The 30th edition of the Mediterraneo Contemporary Ceramics Competition took place in Grottaglie, Italy, between July and September 2023. We enjoyed talking to Marco Maria Polloniato, the competition curator, to learn more about the event.
Can you tell us about the history of the Mediterraneo competition and how it has evolved into a prestigious event today?
The history of the Mediterranean Competition is fascinating since it has existed for over fifty years. Still, today we are “only” at the XXX edition: a long journey with pauses and an evolution always in step with the times. Very briefly:
• The 1970s allowed the city to come into contact with the ceramic “schools” of Italy and the international artistic currents of the time.
• The three editions of the eighties were brief but intense experimentation with exhibitions inserted in the ceramics district.
• The long hiatus of the 1990s ended in 2004 with the resumption and gradual broadening of the horizons of the competition, which today has the ambition to confront itself again with the international scene.
The 30th edition of Mediterraneo marked a significant milestone. How did you celebrate this special occasion, and what can visitors expect from this year’s event?
The XXX edition is characterized by significant participation, especially internationally. The total number of applications has almost doubled, but above all, those applications from all over the globe are synonymous with growing visibility. To celebrate this edition, it was also decided to start a multi-year process aimed at investigating the origins of the competition. This year, the works awarded in the editions of the seventies were selected and set up (starting from Annamaria Maggio’s master’s thesis work): not only the pieces but also the documents of the time, in which the desire for comparison is evident creative. Furthermore, two personal exhibitions were inaugurated during the exhibition period, ex aequo prize of 2022, namely “Solve et coagula” by Elena Cappai and “Provvisorio” by Studio Ortogonale. The two exhibitions are hosted in Palazzo La Sorte, an ancient private building in the historic center of Grottaglie. They present an installation that engages with the place and its specificities.
Could you share some insights into the challenges of organizing an international competition?
The main challenge lies in guaranteeing continuity for an annual event that requires precise timing and high-profile professionalism. I mean that the organization of the competition is successful only if there is a close-knit work team behind it and a straightforward operational program designed with a view to continuous improvement. Another fundamental aspect is the conscious search for a qualified and sector jury, perhaps even international, which can guarantee different but competent opinions on the subject; the choice of a jury also implies coming into contact with Italian and foreign institutions or realities that can bring an enrichment in the dialogue with the local, territorial reality.
Looking back at the previous editions, what personal highlights or memorable moments stand out for you?
The history of the competition is complex, but I can say that the 2014 edition was probably the first time in which there was a female winner (ex aequo) from outside Grottaglie, specifically Marta Palmieri, an extraordinary artist, then as now recognized all over the world. In the following years, there were also other foreign winners, such as Helene Kirchmair or Eva Pelechova, as well as young artists whose potential was recognized, such as Aurora Vantaggiato and others. On an operational level, the difficult 2020 edition, despite the pandemic, was organized by distributing the works on display in many places in the city, creating an ideal path from the Episcope Castle to the former Capuchin Convent, another exhibition and multifunctional venue. On that occasion, the personal exhibition “Ingressi contingentati” by Giorgio Di Palma, winner of the relative prize of the previous year, with frank irony and giving space to voices and a common conscience provided his vision about all the difficulties and attentions of such a particular period.
Grottaglie is often referred to as the ceramics capital of Puglia. How does this beautiful location influence the competition? Does the international competition also play a part in the local ceramics scene?
There is no doubt that Grottaglie is the reference point for ceramics in Puglia, even though there are other centers with significant traditions, such as Cutrofiano and Laterza. The peculiarity of local production is that for centuries, it has been rooted in a specific place, a ravine, originally the ancient bed of a river generated by the erosion of limestone rocks. This “ceramics district” gives life to an economy and an induced of considerable proportions, mostly linked to the everyday objects for the table and the small furnishing accessories. But in addition to an important craft activity, it should be noted the will of many creatives to create unique works and pieces, significant personalities, some of which are now historicized. Many of these have found a stimulus in testing themselves with a competition and then with a jury. The perception of the competition in the neighboring area has changed because if there have been editions in which participation was mostly local, today, the competition has a much wider audience of candidates. The challenge is more complex and, at the same time, more attractive.
How does the Mediterraneo competition differentiate itself from others, and what makes it an attractive platform for artists?
The main difference is that, despite being born in 1971 and having reached the XXX edition, the competition is still “young.” By young, we mean that its current structure results from a long journey that has been refined over the last ten years. The constant development work has led the competition to have a national and international appeal today. Today’s attraction lies in the fact that, despite its position linked to the Mediterranean world, Grottaglie can be a point of reference well beyond the European borders due to its creative vitality.
What are your aspirations and plans for the future of the Mediterraneo competition?
This year, it was announced that, with the next edition, a third prize would be established, “Artist’s Residence,” which completes the first prize “Mediterraneo,” i.e., the acquisition of the municipal heritage, and the second prize, “Personal Exhibition.” It seems to me an important bet and that the commitment made by the current administration is remarkable: an artist’s residence implies substantial burdens, but above all, the willingness of the city community to welcome an artist so that he can come into contact with the vivid local history. Working with so many passionate and competent people has been a pleasure. In these two years in office, I have been able to make some changes, which are nothing more than good practices known and seen in other similar contexts. My wish is that the direction undertaken with so much commitment in recent years will be maintained over time.
Marco Maria Polloniato is an art historian, editor and curator.