Paper contains the accumulated data of a millennium

by Jordan Green


The atrium of the Charlotte and Philip Hanes Art Gallery on the campus of Wake Forest University dazzles the eye in a resplendent blizzard of whiteness, a flurry of symbolism.


One first sees a mobile of geometric letters from an ancient alphabet that could be sourced from an excavated language or might just as easily be purely the invention of the artist.

The artist, Delio Gennai, hovers behind the visiting reporter, as if overwhelmed by the urge to communicate.

“Sorry,” he says, shrugging. It’s one of the few English words he knows.

Then, stretched out end to end in white are numerous panels of paper with various patterns cut away to reveal architectural designs, a Celtic knot here, Islamic calligraphy there, along with Kufic scripts, an ancestral form of Arabic.

Gennai follows behind. He manages to say in English that he’s from Pisa, Italy.

“Pisa has an Islamic influence,” he says. “Pisa era una repubblica marinara,” he continues. Okay, I get it. Pisa was a maritime republic. The puzzle is starting to come together Paul Bright, the gallery director and curator of the exhibit Of Paper, which pairs Gennai with Winston-Salem artist Leo Morrissey, explains further.

“Muslim culture had colonized Sardinia and what’s now Sicily in about 1100,” he says. “There were Muslim incursions into the southern mainland. There was also a lot of trade. Sometimes they were fighting and sometimes they were trading. Sometimes one Christian group was collaborating with the Muslims to gain advantage over a rival Christian group.

“When you look at the cathedral in Pisa, you’ll see these decorative aspects,” he continues. “Some are Muslim. Some are Christian.

Some are a mixture of the two.”

The pairing of Gennai and Morrissey in the Of Paper. exhibit, similar to paperless at the nearby Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, reflects a current interest in paper as an artistic medium.

As cost efficiency and environmental consideration are pushing the world as we know it — think medical records, news media and social networking — towards digitization, the utility and value of a technology that has facilitated text since the Middle Ages is suddenly exploding into shared consciousness.

“Paper generally degrades slowly and, unlike digital data, can suffer some damage and losses and remain partially useful,” Bright writes in his illuminating essay for the dual exhibit at the Hanes Gallery. “Meanwhile, early generation CDs are beginning to deteriorate, failing to be recognized by equipment designed for just that purpose. All or nothing, on or off, readable or not; digital failures tend to be catastrophic and complete.”

In another insightful passage, he writes, “To seriously damage a mega-server would be akin to the Vikings burning monastic libraries in the late 8th and 9th century Ireland; soon, as more information exists only digitally and only remotely, a permanent loss could resemble the destruction of the great library at Alexandria.”

The artisanal care in Gennai’s technique of scoring paper, the almost ascetic limitation to a handful of materials and uniform whiteness, and rich compression of geometric patterns, Islamic calligraphy and Christian symbology makes me wonder whether the art is motivated by a desire to preserve civilization. In contrast, the crushing volume of digital information consumed in modern society can bring us up to the moment and connect us across vast geographic distances, but tends to be discarded as quickly as the moment has passed.

“I am especially interested in the history of Pisa at a time when it was a European capital and a major power,” Gennai explains, with Bright translating. “I researched the historic artifacts of that time. I’m interested in bringing the history up to date with the present moment.”

If there’s any provocation in the mixing of Islamic text with Christian symbols, it’s not intentional on the artist’s part.

“I have some friends who come from Morocco academia who feel that I’m bringing positive attention to Islam,” Gennai says. “I’m not acting as a representative of Christianity or Islam. I’m not making an overt political statement.

“I had a show recently in Munich,” he continues. “As background, there’s a church in Pisa where they have hung these Turkish flags that were captured in the 1500s. The script on the flags refer to Allah. I saw the same thing at a church in Munich. So it’s not uncommon to see Islamic artifacts in Christian settings.

Bright interjects his own commentary: “Which would probably cause a stir here.”


Of Paper., featuring the work of Delio Gennai and Leo Morrissey, remains on exhibit at the Charlotte and Philip Hanes Gallery, located on the campus of Wake Forest University at 1834 Wake Forest Road in Winston-Salem, through Oct. 7.