Pope Francis’s support for homeless people and street papers has been widely recognised in recent years – but his approach has had a particularly inspiring effect on aleXsandro Palombo.
The Italian contemporary artist and activist has immortalised the Pontiff on the streets of Milan, painting him as a homeless person in various spots around the city.
It has made for a striking vision in the northern Italian city. Milan is located in the Lombardy region of Italy that was hit hard by the initial Covid-19 outbreak in Europe back in March. And Palombo’s art work has certainly stood out on the empty streets.
Milan is also home to street paper Scarp de’ tenis, which was praised by the Pope alongside international sister titles like The Big Issue in April.
We asked Palombo to tell us why he was inspired to his attention to Pope Francis.
The Big Issue: Why did you decide to depict the Pope as a homeless person in Milan?
aleXsandro Palombo: It is my vision, just like I see him and just like the true message of the church should be, to be among the last to help those who are invisible. Right now Milan is a city that is going through an unprecedented economic crisis and people who end up in poverty and on the street are increasing. We have always been used to the idea of the unreachable Pope who lives in the opulence of the Vatican’s wealth but Pope Francis is one of the most committed contemporary personalities towards the least and the homeless.
What message were you trying to convey?
A message of solidarity, helping people means helping ourselves. A society without solidarity is a failed society and the results are there for all to see. Capitalism and globalisation without rules have only increased the social divide between rich and poor. Everything will get worse if we don’t reverse course in the future.
What does the Pope mean to you personally? Are you Catholic?
The Pope is a man with a strong humanity who tries to convey all of this through his important role. This should be the task of those who represent the church, but this is not always so. Inside the church there are people pulling against this Pope because he fights against the caste of bishops and cardinals who live in too much wealth. I am not a Catholic but this doesn’t mean that I do not appreciate the role played by Pope Francis. Nowadays being Catholic can be meaningless, you can say you are Catholic and don’t practice. In Italy churches are empty, there must be a reason… There is a strong decrease of faith and the new generations are more and more distant from all this. Italian churches are now mostly museums for tourists. This Pope is just trying to change this perception of the church and bring it closer to the needy, to the least, to find a certain credibility that has been lost over time.
What do you think to the Pope’s attitude to homeless people?
It is a great thing because it would be even more difficult for the homeless people if there were no charity church [Caritas is included in Palombo’s art] in Italy. The Pope is an important testimonial who carries out an unprecedented awareness campaign towards the homeless. He uses words of support towards the least well-off every day. Sometimes even “only” words can be comforting when you live in a society that does not see you and has forgotten you.
Do you think that the impact Covid-19 is having on poverty is getting enough attention in the current pandemic?
Absolutely not, and the World Health Organization has been a big bluff, a political propaganda machine that is closer to a failure. Speculation, conflicting information, corruption, everything came out of this pandemic. The only thing that has not come out is the commitment by the institutions to seriously help those in difficulty, the many people who ended up in poverty. Now the social pandemic is more severe than health pandemic.
What kind of reaction have you had from the general public?
Positive and of great support both from ordinary people and from the most important personalities of the church. But what matter is to amplify the message, help people in need and make sure that solidarity returns to be a widespread gesture within this society based on waste and consumerism.
And what reaction have you had from the homeless population?
A positive and affectionate reaction. The works are located on walls of the places where many homeless people live. The phrase that many of them repeated to me was that in this terrible Covid period in Milan, the institutions have forgotten them and bringing attention back to the problem is fundamental.
Are people continuing to sleep near the artwork?
Yes, they sleep there, under the arcades of a downtown area of Milan with a high concentration of offices. There has always been gesture of charity from passers-by. Surely, being close to the artworks increase the opportunities because many people go to photograph them and people who are usually distant from this reality come into contact with homeless people.
Is there any difference to how you make your street art or how people react to it while we are in the Covid-19 pandemic?
My works have always had a strong social propensity. Actually, in this Covid19 period, people’s sensitivity collapsed because in Italy the pandemic caused an unprecedented social crisis. We thought that the coronavirus could raise awareness and unite people, but it didn’t happen, it created a lot of social inequality and created hatred.