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In Tuscany, a Dinner to Celebrate Black Queer Artists

On a July night in rural Italy, despite a stifling heat wave, a row of dinner guests danced in their seats at a long wooden table. Beyoncé’s latest album, “Renaissance,” pumped out of hidden speakers and, as the sun sank behind the olive groves in the distance, servers brought out bottles of Sangiovese wine and baskets of focaccia. It was the final week of the summer artist residency program at Villa Lena, a boutique hotel and farm stay in Tuscany, and the guests were celebrating a peaceful, productive month in the countryside.

A group of artists, writers, musicians and curators gathered at the Villa Lena hotel in Tuscany in mid-July to celebrate the end of the MQBMBQ residency for Black queer artists.Credit…Enea Arienti

The meal also marked the conclusion of the third year of the MQBMBQ (short for My Queer Blackness, My Black Queerness) residency, organized by the creative director and writer Jordan Anderson, 25. Each year, three Black queer artists are chosen by Anderson and Villa Lena’s staff to join a cohort of six or so summer residents, all expenses paid. “I wanted to make sure that Black queer people from all over the world aren’t being left out of these experiences,” he says, “whether the restrictions are finances or location.”

At the center of Villa Lena’s sprawling grounds in Tuscany sits a 19th-century manor where the artists who participate in the hotel’s annual residencies stay.Credit…Enea Arienti

Born in Jamaica and based in Milan, Anderson moved to Italy in 2017 and soon saw the country as a refuge. “Homophobia can make living in Jamaica complicated,” he explains. He supported himself by working as an au pair and English teacher while he built up his portfolio as a fashion writer, curator and creative director. In 2020 he launched the first iteration of MQBMBQ, an online platform that features Black queer artists in interviews, profiles and photo series. With the site, Anderson could celebrate the figures that he wished he saw more of in the mainstream press.

Villa Lena’s in-house florist, Iryna Lyashenko, cut creamy dahlias, vibrant cornflowers and bunches of green grapes from the property’s garden for the tabletop arrangements.Credit…Enea Arienti
In the entranceway of the villa, plates are stacked at the ready for the six-course meal.Credit…Enea Arienti

The residency was born from a similar impulse to share his passions. He wanted to introduce his community to the pleasures he had found in Italy — a country, he says, “that offers so much in terms of rest.” Each year, a different fashion brand sponsors the program, an arrangement Anderson worked hard to establish in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. “I was sending out tons and tons and tons of emails,” he says, appealing to companies that had pledged to support the Black community. “I wanted to work with a brand that aligned with what I believe in.” The first two seasons were sponsored by Bulgari and Loro Piana, respectively; this year, the supporting brand contributed as a silent partner.

Guests mingle and sip sparkling rosé as they wait for a performance by the MQBMBQ resident Z Tye.Credit…Enea Arienti
Across the Villa Lena property, agricultural buildings like this wood workshop have been repurposed as gallery spaces and performance venues.Credit…Enea Arienti

The 2023 recipients were the composer Jordan Boucicaut, 30, the performance artist Z Tye, 31, and the writer Camille Gallogly Bacon, 25, all of whom spent the month working in their own dedicated studios and living together in the property’s 19th-century villa. For the first time, the residents were joined by a mentor: Kimberly Drew, 33, a critic, author and curator at Pace Gallery in New York. “Projects like these are vital to [people from] all backgrounds, but it’s [even] more urgent for marginalized groups,” Drew says. The program gives each artist “not only time to build their practice but new people to do it alongside.”

The MQBMBQ resident Camille Gallogly Bacon sits center stage, ready to perform her role in her fellow resident Z Tye’s spoken-word piece “American Idoll,” which was staged before the dinner.Credit…Enea Arienti

At 11 p.m., with a noise cutoff time looming, Anderson ushered the group across the road to the pool to enjoy a final hour of music provided by the Florence-based D.J. Ruva Mukonoweshuro. Some guests raced back to their rooms to change into swimsuits, while others jumped into the water fully clothed, their sundresses blooming like lily pads. When midnight hit, the most dedicated partygoers made their way to the secluded artists’ studios down the hill, where they danced until the early morning.

The creative director and editor Jordan Anderson, 25, founded the MQBMBQ residency in 2021.Credit…Enea Arienti
Built in the late 1800s in the neo-Renaissance style, the villa was restored by its current owners — the curator Lena Evstafieva, themusic producer Jérôme Hadey and Lionel Bensemoun, therestaurateur and co-owner of the Parisian nightclub Le Baron — from 2007 to 2013, when it opened as a hotel and art foundation.Credit…Enea Arienti

The attendees: Anderson, Drew, Boucicaut, Z Tye and Bacon were joined by 19 other guests, including Justin Randolph Thompson, 44, a curator and founder of Black History Month Florence, and Chiara Bardelli-Nonino, 38, a curator. Anderson also invited the other residents whose time at Villa Lena coincided with the MQBMBQ project — among them, the artist Erin Taylor, 28, the ceramist Miyelle Karmi, 37, the musician Hinako Omori, 34, and the yoga instructor Melissa Koh, 42.

The Villa Lena resident artist Tetiana Kuhai hand-painted each menu card with a tree or plant she found on the property’s grounds. Credit…Enea Arienti

The table: Villa Lena’s in-house florist, Iryna Lyashenko, 41, decorated the table with vases of seasonal blooms and fruit, including white dahlias, purplish-blue cornflowers and ripe green grapes picked from the property’s garden. Among the arrangements, daisies were sprinkled on the pale blue linen tablecloth. And atop each of the 24 place settings was a hand-painted menu by the resident artist Tetiana Kuhai, 42, depicting the lush foliage of the Tuscan countryside. Rather than conventional name cards, white silk ribbons embroidered with sequins in the shape of each guest’s initials had been tied into bows and placed on the chairs.

The first course was a tartare of red prawns layered with thin sheets of squid and drizzled with Tuscan olive oil.Credit…Enea Arienti
While some guests met for the first time at the dinner, many of the attendees were celebrating a month spent living communally and sharing studios.Credit…Enea Arienti

The food: Villa Lena’s culinary team served a six-course meal, starting with overflowing plates of sliced meats and local cheeses, which guests grazed on as they found their seats. Next came beet hummus served with raw vegetables from the garden and homemade focaccia. For the main courses, guests enjoyed domes of prawn tartare and silky squid sprinkled with toasted bread crumbs and edible flowers; handmade tortelli doused in a sweet tomato broth and garnished with fried zucchini; and filet mignon encased in crushed pistachios scented with lime. For dessert, a trio of meringate (Italian meringue cakes) — layered with sweet cream and fresh raspberries and sprinkled with tiny purple-and-pink flowers — were deposited on the table alongside speckled ceramic urns filled with homemade lemon, raspberry and mint Popsicles, some of which were frozen in stripes to resemble the Italian flag. As guests left, they were each given a small jar of organic olive oil produced from Villa Lena’s groves.

For dessert, guests dug into a meringata cake made of crumbled meringue, sweet cream and fresh raspberries.Credit…Enea Arienti
At the end of dinner, homemade mint, lemon and strawberry Popsicles were brought to the table to help guests cool off in the mid-July heat.Credit…Enea Arienti

The drinks: Naturally, Tuscan wines were on the menu. There was Villa Lena’s own Da Tutti I Giorni Sangiovese, as well as Albus, a white Trebbiano and Colombana mix from the Gimonda winery in the nearby town of Terricciola.

The music: For the meal itself, Anderson created a high-energy playlist that included “Lipstick Lover” by Janelle Monáe, “Ramping Shop” by Vybz Kartel and “Hello” by Erykah Badu. After dinner, the D.J. Ruva Mukonoweshuro played a set of Afro house, house and Afro tech, with tracks by Black Coffee, Vigro Deep, Culoe De Song, Kaytranada and Peggy Gou.

As the dinner wound down, some guests lingered around the table chatting, while others made their way to Villa Lena’s pool.Credit…Enea Arienti
Once the music was cut at the pool, some of the dinner guests retreated to the relatively secluded artists’ studios, where they were able to keep the party going until the early hours of the morning.Credit…Enea Arienti

The conversation: The evening’s topics ranged from who had seen, or was planning to see, Beyoncé on her world tour to the pros and cons of monogamy (the table was evenly split between for and against), a guessing game of who was the eldest, youngest or middle sibling — and what, if anything, that meant for their personality — and a discussion of the foundational queer TV shows the group had watched in their youth. The latter culminated in Drew playfully chastising Anderson for never having seen “The L Word”; in his defense, he said, he was only 6 years old when the series came out.

The entertainment: Before guests gathered around the table, they congregated in a makeshift theater, set up in a former barn, for a performance by Z Tye. She staged a piece she had been developing throughout her residency: a moving spoken-word homage to her community of fellow trans women titled “American Idoll.”

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