’s important that the viewer does not fix him in the mind’s eye as an authority figure or revisionist mediator, but recognises the inherent non-neutrality of any human narrative.

In ‘Oae’, numerous shaky handycam moments give Di Massimo’s ghostly operator’s game away, to frame what we see; while his Picasso-esque drawings of African men, based on illustrations for an Agatha Christie novel originally published as Ten Little Niggers in 1939, appear to be exquisitely rendered signatures of odd intent. The closest one gets to Di Massimo himself, is via the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo commission ‘Duet for Cannibals’, 2010, a short film in which he negotiates with an African man on how far both will go (for art and money) to make a faithful re-enactment of a drawing depicting one man’s face inside another’s buttocks. Here, the artist’s presence is key to the shifting subject-object tension and the resulting work.

Di Massimo, currently a resident of De Ateliers, Amsterdam, is also a prolific writer. These texts might be perceived as another layer of his art practice, for they offer curious entry points into his research methods and the theory that continues to shape them. But they are neither necessary to, nor stand-ins for, Di Massimo’s delicate manipulation of images, situations and materials. Printed words in this format do not perform the required intellectual dance between critical and personal perspectives, that keeps a subject being thought about, rather than being sunk into analysis of its making. Language (and many other constructs for meaning) was pushed to its limits in Di Massimo and DRAF curator Vincent Honoré’s curatorial collaboration, More Pricks Than Kicks . Beckett’s first book of short stories, published in 1934, provides the title and wry, experimental tone of this group exhibition. The artists (including Di Massimo, George Condo, Bethan Huws), all pursue forms, ideas and material states to points of collapse, giving rise to a sense of crisis or exhaustion with the status quo. The territory suits Di Massimo’s enquiry: seriously framed, yet quietly crackling with the ironies of myriad historical misunderstandings.

The exhibition also marks a turning point for Di Massimo away from the vast body of research that has sustained his practice for the past two years, though it’s unlikely to be the last time these works are shown, given the raft of upcoming projects he is involved with. The work, ‘The Negus said: Give me the lion, keep the stele’, 2010, is the final one in his recent series. Based on a 1969 conversation between Haile Selassie, the Negus of Ethiopia, and Duke Aosta, it is likely a reference to the almost comic history of stolen African relics, the Lion of Judah and the Obelisk of Axum (the latter returned in pieces between disputes and eventually reassembled in 2008). The interpretive space between past and present, fact and fiction, opened up by Di Massimo’s work, is littered with references to a much wider, defiantly non-linear political history. This polite-looking but irreverent series of witty hybrid motifs, fashioned out of eastern and western iconography, recalls a period of flux between dominant ideologies, post WWI and highly relevant to today shown here in it’s full glory (120 drawings), the work is a rainbow-soaked inventory of the visual languages Di Massimo has incorporated to date.

Rebecca Geldard is a writer living in London